University of the Philippines Los Baños

“Are GMOs (genetically modified organisms) safe for consumption?” This is a perennial question that has captured public curiosity and sparked heated debates. Dr. Antonio C. Laurena, research professor at the Crop Science ClusterInstitute of Plant Breeding (CSC-IPB), held a special seminar on “Safety of Conventional and Biotech Food: How Safe is Safe?” on June 20 at the Agronomy Building to add some objectivity to the discourse about biotech food.

He started his lecture with an overview on the concept of biotechnology as well as its different phases including traditional, conventional, and modern biotechnology. Dr. Laurena explained that traditional or classical biotechnology refers to a number of ancient ways of using living organisms to make new products or modify existing ones. Man has been conducting experiments with crops and livestock using traditional biotechnology such as selective breeding, he pointed out.

Modern biotechnology, on the other hand, refers to a number of techniques that involve the intentional manipulation of genes, cells, and living tissue in a predictable and controlled manner to generate changes in the genetic makeup of an organism or to produce new tissues. Examples of these techniques include: recombinant DNA techniques (rDNA or genetic engineering) and tissue culture.

Dr. Laurena said that anxiety and negative attitude towards GMOs mainly stems from modern biotechnology. GMOs, specifically biotech food crops, are often depicted in a negative manner and associated with harmful side effects. “However, we should concern ourselves with food hazards more than GMOs,” he argued.

A food safety hazard is a biological, chemical or physical agent, or condition of food, that can potentially cause harm or an adverse health effect when the food is eaten. Biological hazards include disease-causing microorganisms; chemicals including pesticides, cleaning agents, and allergens; and physical or foreign objects that are not supposed to be in the food. The greatest concern in food safety and handling is contamination said Dr. Laurena.

This holds true for the entire process of food production starting from the farm to the consumer. Food contamination may also refer to the presence in foods of ingredients from GMOs. The unintended effect of contamination may include the alteration of nutrient levels and toxicology in the organism. GMO foods have had specific changes introduced into their DNA by genetic engineering techniques.

However, Dr. Laurena maintained that there is broad scientific consensus that foods derived from GM crops pose no greater risk to human health.

Dr. Laurena is a graduate of B.S. in Sugar Technology and M.S. in Food Science from UP Los Banos. He finished his Ph.D. in Agricultural Chemistry in a sandwich program from the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Germany. He has done biochemical studies on cowpea, specifically regarding its nutritional improvement and postharvest disease resistance. He has also conducted biochemical and nutritional studies of Philippine indigenous food and forage legumes.