By Tamara Walid and Claire Ferris-Lay
Is the region's multi-billion dollar food industry a playground for biotech companies or is this just the future?
Everything about Genetically Modified food in the Gulf seems a blur. Nobody can tell you for sure what legislation, if any, even exits. Supermarkets would rather not talk about the issue, while Greenpeace campaigners claim the words GM spell environmental and health disaster. The only thing we know for sure is that GM food is a multi-billion dollar industry, it is here, and here to stay. As Arabian Business reveals, the Middle East is now in the grips of the GM effect, with some experts even suggesting that genetic modification of foods takes place after foods have been imported into the GCC, in order to increase profits.
"Of course there are many GM products in the UAE," says Dr Jamal Al Saeedi, consultant at the Emirates Society for Consumer Protection (ESCP). He can say that again. Over 40% of food products in the UAE have been found to be genetically modified (GM), however, the absence of proper labeling has disguised the presence of GM substances. "Throughout the past years we've received many complaints on the presence of GM in products such as dairy inside the country," says Al Saeedi.
We’ve received many complaints on the presence of GM in products such as dairy inside the country.
Only recently, the UAE has, yet again for the third consecutive year, been declared as the US' biggest trading partner in the Arab world with approximately US$14.8bn in American imports, according to a study by a US-based entity called the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy. In 2006, each resident in the UAE spent around US$2500 on US goods. The figure is expected to reach US$3000 plus this year.
This said, the fact that over 40% of UAE food is GM comes as little surprise. It is estimated that 70% of processed foods in the US include at least one genetically engineered (GE) ingredient. And while most common GE crops in the US are soybean, corn, cotton, and canola - many processed food products contain soybean or corn ingredients - experiments to produce GM animals are becoming more frequent. With projects like Enviropig and modified salmon, currently underway, entire animals that have been genetically modified could one day turn up on our supermarket shelves, especially that laws mandating labeling are absent in the US (with California being the exception - the state bans all GM products).
Recently, however, it seems that the concerned federal authorities in the US have begun to seriously consider drafting detailed laws that would determine the percentage of GM meat and dairy products that are allowed to safely enter the food market. Scientists believe that if the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) drafts the rules, doors will open up for big investors to pour their money into a new market, namely transgenic livestock.
Genetic modification of foods can be traced as far back at the 19th century when Austrian monk, Gregor Mendel, first experimented on peas. Mendel's work codified what farmers had practiced for generations through cross-breeding and in doing so deduced the discrete inherent factors responsible for the results.
In 1953 the idea of human engineering of genes became possible following the identification of the double helix structure of DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick. It took two decades for the results to yield themselves in the lab, which won them the Nobel Prize in 1962. In the 1990s, biotechnology made its way from the lab to the fields and onto the supermarket shelves. From the fields to the shelves, the first certified GM product was the delayed-ripening tomato, Flavr Savr, created by Calgene in 1994.
A variety of the tomato was also used to make tomato puree which was sold all over the world before controversy erupted and the debate of over GM began to rage. Despite the continued debates, supermarket shelves have been awash with food containing GM ingredients ever since.
Between 1996 and 2005, the total surface area of land cultivated with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) increased 50 times, from 4.2 million acres to 222 million acres, 55% of which was in the US. Although most GM crops are grown in the US, in recent years there has been notable growth of the industry in developing countries such as Brazil and Argentina.
Legislation: where are we now?
Current legislation surrounding GM foods remains blurred and undefined, particularly when it comes to informing the public about what exactly they are eating.
While the development of GM foods and ingredients continues, the introduction of mandatory labeling laws, providing consumers with information in some countries and not in others, has caused confusion. The US and the EU lead the way for very different reasons. The US, which accounts for two thirds of bioengineered crops produced globally, does not require mandatory labeling of GM foods, except in limited cases. The FDA requires labeling if the food has significantly different nutritional properties, if it contains an allergen that consumers would not expect to be present (for example, a peanut protein in a soybean product), or if a food contains a toxicant beyond an acceptable limit.
