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Tuesday, June 1, 1999 Published at 18:15 GMT 19:15 UK


Sci/Tech

GM food: Charles' 10 questions answered

Concern over cross-pollination from GM crops

The intervention by Prince Charles into the controversy over GM foods has given the debate fresh impetus.

His thoughts on GM centre around 10 questions he thinks everyone should be asking about the new technology.

BBC News Online has been trying to find the answers.

We put the 10 questions to Ian Willmore, of Friends of the Earth; and Stephen Smith, the Chief Executive of Novartis Seeds, a major life science company which has invested heavily in bio-science technology - and which has invited Prince Charles to discuss the issue.

Click on the questions to see their answers.

Question 1: Do we need GM food in this country?

Question 2: Is GM food safe for us to eat?

Question 3: Why are the rules for approving GM foods so much less stringent than those for new medicines produced using the same technology?

Question 4: How much do we really know about the environmental consequences of GM crops?

Question 5: Is it sensible to plant test crops without strict regulations in place?

Question 6: How will consumers be able to exercise genuine choice?

Question 7: If something goes wrong with a GM crop, who will be held responsible?

Question 8: Are GM crops really the only way to feed the world's growing population?

Question 9: What effect will GM crops have on the people of the world's poorest countries?

Question 10: What sort of world do we want to live in?


Question 1: Do we need GM food in this country?

Friends of the Earth: No. Consumers appear not to want it, which is why supermarkets, restaurants, fast food chains and food wholesalers are ceasing to stock it; and in any event, in Britain, we already produce if anything too much food, which is why we have to pay farmers under set aside to stop growing.

Novartis: Clearly if GM technology can lead to the production of high quality, safe food, with less dependence on pesticides, this would be welcomed by the public and environmentalists at large.

Food under the microscope
If there were less burden put on biodiversity and wildlife by agriculture then that would be a net benefit. GM technology may be the answer to a more sustainable, yet competitively productive agriculture.

For instance, GM technology could lead to skylark-friendly sugarbeet production. Today, each field of sugarbeet is treated with four or five herbicide treatments, which remove the weeds.

The reason they have to apply so many times is because the weeds are only removed by the herbicides at a very small stage, when they can't support any insect growth.

If we can move to herbicide tolerance, with a more flexible material, we hopefully can support more invertebrate life, and have an impact on biodiversity. That to me is a genuine benefit.

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Question 2: Is GM food safe for us to eat?

Friends of the Earth: We don't know enough to be certain. We do know that there are concerns about, for example, the presence of antibiotic resistance marker genes in GM crops.

Prince Charles has identified these as possibly leading to problems, because they could increase human resistance to antibiotics. And we know that 13 out of 23 crops that have got listing applications pending have got such marker genes in them.

Novartis:Yes. This has been restated, not only by the technology providers, but also by many countries in the world, after rigorous scrutiny of the food that is produced by these crops.

Canada, the US, Japan, and South America have declared this - as well as the EU, under EU rule 92/20, which involves not just one EU clearance, but the attention and scientific scrutiny of all 15 member states.

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Question 3: Why are the rules for approving GM foods so much less stringent than those for new medicines produced using the same technology?

Friends of the Earth: Rules relating to food safety have always been relatively relaxed by comparison with medicines.

This is a really important question, because we consume medicine in minute quantities, but food in very large quantities, and the development of biotechnology is going to blur the distinction between medicines and food. This is an area that very badly needs attention.

Novartis:In medicines you are looking at a distinct effect of a piece of chemistry on a target. That is not the case with food, clearly.

This food has been scrutinised scientifically to ensure that it is safe, and as yet there has not been one question over the safety of the food that has been approved for consumption in the UK.

The rules for approving GM foods are very stringent, and certainly more stringent than any other food that has come into contact with man.

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Question 4: How much do we really know about the environmental consequences of GM crops?

Friends of the Earth:We know enough to be concerned.

Potential threats to the environment include the danger of cross-pollination, which means essentially pollen from a GM crop breeding with a wild relative.

This might produce a super-weed, because weeds may become herbicide resistant.

We also know that because so many of these crops for which licences are being sought are herbicide-resistant, they could encourage greater use or use of stronger herbicides than there are at the moment.

That has strong implications for biodiversity - it kills everything else in the field, and then it kills everything that feeds on everything else in the field.

Novartis:Within the current regulation, to achieve clearance, one has to address the impact on the environment.

What is important is that we understand and evaluate the impact of GM technology in agriculture in the bigger picture, and its impact on biodiversity and farmland wildlife.

