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Thursday, May 27, 1999 Published at 13:02 GMT 14:02 UK


'Moral obligation' to develop GM crops

GM crops will improve "food security"

An influential UK scientific think-tank says there is a moral obligation to develop genetically-modified (GM) crops.

Food under the microscope
A report produced by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics says the new technology could bring benefits to developing nations by helping to feed growing populations.

Pallab Ghosh reports: "Some researchers think GM technology can produce crops resistent to the excesses of nature"
But it also warns that better regulation is needed to ensure the crops do not damage human health or the environment.

The council, which has addressed other major ethical issues such as genetic screening and animal-to-human transplants, has no statutory powers but does have influence in government.

BBC Washington correspondent Philippa Thomas gets the view from the US
In the conclusion to the report, the council's working party says all the GM food on sale in the UK is safe to eat. It also says there are no grounds for a ban on GM food or moratoria on commercial planting, which environmental groups have been demanding.

Call for government regulation

The working party's chairman, Professor Alan Ryan, Warden of New College, Oxford, says GM food raises ethical issues that are typical to all the new gene technologies.

Dr Sandy Thomas of the Nuffield Council explains the 'moral obligation'
"It promises considerable benefits at the same time that it threatens some dangers," he says.

"One of the messages of our report is that getting the benefits and avoiding the dangers can't be left to the marketplace alone. Intelligent government regulation is needed as well."

[ image: Fearful Indian farmers burn GM crops]
Fearful Indian farmers burn GM crops
It is for this reason that the council welcomes the UK Government's announcement last week to set up two new commissions to advise ministers on practical and ethical aspects of biotechnology.

But the report is strongest on what GM crops might offer developing nations in producing plants with less disease and higher yields. It says the new crops will "make a substantial contribution to food security", making a vital impact in combating malnutrition.

It does make the point, however, that research needs to be directed more at the food staples of developing nations, rather than at the crops grown in Western countries.

The council also calls on the government to increase its financial support to agencies that are working in this direction.

Corporation profits

Andrew Simms of Christian Aid: GM food producers naive or calculating
There are many in the green lobby and some working for overseas aid groups who believe GM crops will do little to benefit farmers and their families in the developing nations.

[ image: The council sees no reason to ban GM plants]
The council sees no reason to ban GM plants
A recent report by Christain Aid said the technology would put small farmers out of business and increase overall poverty.

"They talk about feeding the world - but all the corporations want to do is feed their profits," said a spokesman. "The multinationals are imposing a technology that favours large-scale farming techniques. That will destroy the livelihoods of smaller farmers - and so wreak havoc on local communities."

Christian Aid's concerns have been echoed by ActionAid. It fears the new herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant crops will tie farmers into purchasing expensive chemicals.

It says the seeds and chemicals would probably be produced by the same multinational, boosting the profits of the company while impoverishing the farmer.

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