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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 March, 2004, 11:33 GMT
UK doctors alter tack to back GMs
By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent

Dolls in Swiss GM protest   AP
Anti-GM baby food protest in Switzerland
Genetically modified foods are highly unlikely to harm human health, the UK's medical profession says in a surprise reversal of its position 18 months ago.

The British Medical Association says it thinks there is "very little potential" for GM food to produce harmful effects.

It calls for an end to "the hysteria" it says often surrounds the GM debate.

The BMA's Dr Vivienne Nathanson said GM food had "enormous potential to benefit both the developed and developing world in the long term", but care was needed.

The current absence of any evidence suggesting GM foods pose a threat to human health should not lead to complacency
Dr Vivienne Nathanson, BMA
The BMA's Board of Science said in an updated position statement that more research and surveillance were still needed to address worries over the potential risks.

Sir David Carter, the board's chairman, said: "Our assessment of all the available research is that there is very little potential for GM foods to cause harmful health effects.

Vigilance needed

"However the BMA recognises the huge public concern over the impact of GM foods and believes that research is still needed in key areas to allay remaining concern about the potential risks to human health and the environment."

Dr Nathanson, the BMA's head of science, said: "The current absence of any evidence suggesting GM foods pose a threat to human health should not lead to complacency.

"Public health surveillance should be so complete that we can be certain that adverse effects from any dietary change would be recognised.

"We also need a commitment to research in key areas to minimise the potential risks to human health and the environment posed by genetically modified food."

The statement says key areas for further research include food allergies, genetic transfer, environmental impact, and risk assessment and monitoring.

The BMA told the Scottish Parliament's health committee in November 2002 that trials of genetically modified crops in Scotland should be halted immediately as a precaution to safeguard public health.

The professional medical body represents more than 13,500 doctors in Scotland and more than 80% of British doctors.

Drug worries

In its submission then, the BMA said: "There has not yet been a robust and thorough search into the potentially harmful effects of GM foodstuffs on human health."

It said the most worrying issue was the potential danger posed by GM crops in creating antibiotic resistance in humans leading to new diseases.

The submission said: "Although the risk is not yet known, any increase in the number of resistant micro-organisms through the transfer of markers from GM foods would potentially have very serious adverse effects on human health."

The Scottish Executive rejected the BMA's concern over the trials, saying it would not have supported them if there had been any question about their safety.

On Tuesday, the UK government announced its agreement in principle to allow the commercial planting of one variety of GM maize to be used in animal feed.




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