Transgenic Crop Risk Low, Says British Expert Panel

LONDON, United Kingdom, July 21, 2003 (ENS) - Genetically modified crops currently on the market pose a "very low" risk to human health, according to a report published by the GM Science Review Panel today. But the panel says that scientists cannot give "blanket assurances" on the safety of genetically modified crops, and applications to use the technology should be considered on a case by case basis.

Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett asked a panel of experts to review current scientific knowledge on genetically modified (GM) crops and foods.

Beckett

UK Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Margaret Beckett (Photo courtesy DEFRA)
The panel found no scientific case for ruling out all genetically modified crops and their products, but the experts were careful to emphasize that genetic modification is not a single homogeneous technology. The panel stressed the importance of ensuring that regulation of the genetic modification of foods and crops keep pace with new scientific developments.

No transgenic crops are currently grown commercially in the UK although they are grown to a limited extent in some European Union countries. Some GM foods and animal feeds are approved for consumption in the European Union, including the UK, and these include processed products from GM herbicide tolerant soybean and corn, and oil from genetically modified oilseed rape, also known as canola oil.

The review looked in detail at 17 areas identified by the general public and the science community. It refers to 600 published scientific documents, and additional contributions came from a review website and open meetings.

King

Sir David King was appointed as the government's chief scientific adviser and head of the Office of Science and Technology in October 2000. (Photo courtesy Office of Science and Technology)
The GM Science Review Panel is chaired by Sir David King the government's chief scientific adviser and has members with a range of scientific, industrial, sociological and environmental expertise and views.

The panel considered whether transgenic crops might result in more food allergies, and whether GM foods might be less nutritious or more toxic than their conventional counterparts.

They also considered whether DNA from transgenic crops could harm people, either through being consumed directly in foods, or by entering the food chain through animal feed.

There have been no verifiable ill effects reported from the extensive consumption of products from genetically modified crops by humans and animals over seven years, the panel concluded, cautioning that genetic modification "may present greater challenges in risk management in the future."

The panel's report emphasized that the absence of readily observable adverse effects does not mean that these can be completely ruled out, and pointed out that there has been no epidemiological monitoring of people consuming genetically modified food.

It is important to continue to develop safety assessment technologies, effective surveillance, monitoring and labelling systems, the panel said. "It is clear that gaps in our knowledge and uncertainties will become more complex if the range of plants and traits introduced increases."

The panel found that, for the current generation of genetically modified crops, the most important issue is their potential effect on farmland and wildlife. Current experiments show that these transgenic crops are "very unlikely to invade the countryside or be toxic to wildlife," the panel said.

Detailed field experiments on several genetically modified crops in a range of environments have demonstrated that "the transgenic traits investigated do not significantly increase the fitness of these plants in semi-natural habitats, and therefore they behave in a similar way to non-GM crops," said the panel, calling for more research on the potential effects of releasing GM plants with traits such as pest and disease resistance and stress tolerance.

corn

Genetically modified corn, or maize (Photo courtesy Monsanto)
Professor King said, "We cannot know everything but if we are paralyzed by uncertainty, innovation and progress will be stifled. The very best science must be brought to bear on the important decisions that will need to be taken in the future. GM technology must not be considered in a vacuum, but alongside conventional agricultural and food applications."

Friends of the Earth UK said the government's GM science review published today "raises serious questions" about gaps in our scientific knowledge on the potential impacts of genetically modified food and crops on our health and the environment.

Friends of the Earth's GM campaigner Pete Riley said, "Far from giving GM crops the green light, this report admits that there are gaps in our scientific knowledge and significant uncertainties about the long term impacts of GM food and crops on our health and environment."

"The government's GM review has already revealed that there is no market for GM food because people don't want to eat it," Riley said. "The government must listen to the public and put safety first by refusing to allow GM crops to be commercially grown in the UK."

In 2002, genetically modified crops were cultivated on some 59 million hectares globally, the panel states. Ninety-nine percent of this was grown in four countries: the USA with 66 percent, Argentina with 23 percent, Canada with six percent, and China with four percent.

Three crops comprise 95 percent of the land under transgenic cultivation: soybean with 62 percent, maize, or corn, with 21 percent, and cotton with 12 percent.

Traits achieved by genetic modification involve herbicide tolerance for which 75 of the crops are modified, and insect pest resistance for which 15 percent are modified, or a combination of both in the same crop.

The national dialogue on genetic modification has three main strands - this science review, a public debate and an economics study - which will help the government decide whether or not to allow GM crops to be commercially grown in the United Kingdom. A decision is expected later this year.

Through a series of public workshops and meetings and through their website, the panel solicited and considered concerns and interests of the public, whether or not the people responding are professionally involved in science, agriculture or the food industry.

The panel is asking for public comments on its report over the summer. The report is available online at: http://www.gmsciencedebate.org.uk/report/default.htm, and public comments can be submitted through this website.