In contrast the EU has, according to Greenpeace, the "toughest" labeling legislations in place which stipulates that any food product containing over 0.9% of GMO's be labeled.
The labeling legislation in the EU was quickly introduced in 1997 following the backlash of consumers and environmental groups when GM soy beans were first imported into Europe a year after the first GM product hit the shelves.
Countries across the world now find themselves caught between the US and the EU approach. Currently 40 countries have adopted labeling regulations but according to experts, the degree of implementation varies greatly. There are three groups that countries with GM food on the agenda can be divided into - those with enforced labeling policies, those with partially enforced or non-enforced policies, and countries with plans to introduce labeling.
For this region, it seems GM food remains low on the agenda. Amina Ahmad Mohammad, head of the food environment laboratory at Dubai Municipality, says: "There are no laws in the UAE and the Gulf region that prohibit or allow GM foods or have a labeling law. The only country attempting to mandate such a law in the GCC is Saudi Arabia, but that is still under discussion. When the laws are implemented internationally, they will be implemented in the UAE."
Dr Jamal Al Saeedi at ESCP does however expect the UAE's stance to become clearer in the near future: "At the end of the year something may happen due to a clear strategy, which Sheikh Mohammed is in full support of and the many legislations from the UAE cabinet."
Should mandatory labeling be introduced?
There are credible arguments on both sides concerning the introduction of mandatory labeling laws. Consumers question why some countries have introduced policies as well as arguing that they have the right to know what they are eating. Jeremy Tager, GE campaigner for Greenpeace, tells Arabian Business: "If GM foods are going to be imported then labeling is the minimum that can be done to ensure consumers have the right to make informed choices. The US consistently fights that right within its own country and overseas, but what are they so afraid of?"
There are no laws in the UAE and the Gulf region that prohibit or allow GM foods...
On the other hand, many experts believe that labeling only leads to confusion for consumers who know very little about the subject. Colin Carter, professor and chair of the Department of Agriculture and Resource Economics at University of California, Davis says: "GM labeling creates confusion in the eyes of the consumer as they think the label conveys negative information. I think the US government has got it right - mandatory labeling makes no sense. If consumers really want it then voluntary labeling will fill the demand."
Experts have also pointed out that those with religious opinions, particularly Muslims, needn't worry as there aren't currently any GM products on the market or under review that contain animal genes. But that isn't to say such products won't ever be available.
Economic impact of labeling
For countries that have introduced mandatory labeling, standards remain inconsistent and authorities often find themselves without the correct infrastructure to implement regulations, a position Ukraine currently finds itself in according to a recent report from the US Department of Agriculture. It should be noted, however, that the Ukraine imported 4% of its total food produce from the US in 2005 and 5% last year - a figure, based on its history, that is set to rise. With an estimated 70% of American processed foods containing GM ingredients and the UAE's current trading position with the US, introducing a mandatory labeling system to the region would have certain economic effects. The quick decision to introduce EU legislation following the backlash led to a US-EU agricultural trade dispute. The US continues to complain that it cannot get its top five agriculture exports - beef, pork, chicken, soy and corn - into the EU due to strict regulations imposed and is also currently fighting a trade battle over contaminated food with China, a country with mandatory labeling laws. Unsurprisingly, given that many of the country's poultry manufacturers use chlorinated water to decontaminate their chicken carcasses.
Speculation of current US laws remains rife. Carter, the University of California professor, says: "I would say it is highly unlikely that the US will ever have mandatory labeling. If it was introduced in the UAE and not in the US, the UAE would have to source its products from elsewhere. It would not be worthwhile for US food companies to label food just for shipment to the UAE."
Dr Khaldon Bodoor from the department of biotechnology and genetic engineering, Jordan University of Science and Technology disagrees, "I think labeling will be introduced in the US. People are heading more towards regulating and using labels to ensure that they are not tricking customers. They may be providing the consumer with GM but at least they buy the item knowing exactly what it contains."
