The European Commission would like to relax limits on genetically modified organisms in food. But Germany's agriculture minister supports a no-tolerance policy.
When the Augustinian monk Gregor Johann Mendel crossed a yellow with a green pea 150 years ago, he hardly could have guessed what his experiment would unleash. It was the starting point for a brand new area of science: genetic technology, which polarizes today more than ever.
The latest point of controversy for business, politicians and citizens is the current zero-tolerance policy, which the European Commission would like to relax. Under current regulations, genetically modified organisms (GMO) which have not been approved are not allowed in food products, but regulators would like to change that to allow contamination by up to 0.1 percent.
Germany's Agriculture Minister Ilse Aigner believes the EU's proposal goes too far.
"When we're talking about unapproved GMOs, then security must be given highest priority, especially when it comes to food," Aigner said in an interview with Deutschlandfunk radio.
Consumers seem to agree with her. But questions remain. How dangerous are food products manipulated in this way? And are we not eating them already without knowing it?
A loophole on zero tolerance
The fact that many foods already include GMOs is usually ignored in the debate on the zero-tolerance policy. Organisms with manipulated genes have been used in Germany for about ten years - provided they have been approved by the EU. Consumers often don't know that because approved GMOs don't have to be identified.
"For approved GMOs, we don't have a zero-tolerance policy," said Alexander Hissting of Lebensmittel ohne Gentechnik (Food without Genetic Technology), a group that advocates against genetically modified foods. "The laws permit GMOs that have been checked for safety to be used in products to a certain degree."
Currently, foods can incorporate 0.9 percent of approved GMOs without noting the fact.
There is also a loophole when it comes to animal feed, for which the inclusion of non-approved GMOs is permitted. That means a cow can be eating GMOs, but the milk cartons won't make note of that fact.
However, most contamination of food products occurs during transportation or processing, where machines and containers can be used for both conventional as well as genetically modified products.
No absolute guarantee
"Products 100 percent free of genetic modifications can no longer be guaranteed," explained Marcus Girnau of the Association for Food Law and Information (Bund für Lebensmittelrecht und Lebensmittelkunde), which is part of the German food industry.
There can be traces even in organic products or those that have labels saying that they are free of genetic technology.
"As a result of the different regulations throughout the world, the global trade and the mechanisms for analysis that are used these days it is not possible to rule out that tiny traces of unapproved material end up in the products," Girnau said.
Mistrust with regard to genetic modifications remains high. The effects of consuming products created with GMOs have not been explored exhaustively.
"It's new ground in terms of research. We are lacking, for example, basic research on the issue of whether genetically modified plants can find their way into animal products. And whether people can research that question at all is a subject of contention among scientists," said GMO opponent Alexander Hissting.
The situation is clearer when it comes to food products containing GMOs that are approved by the EU. They are checked out thoroughly first to make sure that no products with health risks hit supermarket shelves. However, Hissting argues that there's a risk hiding in every genetically modified plant because "through the genetic modifications, other properties can be changed along the way." Proteins could be influenced and cause allergies, for example. If the current zero-tolerance policy were eased up, Hissting said, even more food products would be contaminated with unapproved genetically modified plants, and that could lead to more food scandals.
Author: Rayna Breuer / gsw
Editor: Michael Lawton