ABU DHABI // With food labelling regulations still to be introduced in the region, a survey of consumers has found that an overwhelming majority want the opportunity to know exactly what they are eating, particularly when it comes to genetically modified foodstuffs. Of 300 people in Abu Dhabi and Dubai who were interviewed by researchers from Zayed University, 93 per cent said it was important to be able to tell what foods contained GM ingredients. And if choosing between non-GM and gene-altered fare, 95 per cent said they would shun the engineered products. There is no evidence that GM foods are harmful, and their advocates claim many advantages. But Mariam al Mansoori's curiosity about the origin of the groceries in her trolley motivated her to conduct the survey while studying at Zayed. It was completed in January. "It's clear that many people are against GM foods," said Ms al Mansoori, now a researcher at the university. "People want to be aware of what they're putting in their mouths. It's about consumers' rights to know." Policymakers, she said, "should be considering consumers' input before making their decisions". Draft regulations to control testing, production and labelling of GM foods were to be endorsed by GCC states this year. However, Dr Mariam al Yousuf, the executive director of policy and regulation at the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority, said discussions were continuing. "We took a lead in hosting the GCC subcommittee for genetically modified foods last year in Abu Dhabi and we are still developing the standard," she said. "We are completely aware of the right for consumers to informed choice by labelling non-conventional foods, including GM." The problem for consumers such as Abdullah al Marzoui, 55, is that they cannot identify GM foods by taste, touch or sight. Mr al Marzoui, shopping in Al Wahda Mall, agreed that while labels would satisfy his curiosity about food ingredients, a "genetically modified" tag might also discourage him from buying those products. "I personally would like to know what kind of materials are part of my food before I buy them," the retired Emirati said. "Your food is your medicine, as they say in Arabic. And if you eat well, your health will be good." Opponents of labelling are concerned that GM stickers might scare off shoppers, or that uninformed consumers might misinterpret labels. Indeed, in the Zayed survey, 91 per cent said they would be unlikely to buy an item with a GM seal but they would buy the same item at the same price without such a seal. Scientists, however, have declared bio-engineered ingredients safe. "GM could apply to your cornflakes, your sunflower oil, your wheat and rice," said Dr Mohammed Aly, a member of the GCC subcommittee for GM foods and a professor of genetic engineering biotechnology at UAE University. "I support this and I think it's time for everybody to adopt it, as long as it is safe." Even so, Dr Aly is in favour of labelling. Avoiding all ingredients manipulated through modern gene technology is unrealistic in most developed countries, especially with the globalisation of processed food. Of five samples of food on sale in Dubai that were tested in a laboratory, Ms al Mansoori identified GM corn. Officials in Abu Dhabi have confirmed that such products are on sale in the capital. Dr Muhammad Safdar, an associate professor in agribusiness at UAE University, said 51 per cent of 500 respondents to his own survey said they were aware that GM food was available in the UAE. Local dieticians said residents of the UAE were almost certain to have eaten GM food. Rania Tawil, a dietician for the Joslin Diabetes Centre at Dubai Health Authority, said: "I recommend every food to be labelled. Some people may have ethical or religious issues, so they would prefer conventional foods." A vegetarian might object to eating a piece of fruit if it was derived via the splicing of an animal gene, Ms Tawil said. Similarly, inserting a pig gene into another crop could raise concerns among Muslims. Scientists had also voiced concern about GM organisms triggering allergic reactions, Ms Tawil said. "Let's say a strawberry has been inserted with a gene from a kind of fish that can sustain very cold temperatures in the ocean," she said. "This means you can grow the strawberry in extreme weather conditions, but could there be an allergenicity problem from the fish?" For Ms Tawil, the issue was one of consumer choice. She said: "There are people who won't read labels, and people who may read them and not care. "The point is it's you. You should decide what you eat." Click here to see GM food policies around the world. firstname.lastname@example.org * With additional reporting by Samihah Zaman and Deepthi Unnikrishnan
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