BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific

BBC News World Edition
 You are in: Programmes: Newsnight: Archive  
News Front Page
Middle East
South Asia
Talking Point
Country Profiles
In Depth
BBC Sport
BBC Weather
Tuesday, 22 July, 2003, 14:38 GMT 15:38 UK
GM foods
Genetically Modified Tomatoes
One reason that science is not a religion is that scientists are not all required to believe the same thing. Some campaigners believe GM crops are harmful. Others believe they will be a boon to us all.

But scientists asked by the government to tell us which view is correct have not made life easy by reaching a mixed conclusion.

There is no scientific case for ruling out genetically modified crops, they say, but they cannot give them blanket approval either. New GM applications will need to be considered case by case.

Gavin Esler was joined by the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir David King, by the ex-Environment Minister Michael Meacher, and also by Paul Rylott from the Agricultural Biotechnology Commission.

Can you understand how non-scientists might be a bit disappointed that you can't just say 'this is great, do it' or 'this is terrible don't do it'?

Professor Sir DAVID KING:
We're certainly not just displaying a red light or a green light to GMs. What we are saying is that each case of a GM crop has to be dealt with on its own. In other words, we must take this as a case-by- case situation.

Will that necessarily slow things down because you will have to look at it all, and people will hear in a second, we will fall behind if you have to do this?

No, we don't mean we slow it down. What we say is take it case by case, and if you do that, then you can be much more sure about validating your procedure. That, of course, is...

Slows it down rather than saying, here, go ahead. Do it.

We're certainly never going to say on the basis of the work that we've done that you can certainly just go ahead with all GM crops. But nor would the public want us to proceed down a route that would be not validated through the European Union anyway.

Michael Meacher, are you broadly happy with this?

I think it's actually a very helpful report. I think it is balanced, contrary to what many people had expected. It does say, for example, as I have been saying for the last several weeks and months that there have been no systematic health tests of the long-term health impacts on human beings of eating GM food, and until those tests are carried out, I believe it would be irresponsible to go ahead and commercialise GM crops. It says that there is insufficient evidence to predict the environmental effects either on weed populations or on wildlife in the countryside, again, until we have an environmental all-clear, I don't think we should proceed. And it also says very importantly, that it will be difficult, if not actually impossible, to protect other agricultural sectors, notably, organic. We are in the extraordinary situation of considering commercialising GM that no-one wants when there's no market for it at the expense of organic that people want more and more of and where there's a huge market and expanding, and the Government wishes to increase it further.

John, isn't that the point that, frankly, British people don't want it, and the people are demonstrating. They're not demonstrating saying give us GM food. They're saying the opposite?

I'm not sure you could possibly say that at the moment. Consumers in the UK are actually denied choice, so until we can actually get a real straw poll of what's actually happening and consumers can go to the markets and choose whether to buy GM or non-GM we really can't say whether consumers are for or against it.

Do you see any evidence, there are no demonstrations in favour saying please give us this wonderful GM food are there?

That's not true either. Clearly, if we look at what's happening in supermarkets at the moment we have a situation where consumers are readily choosing vegetarian cheese, for example. When we had tomato puree on supermarket shelves people were also eating that and choosing to eat that. At the moment they don't have that choice. That choice is being denied.

So David, on the bigger points that Michael Meacher was making about epidemiological studies and so on, do you see the benefit in that? Is that practicable?

I think I ought to just come back on this question because what we are saying quite clearly in our report is the current generation of GM crops that have passed the validation procedures set up by the European Union and by our own Government through the food standards agency, that generation of GM crops we conclude have very low risk to human health. We conclude are very unlikely to invade the countryside. So there are clear positive indications in our report for a certain range, a small range of GM crops. However, I do agree with Michael on the issue of the bio-diversity issue, and here we say we must have more research before we can go ahead.

Well, I agree with that last point, but on the earlier point, David, I just don't think you can get away with that. You're saying there is a low risk, but you haven't actually - not you personally, but there haven't been tests carried out to establish whether or not that is true. Can I quote from your report, there has been no epidemiological monitoring of those consuming GM food, and as far as post marketing surveillance to detect potential human health effects of food there is nothing yet available for GM foods in any country. That seems to me pretty damning.

It is only damning if you ignore the other part of the report which deals with the actual process by which the Food Standards Agency validates food stuffs. If you deal with that process' substantial equivalence as a process you will see it is a very thorough process what this broad-ranging panel, the panel was composed of a very broad-range of people covering opinions right across the board. We were satisfied that for those particular GM crops, the human health considerations were fine. The risks were very low.

In Newcastle, sell it to us, sell to the ordinary consumer what we're going to get that we don't have now that's so fantastic we should accept even these low risks?

These particular generation of crops which we're talking act at the moment. These are the herbicide tolerant crops. These are the ones that are closest to the ones on the market in the UK. I look at it very simplistically in terms of I come from a farming background and I have always been very much associated with countryside issues. These crops offer us the opportunity to reverse the decline in farm land wildlife we are currently seeing. Offers the opportunity also to increase the profitability of farmers in the countryside at the moment and also offers the opportunity as the reporter said today, to give consumers safe, highly new nutritious, affordable foods, farmed in a way that is more environmentally friendly than many ways...

I don't think there is any evidence that it'll be more profitable frankly. The only thing that it has really claimed for it is that it will require less herbicide. This is very much disputed. These are tests about environmental impacts. If GM were commercialised I think we would see farmers behaving in a very different way when they were no longer concerned primarily about reducing environmental impact but maximising yield . Can I come back to the very important that David King made about substantial equivalents. This concept which is the basis of saying it is safe, is an utter fraud. It is simply saying that the biotech companies look for their GM product at its level of nutrients, at its allergens, at its toxins and if they are roughly similar to another non GM variety then they are just deemed, assumed to be safe. That is fraudulent, it is like my saying you have a headache, I have a new drug, just the right thing you need, we haven't tested it but it is the same as another one we've been using so just pop it in your mouth and you'll be fine.

It might depend on how bad my headache was. David your response.

I find Michael's description of the process as a caricature of the process to be honest. I do hope that Michael will now read our report and come back to us with comments because what is critically important here, this is the first report, we're going to come back with a second report in the late autumn and that report will take on board all of the comments that have been made to us, we will look at the FSE results and we'll have the results of the public debate to comment on.

We will return to this undoubtedly in the autumn.

This transcript was produced from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight. It has been checked against the programme as broadcast, however Newsnight can accept no responsibility for any factual inaccuracies. We will be happy to correct serious errors.

Gavin Esler
discussed the risks and the benefits of GM foods.
Links to more Archive stories are at the foot of the page.

 E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Archive stories

© BBC ^^ Back to top

News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East |
South Asia | UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature |
Technology | Health | Talking Point | Country Profiles | In Depth |