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Q&A: The GM food debate

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(CNN) -- Europe and the U.S. remain split over genetically-modified food. The American government and biotech companies say it can help solve world hunger, while critics say more tests are needed before it is pushed into world markets.

Q. What are genetically modified foods?

A. GM foods are grown from crops improved through biotechnology that changes the genetic makeup and make them more resistant to insects and disease, says Lisa Dry, communications director at Bio, an organization representing biotechnology firms. She says genetic modification makes crops more productive while their nutritional value can also increase.

This is disputed by critics. The extra genetic material makes GM crops resistant to weed killers and other chemicals used in agriculture, says Charlie Kronike, chief policy adviser at Greenpeace.

Q. What GM products are in the market place now?

A. The most common GM crops are soybeans, corn, cotton, sugar beet, and fodder beet. GM crops are mainly used in processed foods or in animal feed, Kronike says.

Ninety-eight percent of GM crops are grown in four countries: Canada, the U.S., Argentina, and China, according to Greenpeace. GM foods are also produced in South Africa, Australia, Mexico, Bulgaria, Uruguay, Romania, Spain, Indonesia, and Germany, says Dry. In the past year India and the Philippines both approved crops.

The European Union imposed a moratorium on new genetically modified foods in 1998. But now it is to allow it to be sold in shops, subject to strict labeling rules. The U.S. says mandatory labeling might be too costly for exporters.

Q. Are there any differences in taste and appearance?

A. Both sides agree that GM foods are no different from those produced from regular crops in taste and appearance. "You would never be able to tell the difference if (the foods) were side by side unless one was chewed by bugs and the other was not," Dry says.

But Greenpeace says because there is no difference in taste and appearance, it is difficult to prevent cross contamination, or breeding between GM and non-GM crops. Greenpeace wants careful documentation to ensure GM crops do not cross-pollinate.

Q. How do GM foods affect the environment?

Supporters say GM crops are good for the environment. Dry says GM food means less soil erosion, and because GM crops need less pesticides and herbicides, fewer chemicals end up in the water supply. GM crops also produce a higher yield so farmers use less land, she says.

Opponents say GM foods offer no benefits to consumers and farmers. They say it has not been proved that they bring a higher yield. Opponents are also concerned about the chemical resistance of "volunteers," GM crops that spread into the wild or sprout where they are not supposed to grow and need more herbicides to control them. Kronike says there is evidence that weeds growing near GM crops become more resistant to herbicides. Opponents also say that GM food makes farmers over-reliant on biotech firms that supply the seeds and appropriate pesticides.

Q. Are there any health concerns?

Producers say there are no health concerns associated with GM foods. "These crops are more tested than any other crops in the history of man," says Dry. "There has never been a single health issue associated with them."

Opponents say insufficient tests have been done and the long-term health impact of GM foods is unknown. They warn that allowing GM crops to be grown commercially would mean introducing genetic alterations into the environment without full knowledge of the long-term consequences.

"What the industry says is that there is no proof that GM foods are dangerous. What we say is that there is no proof that GM foods are safe," says Kronike.

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