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Last Updated: Saturday, 19 July, 2003, 01:06 GMT 02:06 UK
GM science review answers few questions
By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent

The long and bitter controversy in the UK over genetically-modified (GM) crops is coming to a head.

Seeds and plants   Monsanto
All we have at the moment is an unproven hypothesis that GM foods are safe
Gundula Azeez, Soil Association
A government report last week concluded they offered poor economic prospects, because of popular opposition.

The public debate organised by the government has ended, and is expected to echo that scepticism.

And a government review of GM science, to be published on 21 July, is unlikely to provide any clear answers.

The review was led by Professor Sir David King, the government's chief scientific adviser, working with Professor Howard Dalton, chief scientist at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

Up to the wire

It was set up to look at the state of scientific knowledge, the areas of agreement, and the uncertainties, and has covered three main areas:

  • human health implications
  • gene flow to other crops and to wild relatives of the species planted
  • environmental impacts.

Reaching agreement has proved difficult. Final comments from panel members were still coming in four days before publication, leaving the printers only the weekend to complete the job.

Wheatfield   Monsanto
The GM decision "is for politicians"
Even when members agreed on the science itself, they often took different views of how widely applicable it was, provoking "robust discussions".

Professor King's suggestion that the review will provide "neither a green nor a red light for GM crops" looks likely to be borne out.

Some campaign groups expect it to come down on the side of caution.

Gundula Azeez, of the Soil Association, told BBC News Online: "The review will provide more recognition of the uncertainties than we've had so far.

"Globally, there've been only 10 published studies of the health effects of GM food and feed. Five, done in collaboration with biotechnology companies, found no negative effects on body organs.

"The other five were independent, and four of those found potentially negative changes which have not been explained.

"Without more independent studies, all we have at the moment is an unproven hypothesis that GM foods are safe."

Appetite undimmed

But the review's section on human health is expected to say there is little if any cause for concern.

One scientist who has seen a draft told BBC News Online: "It certainly won't put me off eating GM food."

Rice   Monsanto
Supporters say GM crops will feed a hungry world
It said there had been no proven harmful health impacts worldwide, either nutritionally or in terms of toxicity.

The review is expected to say GM technology is as predictable and reliable as other crop-breeding methods, and that there is no evidence GM plants lead to the emergence of "superweeds".

And while it does highlight the remaining uncertainties, it is thought to conclude that those are not enough to stop the government deciding whether or not GM crops can be grown commercially.

Second bite

A problem for the panel has been the relative lack of relevant science to review. There is a feeling that, in a sense, there is nothing radically new for the panel to say.

One particular gap is the absence so far of any results from the farm-scale evaluations , a three-year trial programme to study the effects of herbicide-tolerant GM crops on farmland wildlife.

Three crops are involved: oilseed rape, beet and maize. The first results of the trials are expected to be published in September.

So Professor King and his panel will publish a second report later in the autumn, incorporating comments on the trial results as well as on the outcome of the public debate.

Images courtesy of Monsanto

Public 'cautious' over GM crops
18 Jul 03  |  Science/Nature
'Little economic benefit' from GM
11 Jul 03  |  Politics
Euro vote ends GM food ban
02 Jul 03  |  Europe
Q&A: GM and politics
26 Jul 02  |  Science/Nature

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