"I think it is a personal choice, either you want to eat this or you don't. Maybe public awareness would be a good thing to start with," he says.
Introducing mandatory labeling costs far more than just paper and ink. A study by the Canadian government estimates mandatory labeling of GM foods would increase food prices by a minimum of 9-10%. Bodoor agrees: "Labeling makes the product so much more expensive as there are many procedures." Inflated food costs are not the only results of mandatory labeling; manufacturers that use GM ingredients are affected too. A number of studies conducted in countries that do insist on labeling GM yield unsurprising results. In a 2007 review of the economic effects of GM products in order to determine whether or not India should introduce new legislation, studies revealed that mandatory labeling laws on GM products in the EU and Japan has resulted in "a virtual disappearance of any labeled GM product on the food shelves - a phenomenon which has also extended to other countries." As a result, it is more profitable for manufacturers in the EU and Japan, to avoid using GM ingredients altogether. Would this be possible for imported US foods?
As GM scare stories continue to circulate, consumers are increasingly turning to organic foods. This region has been slow on the uptake of organic produce but if recent signs are anything to go by, the organic industry is set to grow. The UAE currently has two dedicated organic supermarkets with another due to open next year and Lebanon has also been keen to embrace the organic movement. Kuwait has one major supplier of organic produce, Natureland, which rather than relying on imported goods, uses locally grown fruits and vegetables, ensuring business for local farmers. In March this year Saudi Arabia announced it would be introducing organic crops, stating it was encouraged over concerns over public health and protection of the environment. The organic market looks set to continue to grow, irrespective of the introduction of labeling laws.
Protecting the consumer
In a comparison between three GCC countries including UAE, Kuwait and Qatar, the Emirates emerged with the highest occurrence of GE contaminated food products. After studying 35 items available in the three countries, international non-governmental environmental organisation Greenpeace concluded that the majority of the products contained GMOs.
The Emirates Society for Consumer Protection (ESCP), a member of the World Consumer Protection Organisation and under the umbrella of the Arab League and the Ministry of Social Affairs in the UAE, has been an active force in the country and claims to have played a role in protecting consumers.
"The role of protecting the consumer has been spread in more than one direction including raising awareness, educating society and the general public about the definition of protecting Arab and other consumers in the UAE, protecting products from traders who import them and overseeing the method of importing, and cooperating with the government entities in the UAE to achieve a balance of consumer goods in the country," says Al Saeedi.
The ESCP, which is a semi-governmental entity with offices in Sharjah, is part of a higher body recently formed by the Ministry of Economy and has certain areas of jurisdiction related to "the good of the general consumer". Most GM products imported into the country, according to Al Saeedi, are referred to the health and food sections in the municipalities across the country. This doesn't necessarily mean, however, they emerge GM-free.
"Checking for GM is not a routine check that all foods undergo. Not all foods are GM but we check for the commonly known GM foods like corn and soybean," says Amina Mohammad at Dubai Municipality. She adds: "We have a biotechnologist and the only equipped lab for such tests throughout the country. Every now and then we conduct a market scan for GM."
This also doesn't mean that GM foods are extracted from the market. According to Al Saeedi banning or prohibiting GM products is up to the municipality that checks them and ministries of health across the country. "There are many GM products that pass through checks because people have limited knowledge of investigating these products. We can't find out everything," he says.
The biggest disclosure comes next as Al Saeedi reveals: "Some of these products could come into the country as safe normal products and then get tampered with inside the country or they could be produced and genetically modified in the UAE. Then when these products are released into the market they have a different structure."
The ESCP completely supports eliminating these products from the market and Al Saeedi believes someone has to take on the responsibility of "protecting society and the consumer".
Some products come into the market as safe... and then get tampered with inside the country...
