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IGD Information sheets, 1998

During 1997, the Institute of Grocery Distribution was one of many organisations that produced information for consumers on GM food. The text below is an HTML facsimile of one of their 1998 factsheets. Please note that it is now out-of-date, and has been included here purely for historical interest.





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What is maize used for?

Maize is used for both animal and human food. Some varieties of maize are suitable for eating whole in the form of sweetcorn. Other varieties are more suitable for processing into:

  • flour
  • flakes
  • meal
  • oil
  • starch
  • glucose syrup
  • fructose syrup
  • dextrins
  • gluten feed

Why has maize been genetically modified?

The European Corn Borer (ECB) is the major pest of maize in the US and Europe. The insect bores through the stem and the ear of the plant causing it to topple over, or the ear to fall to the ground. On average, ECB destroys up to 4% of the world's annual crop and up to 20% in severely infested regions.

Several companies have developed maize which has been genetically modified to:

  • be resistant to the pest, the European Corn Borer
  • be tolerant to certain weed killers, also known as herbicides
  • contain genes for both characteristics.

Novartis genetically modified maize, which is ECB resistant and contains genes for tolerance to a certain weed killer, is the only one currently available for use in food. Tolerance to certain weed killers simplifies weed control for the farmer.

What are the traditional methods of controlling ECB?

ECB is currently controlled using chemical or biological insecticide sprays used only in heavily infested areas. This method is complicated since it relies on spraying the plants an the first three days in the pest's life cycle, when the caterpillars are exposed to the sprays, before they enter the stems.

How does this new maize protect itself?

Pest resistant maize is able to defend itself against the insect by producing a protein that is lethal to the Corn Borer as soon as they are attacked. Pest resistant maize, therefore, requires less chemicals for pest control.

Herbicide tolerant maize produces a protein which protects the plant against general weed killers, thereby reducing the complexity of weed control for the farmer. This may reduce the amount of weed killer used and increase crop yield.

How will this new maize (or maize derived ingredients) be used?

Novartis pest resistant maize will be processed into food ingredients which are used in:

  • brewing
  • bakery products
  • salad dressing
  • snack foods
  • margarine

Processed maize gluten feed, mainly imported from the US, is used in animal feed. Small quantities of unprocessed maize are also used in animal feed in the UK, particularly for poultry.

Maize eaten as sweetcorn has not been genetically modified.

Has anything else changed about the maize?

The Novartis variety of pest resistant maize contains an additional marker gene left over from the development stage. This gene causes resistance in bacteria to the antibiotic, ampicillin. Concerns were raised in the UK over the use of unprocessed maize in animal feed. However, three European scientific committees concluded that the gene, which is destroyed in food processing, gave no reason for 'any adverse effect to human' or 'animal health'. The gene will not be present in other varieties of genetically modified maize.

In the UK, antibiotic resistance has been an increasing problem in both animals and humans. The EU has declared that the likelihood of the transfer of the antibiotic resistance gene from the Novartis maize to bacteria in the gut of animals or humans is very remote. However, since the antibiotic resistance gene provides no direct benefit to the cultivation of maize, it is believed that these types of genes should be removed from genetically modified plants, before they are developed for commercialisation.

Where is this new maize grown?

The UK imports most of its maize and maize derived ingredients from Europe and South America. The new varieties of genetically modified maize are currently grown in the USA. In 1997, approximately 4% of the maize in the US was the Novartis genetically modified variety, and this is expected to rise to 12.5% in 1998. The EU has approved the new maize to be grown in Europe, and a very small proportion (less than 1%) of the 1998 European harvest will be genetically modified.

How is maize processed?

Genetically modified maize is used in the same way as conventional maize. Maize is processed for use in human food and to produce gluten feed for animals. Processing destroys any gene fragments present in the grain.

Is processed genetically modified maize safe to eat?

In Europe, the new varieties of genetically modified maize have been approved following a rigorous assessment by the European Commission. The regulatory authorities in the US, Canada and Japan have also declared these new maize varieties safe. The processed products and ingredients made from genetically modified maize are equivalent to conventional maize from the perspective of safety, nutritional value and processing characteristics.

Will products and ingredients made from this processed maize be labelled?

From 1st September 1998, products and ingredients from genetically modified maize that contain genetically modified material (DNA) or modified protein are legally required to be labelled.

Refined corn oil is not required to be labelled as it does not contain modified DNA or modified protein and is identical to oil produced from conventional maize.

Supplies of maize that have not been mixed with the genetically modified variety have been selected, to ensure consumer choice.

The food industry, however, understands that some consumers may wish to know more about genetic modification and have a policy of providing open information about products containing genetically modified ingredients. They will maintain an open dialogue with the consumer through in-store information.

Will the environment be affected?

Maize plants cannot cross-fertilise with other plant species. Therefore, the transfer of genes from plant to plant cannot occur. Chemical pest control should be reduced which should benefit the environment.

For more information

Other fact sheets available from the Institute of Grocery Distribution are:

  • Soya
  • The Environment
  • What is genetic modification?
  • Labelling genetically modified soya

For further information, contact your retailer's or manufacturer's customer care department or contact:

Food and Drink Federation, PO Box 6927, London, E3 3NZ.

MAFF Helpline, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries & Food, Whitehall Place, London, SW1A 2HH.
Telephone: 0645 335577.

The Royal Society, 6 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1Y 5AG has produced a statement entitled 'Genetically modified plants for food use' which is available on receipt of an SAE.

© Institute of Grocery Distribution, 1998