Bid to secure integrated approach towards GMOs
A Biosafety Coordinating Committee has been set up to achieve an integrated approach towards genetically modified organisms, with the protection of human health and the environment as its ultimate aim.
This advisory committee was set up by the Malta Environment and Planning Authority, which is the competent authority for the implementation of the EU's and international legislation on GMOs.
GMOs are organisms in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally; normally modified in a laboratory.
Plants have been the subject of most interest in recent years. The most common types of GM crops that have been developed and commercialised include maize, soybean, oilseed rape and cotton varieties. Such varieties have been developed to be either resistant to a particular herbicide (weed killer) or to certain crop pests, namely insects.
As a result of the heated debate on whether the benefits of GMOs outweigh the risks, there are strict regulations to ensure that a case-by-case evaluation is carried out to assess the effects of a new GMO on society and the environment. The most important weapon in the debate is information and Mepa yesterday held a one-day seminar in an attempt to give a holistic view on issues related to GMOs.
Environment Minister George Pullicino, who opened the seminar at the Waterfront Hotel, Gzira, said GMOs were a reality that had to be faced. Yet, this reality had to be handled with care, responsibility and the action necessary.
So far, Malta had scrupulously followed the underlying principles of the EU directive on the deliberate release into the environment of GMOs.
The directive advocated a case by case approach and, in case of doubt, it encouraged member states to adopt a precautionary principle.
"This gives member states a wide spectrum to reason for or against the release of GMOs into the environment," Mr Pullicino said.
"As Minister for the Environment, I voted five times on GMOs at the Environment Council of Ministers. During these sessions, an agreement was never reached because qualified majority, either in favour or against the placing on the market of the GMO in question, was never attained," he added.
He insisted that it was important for the public to be made aware of what was going on and for key stakeholders, such as farmers and researchers, to be informed of the obligations Malta had in connection with the EU environmental acquis.
At present, any living modified organisms to be grown or imported in Malta had to first be authorised by Mepa. To date, no facilities or GMOs have been authorised for contained use activities in Malta, nor for use of experimental purposes.
Some facts about genetically modified organisms
¤ Genes are lengths of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) that are present in the nucleus of every cell.
¤ Human beings have about 30,000 genes.
¤ Biotechnology makes use of living organisms or their components, such as enzymes, to make products that include wine, cheese, beer, and yoghurt.
¤ Genetically modified crops look just like their traditional counterparts, but have been engineered to possess special characteristics with the aim to make them better.
¤ It takes 10 years to develop a new genetically modified crop.
¤ The first plant that was modified by genetic engineering was produced in a laboratory in 1984.
¤ The first commercially grown genetically modified food crop was a tomato called the FlavrSavr in 1992. Considered to have a poor flavour, it never sold well and was off the market by 1997.
¤ Locating genes for important traits - such as those conferring insect resistance or desired nutrients - is one of the most limiting steps in the process of making GMOs.
¤ Genes can be transferred from genetically modified crops to related plants by cross breeding, a process called hybridisation.
¤ Most of the insulin in the world is produced with the aid of GMOs. In the early 1980s a human gene for insulin production was inserted into the DNA of the bacteria E coli. With a much lower manufacturing cost, this process completely overtook the traditional source of insulin, i.e. extraction from the pancreas of cows and pigs.
¤ The US is the world leader in biotech crops, with GM varieties accounting for 75 per cent of US soybeans and some 70 per cent of US cotton. The estimated global area of approved biotech crops for 2004 was 81 million hectares.
¤ About 8.25 million farmers in 17 countries grew biotech crops in 2004, up from seven million farmers in 18 countries in 2003.
¤ In 2004, the 14 main countries that grow considerable amounts of biotech crops, were: USA with 59 per cent of global total, followed by Argentina with 20 per cent, Canada and Brazil six per cent, China five per cent, Paraguay two per cent, while India and South Africa have one per cent. The following countries have less than one per cent: Uruguay, Australia, Romania, Mexico, Spain, and the Philippines.
¤ Despite the many benefits they can bring, GMOs can also carry some risks of unwanted side effects on agricultural production systems, human health and the environment such as: the creation of new invasive species commonly referred to as superweeds; increased risk of pesticide and herbicide resistance of pests to GMOs; possible spread of antibiotic resistance; loss of biodiversity farm wildlife and loss of crop genetic diversity, among others.