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Friday, May 21, 1999 Published at 16:13 GMT 17:13 UK


Where now for GM crops?

We can only proceed on the basis of good science

By BBC News Online Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse

The UK is in the midst of an information war over genetically-modified (GM) crops and food. The tussle between the opposing sides has generated immense scientific and political fallout.

Food under the microscope
And what we see going on now is just the latest in a long line of skirmishes that goes back to some of the original arguments over the safety of GM technology that were aired over 10 years ago in the US.

Then, a biotechnology company called Advanced Genetic Sciences wanted to spray strawberries with genetically-modified bacteria in an experiment to protect the plants from frost damage. Environmentalists hated the idea and fought the proposal - and they have been fighting hard ever since.

The green lobby in the UK wants a four-year moratorium on the licensing of GM crops. The government has refused, insisting science should judge how long it takes for the technology to prove its safety - not some arbitrary time period.

The government agrees that we need to know more about GM crops and believes more, and larger, field trials will be necessary to test the issues. Gaining good scientific data through trials has to the sensible way forward.

Consumer choice

We should emphasise the difference between GM food and GM crops. There is no evidence whatsoever that the foods on our supermarket shelves that are gene-altered, or contain or are derived from GM ingredients, are unsafe.

[ image: New research highlights the dangers to butterflies]
New research highlights the dangers to butterflies
Of course, all such food should be labelled - consumers have a right to know what they are eating and should be given a choice.

However, some of the environmental issues surrounding the GM crops from which these foods come is a little complex.

Some say they pose a threat to the fragile ecosystem of the countryside. This point has been emphasised this week by the publication in Nature of research that shows pollen from insect-resistant corn can kill the caterpillars of Monarch butterflies.

But the scientists who did this study made it clear that the possible risks associated with this type of modified plant had to be balanced against the alternative of blanket-spraying fields with agrochemicals.

Giant experiment

The US is showing the way ahead. In a sense, its people are now involved in one giant experiment into the human consumption of GM foods. Two hundred million people have been exposed to these new foods for several years and there is no sign of ill effects.

We can be sure that if there are, we will know about it - the US is the most litigious country in the world.

Biotechnology offers huge benefits for humankind, especially in medicine. The benefits for agriculture could be as great - we are just not sure yet. The research is just beginning and should be given a chance, and that means more small-scale trials.

There are less than 200 small experimental trials in the UK - most no bigger than a suburban garden. Most are on the land of research institutes or universities. Only three licences have been granted for farm-scale trials.

Is this too much to pay for finding out more about a technology that could have huge benefits?

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