While the possibility of having genetically engineered foods that have been created in the UAE might seem far fetched, Al Saeedi confirms this notion. "The UAE, in particular, is a developed country in areas of technology and science and so it attracts a lot of scientific research and data. This starts promotion of trade in these goods and products by people who don't care about the consumer and whether they are causing harm to the young or the old. All they care about is profit. They ask: What is the margin I can achieve if I modify this product? The capacity will be higher and the target will therefore differ, the return will be higher."
Al Saeedi has observed an overarching trend in the local markets: a profound increase in the availability of GM products. He believes this is due to a number of reasons such as "the great economic openness of the UAE at the moment, the country's multiple resources and entry points as well as the systems and legislations implemented by the local governments. The products entering the country trough Sharjah differ from those entering Dubai, Abu Dhabi or RAK".
In the case of contaminated rice found in UAE supermarkets last year, Al Saeedi explains the reason this product slipped through government censorship is because "specialised bodies have no way of knowing that these products are banned". He adds that there's a lack of international information on banned produce. "It's not that they don't have resources but the individuals involved are not in a high enough level to be put in such a position. The entry points are frighteningly numerous in Dubai let alone the rest of the emirates so it is very difficult for people to check out these products," he adds.
In defense of the case Amina Mohammed from Dubai Municipality says: "We have checked the rice and we didn't find any genetic modification. After that we publicly announced the results."
Despite this claim, Dr. Bodoor at Jordan University of Science and Technology argues that the rice was not intended for human consumption in the first place and how it ended up on the shelves is beyond explanation.
It could all boil down to one person. Al Saeedi explains that the customs official, checking a product, would usually evaluate a product according to the documented standards which can sometimes be irrelevant. "He is authorised as soon as he checks it to let it through," he says.
Then onwards, it is up to specialists and educated consumers to spot GM products in the market and point them out as banned, harmful, or modified. Ideally, the following step would be to pull them out of the market and destroy them after a lengthy investigation. The ESCP, however, does not have the jurisdiction to do this at the moment but refers these cases to specialised bodies. "We have asked the ministry of interior affairs to grant us jurisdiction that would allow us to regulate the sector, but this has to be legislated by the powers that be."
Local supermarkets' response
Talking about GM food is a taboo subject, particularly when it comes to supermarkets. When Arabian Business tried to uncover what is on the region's supermarket shelves, the response was no better than that of a brick wall. A spokesperson for Spinneys, a regional supermarket chain, says, "The majority of food products in the UAE are imported as there are few manufacturing facilities available. We purchase from local suppliers who are approved by the Dubai Municipality and work very closely with the authorities to ensure that all products on our shelves adhere to health and safety regulations." Choithram and Carrefour declined to comment.
The only supermarket willing to discuss the subject was, unsurprisingly, Organic Foods and Café. Gerwin Friedrichs, commercial director, said "99% of our food is organic; the only exception is ocean fish which by definition cannot be organic. Through organic certification, we know that none of our foods contain GM ingredients whatesoever."
"We have no idea whether or not GM food will do something to us, but how can food injected with anti-freeze fish genes be natural?" he adds. Certain fish naturally produce a gene that has properties similar to that of anti-freeze. These substances are sometimes injected into GM products.
Despite the difficulty of checking for GM dairy products, Arabian Business was able to track down one local manufacturer willing to speak. Ravindra Rabam, production manager, Gulf and Safa Dairies Co LLC says: "When we get specifications for a product we ask for a sample then run it through our factory's quality control lab but we don't for GM as we don't have the means to do that and it's not such a simple procedure. The product is put through chemical and microbiological analysis and adheres to the Gulf standard regulated by the Ministry of Economy. All the dairy products used in our factories are certified as GM-free from suppliers."
Scientific point of view
Scientists and biotechnologists confirm that GM products are plenty and have invaded our daily lives. Dr Charles Benbrook, chief scientist at The Organic Centre in Oregon, USA, believes it is too late to pose the question of whether the products are there.
