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Thursday, January 21, 1999 Published at 05:58 GMT


'All-clear' for genetically modified crops

Genetically modified plants offer great benefits, say the Lords

By Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby

The potential benefits from genetically modified (GM) crops far outweigh the risks and should be grown in the UK, according to a report by a House of Lords committee.

BBC's Robert Pigott: Environmental groups claim the report is riddled with misunderstandings
The Lords' European Communities committee says GM crops can be farmed "provided that there is a proper regulatory framework in place to protect the environment and food safety".

The report deals only with GM plants and not with animals, where it says bio-technology "raises different ethical issues". It does not consider the ethical dimension of GM organisms at all but another report on that issue is due out from the Nuffield Council on Bioethics - probably in February.

Lord Reay: "There are considerable benefits"
The committee says there would be "great potential benefits to agriculture, industry, consumers and even to the environment".

Committee chairman, Lord Reay said: "Genetic modification has the potential to bring great benefits - higher crop yields, better nutritional content in food, fewer herbicides and pesticides, and cheaper food for consumers.

"But like any new technology there are risks and it should only be applied when they can be assessed and controlled."

The committee also reported that there could also be problems with pest resistance and stress.

No moratorium

Last July, English Nature, the government's wildlife adviser, called for a moratorium on the commercial use of most GM crops until more research had been done. But the committee opposes this view and wants large-scale trials of GM crops.

[ image: Modified oilseed rape is arousing concern]
Modified oilseed rape is arousing concern
It says GM material has often been found in supposedly unmodified food. It wants GM products explicitly labelled to help consumers. But it says labelling should be required only when GM material is present above a certain threshold, perhaps 2%.

The committee has also considered the development of plants which have been engineered to produce sterile seeds, obliging farmers to buy new seeds from their supplier annually.

It concludes: "Provided that the farmer can afford any extra costs, we do not consider either the licensing of the right to plant or the sale of seeds which will produce sterile crops to be a problematic development."

A dissenting view

The government's scientific adviser on GM crops is Acre, the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment.

Acre is about to tell the Environment Minister, Michael Meacher, that there are no grounds for banning GM oilseed rape in Britain. But the only member of Acre who comes from a non-governmental organisation, the environmentalist Julie Hill, says she dissented from the original decision to give the go-ahead.

She says this is "because of uncertainties over how far the genes would spread into wild species, and what would be the long-term consequences of that spread". And she says she thinks the latest evidence reviewed by Acre "increases rather than decreases these uncertainties".

Julie Hill is calling for the application of the precautionary principle - making sure beforehand that there will be no damage. The Lords committee calls simply for Acre to be allowed to consider the cumulative and long-term implications of GM crops, which it cannot do now.

There was criticism of the report from Dr Mae Wen Ho, a bio-physicist and geneticist at the Open University.

She told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "If you look at the scientific evidence, there are already signs that some of the products marketed may be harmful for human beings as well as for beneficial species.

"And the genes can spread out of control, not only by ordinary pollination, but by horizontal transfer across species barriers.

"The monitoring that goes on is derisory at the moment. There are lots and lots of violations."

RSPB reaction

The report was also criticised by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which said it seemed "contradictory to give GM crops the green light in the light of the evidence the committee itself has heard".

[ image: The report says even organic crops could benefit]
The report says even organic crops could benefit
An RSPB spokesman said: "A cautious approach is needed. We need harder scientific answers before these crops are released.

"Farmers would be very unwise to rush into this. They do not want another BSE or E.coli horror."

The biotechnology company Monsanto welcomed the report, saying it was pleased the Lords had distinguished "scientific fact from science fiction".

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