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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 Please note that it is now out-of-date, and has been included here purely for historical interest.

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SEPTEMBER 1998

What is genetic modification?

Each plant or animal has tens of thousands of genes, with each individual gene controlling a particular trait. Quite simply, genetic modification enables selective changes to be made to the genetic make-up of an organism, either through modifying an individual gene, or by transferring a specific gene from a different organism. This process is beginning to be used in food production where clear benefits can be identified.

How is soya used?

Soya beans are processed and either sold whole or used as an ingredient in a wide range of foods in the form of flour, meal, protein, oil and lecithin. These soya ingredients are used in about 60% of food products, such as:

  • bread, biscuits and bakery products
  • baby and dietetic foods
  • soya based milk/flavourings/ingredients
  • meat and vegetarian savoury products
  • confectionery

Soya is also used in animal feed.

What is this new variety of soya?

Certain varieties of soya plants have now been genetically modified to be tolerant to an all-purpose weed killer. A single weed killer, also known as a herbicide, can now be sprayed to control all weeds without affecting the crop; previously, applications of different herbicides at different times were necessary. This all-purpose weed killer also breaks down in the soil into harmless components, and using only one type should lead to reductions in the amount of chemicals used.

Processed genetically modified soya beans and the ingredients or products made from them are equivalent to conventional soya beans from the perspective of safety, nutritional value and processing characteristics.

Is this new variety of soya safe to eat?

In the UK, genetically modified soya beans have been approved for safety following a rigorous assessment by an independent committee of specialists, the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP). The regulatory authorities in Europe, the USA, Canada and Japan have also declared these genetically modified soya beans safe to eat.

The nutritional properties of processed genetically modified soya beans are identical to those of conventional soya beans.

When will genetically modified soya be used in the UK?

Soya plants are frost sensitive and cannot be reliably grown in the UK. Most of the soya used in food products in the UK is sourced from the USA, where it is grown in large volumes and shipped in bulk to Europe and other countries, before being processed for a specific use.

Genetically modified soya crops were first imported to the UK in September 1996, at which time about 1-2% of the total US soya crop was genetically modified. This increased to 15% in 1997, and will increase to approximately 30% in 1998.

Are there any risks?

Although no process can be proven to be 100% safe, approval for genetically modified soya would not have been given unless there was extensive evidence about its safety. Although concerns have been raised about the possible unknown consequences of growing genetically modified crops such as the long-term impact on the environment or food chain, the risks are considered to be small. Monitoring of possible effects will be important.

The EU has published proposals which would require genetically modified products such as soya to be constantly monitored for harmful effects when grown commercially. Under these proposals genetically modified foods would need to be relicensed every seven years. The proposals are currently awaiting approval by EU ministers.

Will products and ingredients made from this new soya be labelled?

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

Refined soya 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 soya.

Because of the lack of separation at source of genetically modified and conventional soya, the bulk of soya ingredients will require labelling. However, supplies of conventional soya that have not been mixed with the genetically modified variety have been sourced, to ensure consumer choice.

The UK food and retail industry is committed to providing informative labelling to maintain consumer choice. Protein-based genetically-modified soya ingredients were being labelled voluntarily before the EU labelling regulation was agreed. Industry is maintaining an open dialogue with consumers through in-store information and the provision of lists of soya-free products.

Will the nutritional properties of food containing GM soya be affected?

The nutritional properties of processed genetically modified soya beans are identical to those of conventional soya beans.

Will the environment be affected?

Genetically modified soya plants can tolerate an all-purpose more environmentally friendly herbicide. This reduces the number of herbicides required and may lead to a reduction in the amount of chemicals used for weed control.

This all-purpose weed killer breaks down into harmless components in the soil more quickly than other herbicides.

Herbicide tolerance may be passed onto related plants in the wild where the genetically modified crop is grown, which could result in weeds tolerant to that particular herbicide. However, the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE) assessed the likelihood of this risk and considered it to be negligible, concluding:

  • wild related plants are only present in Asia, the Pacific Islands and Australia and not in regions where the genetically modified soya would be grown;
  • even if cross pollination was achieved, growth of the new genetically modified species could be controlled by alternative methods.

For more information

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

  • What is genetic modification?
  • Maize
  • The Environment
  • 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.