"In the case of corn, canola, and soybeans, all conventional products and animal products derived from them it is too late. In terms of future and new genetically engineered crop varieties, I do not know of any that have been adequately tested for stability of gene expression, unanticipated side effects, allergenicity, and impacts on human reproduction, (eg) sexual development and birth defects," he says.
Further validating the notion that most US products, widely consumed in the Arab world, are GE. Dr Benbrook says: "Most processed foods and animal products from the U.S. are grown from GE corn and soybeans, or produced with the grain harvested from fields planted to GE corn and soybeans. The only way to avoid GM food from the US is to purchase certified organic products."
Dr Bodoor at the Jordan University of Science and Technology backs up this argument saying that consumers have the right to know what they are eating, especially that these foods could affect their health and the environment. "A lot of people have specific allergies against this type of food so they have to be aware," he says.
A biotechnologist himself, Dr Bodoor holds the view that GM foods can be consumed as long as they are safe. He stresses that the main issue is that many GM foods are missing nutritional value. "If GM food is labeled, adds nutritional value to the food and properly tested I am all for it."
The only way to avoid GM food from the US is to purchase certified organic products.
According to Dr Benbrook, there are two steps to ensure safety of GM products. The first is to develop and implement advanced systems to test for allergenicity, birth defects and other reproductive impacts, and stability of gene expression. Secondly, these tests ought to be conducted by qualified and independent scientists and publicly supported research institutions after which the results and acceptability of any identified risks have to be "openly discussed and debated through a process that provides all impacted stakeholders with a fair chance to make their views known".
A lot of the marketing behind GM products comes down to politics, thinks Dr Bodoor. While the US is mostly pro GM, the Europeans oppose it. "Most of the makers of GM foods are US-based and they just want to market their products without going through safety procedures and all the aspects of testing the product whereas in Europe they are more earth-friendly and prefer food that is not GM," he says.
Dr Benbrook explains that genetic modification is a very broad area and while he strongly supports work on genomics and molecular biology that is "designed to understand the genetic basis of valuable crop traits, and crop-genetic-environment interactions" as well as "‘marker assisted' breeding to move desirable traits into agronomic crops" he equally opposes any "further applications for human food crops of invasive and unstable GE techniques that have been developed to move DNA across species barriers". When it comes to risks associated with GM foods, he believes that "sufficient risks have been demonstrated to support a ‘go slow' approach, especially for major human foods consumed in raw, or light processed forms".
Where the Enviropig experiment is concerned, Dr Bodoor says it is a mini project focused mainly on having a cleaner environment and not directly linked to human consumption, however, its indirect effects could be plenty. "You are releasing these new materials into the environment and you wouldn't know what type of new bacteria will survive when this is contaminated and where it will end up. They might be caught in specific plants that will in turn go into farming and this in turn will end up somewhere else. You have to be careful with what we call the transfer of DNA from one species into another."
The possibility of the project resulting in GM animal meat sold in supermarkets is far fetched and will not materialise for many years, according to Dr Benbrook who called Enviropig "a crazy way to go about achieving a laudable goal, protecting water quality from excessive runoff of nutrients that are applied to crop fields in the form of animal manure". He believes there are many alternative ways to achieving this target such as reducing excessive nutrient runoff from farm fields. "There are easy, direct, low-cost, and safe ways to solve the underlying problem. At some point, people will figure this out and shut down such dubious applications of genetic engineering technologies, like the project hoping to develop a GE Enviropig," he says.
Not all GM food should be labeled as bad, however. Dr Bodoor says GM could be a good alternative to expensive and non-nutritional food items as they are produced with the aim to increase nutritional value and simultaneously make them more affordable to poorer countries. "Whoever is selling people GM foods should be aware and have assessed the risks involved and would not sell something hazardous to safety," he says.
In the case of GE livestock, Dr Benbrook strongly believes that "enough people will seek out organic and non-GE products to render the technology a ‘loser' in the marketplace."
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