ABU DHABI // New checks are needed on the provenance of genetically modified food as soon as it enters the country, nutrition and biotechnology experts say.
A new surveillance system could check that all imported GM food is properly labelled. The measure was discussed at a regional agricultural and environmental biotechnology workshop held by the ministerial committee for agricultural cooperation in the GCC last month in Doha.
While the UAE already imports GM crops such as maize and soybeans from the United States and elsewhere, few checks are carried out.
As far back as 2008, a report by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization and the UAE Ministry of Environment and Water warned that a surveillance system was "urgently needed".
Four years later, experts say that remains true.
"There is a need for labs to examine these products before they come into any given country," said Dr Mohammed Aly, a professor of biotechnology at UAE University's Faculty of Food and Agriculture.
"Some producers may not be straightforward with the food contents and/or the labelling. People should consider what they are eating - it's their right to know."
The US bowed to pressure to label GM food in 2010. But most countries still do not have mandatory labelling.
Many nutritionists say labelling is needed to ensure the safety of consumers. "The most common food allergies come from GM food, for instance wheat, soy and corn," said Caroline Kanaan, a clinical dietician at the Advanced Nutrition Centre in Dubai Healthcare City.
"They are increasing at a high rate and they can pose serious health threats. It's all about how it's grown to be able to digest it."
But most agriculture experts maintain that GM food poses no health hazards. "It's perfectly harmless and can even be considered safer [than a non-GM product] because if that product has problems, the alternative is a heavy dosage of crop spraying," said Nicholas Lodge, the managing partner of Clarity, an Abu Dhabi agriculture consultancy.
"So [GM foods] do not necessarily pose any health threats and, in many cases, the benefits outweigh any perceived negative elements."
One hurdle to a UAE law has been the perceived need - because of the amount of cross-border trade in food - for GCC-wide regulations.
"We need to develop uniform laws for the GCC in all aspects of biotechnology," said Ali El Kharbotly, a biotechnology consultant at Qatar's Ministry of Environment who attended last month's meeting. "We also found there was a need to harmonise [between GCC countries]."
Dr El Kharbotly said the proposed checks still needed to be approved by the committee of agricultural policies in the GCC.
"The sooner, the better," he said.
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