Farm-scale evaluations are being carried out to answer just such questions, because at the moment the technology is proven to be neither negative nor positive.

Clearly we must go forward on the basis of good, scientific principles for evaluation of this - not anecdotal information.

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Question 5: Is it sensible to plant test crops without strict regulations in place?

Friends of the Earth:Evidently not. The barriers between GM sites and non GM, which are supposed to prevent or reduce the chance of cross-pollination are typically up to about 400m wide; but we know from the Scottish crop research institute that pollen can travel up to 4km, through bees.

Novartis:There has not been a planting of a GM crop in the UK without regulations. That has not happened.

Up to now, all of the plantings have been subject to a 92/20, Part B deliberate release for trials clearance, which is a robust regulation on which the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment advises government.

There is nothing planted in the UK that is not subjected to regulation.

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Question 6: How will consumers be able to exercise genuine choice?

Friends of the Earth:I think they already are exercising choice in that they are making it clear to supermarkets that they don't want to buy the stuff.

But the labelling rules make it difficult for them to exercise choice. Although some GM products are labelled, some GM derivatives, like lecithin and soya oil, are not.

They are present in a very high proportion of GM foods that are imported from the United States.

Novartis:Clearly Novartis believes in consumer choice, because eventually they will have the final arbitration on the success or failure of this technology.

If the technology continues to meet all the regulatory processes, and is proven safe, and perhaps positively beneficial to the environment and biodiversity, then the consumer will be the final arbiter, because if they don't purchase the food, I don't know a farmer yet that would grow something that nobody's going to buy from him.

The important thing is that they should never confuse choice with safety. Putting a label on something doesn't mean it's safe - it offers them choice, and Novartis will do everything within its power, within its sphere of influence within the industry chain, to ensure that consumer's choice is available.

We will ensure that our seeds are clearly labelled so that any subsequent identification is available to the consumer should they want it through legislation or through voluntary practice.

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Question 7: If something goes wrong with a GM crop, who will be held responsible?

Friends of the Earth:That is the £64m question. There is no clear liability regime in place.

Europe has been proposing liability basically aimed at biotech companies, which the biotech companies are extremely unhappy about.

The short answer is, there is no clear answer to that question - and it is something that insurance companies, and liability lawyers and others are extremely concerned about.

Novartis:There is no difference between a product which we may put into the marketplace, and our stewardship and support in the GM arena, that is any different to our activities in pharmaceuticals, or any other arena of Novartis products.

We have responsibility for that product, and we will stand by that responsibility - because it is in no company's interest to deliver unsafe products to the marketplace.

Sustainable business does not come from anything other than safe products. That is our wish, we welcome regulation, we are in an industry that very clearly needs legislation.

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Question 8: Are GM crops really the only way to feed the world's growing population?

Friends of the Earth:Christian Aid say not; they say there is more than enough food in the world to go round. I think we would agree with that.

Famine and malnutrition are commonly political problems: that's to say, they're to do with poverty, distribution of wealth and so on, and they're much more to do with that than production.

Novartis:Novartis has never said that this is a feed-the-world technology, because the ability to feed the world is clearly a financial and distribution issue, not one that can be solved by genetic modification.

However, if we can have a technology that will allow us to produce more from less - more productivity of safe food while using less pesticides, fossil fuels, and fertilisers - then I believe that is an extremely positive step.

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Question 9: What effect will GM crops have on the people of the world's poorest countries?

Friends of the Earth:It depends on how they're introduced, but potentially it could make them poorer.

It could make developing country farmers more dependent than they are already on large agricultural multinationals, and it could make it very difficult for the poorest farmers to compete, and it potentially could have serious effects on that.

Novartis:There are a lot of opinions over whether it will help or hinder the third world.

This technology will be available to the third world, and they will choose whether to use it where it is appropriate.

Clearly the important thing about the third world is that you act appropriately to the environment that you're in. We believe this technology has tremendous impact, and potential benefits, but it must be subject to good regulations.

Therefore where there are no regulations, we do not pursue the material to the market place, and that in the initial stages of the technology leads us into the developed countries, with conventional and intensive agriculture.

But some of the traits which may be produced in the future from genetic modification may have tremendous benefits to third world agriculture, without any constraints on their agricultural practice.

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Question 10: What sort of world do we want to live in?

Friends of the Earth:We want a world in which local, organic and sustainable production of food is encouraged and made easier for people.

GM food, or at any rate the way in which companies are seeking to introduce it, seems to be another step in the direction of highly intensive engineered or chemical agriculture, and away from sustainable, organic farming which is the way we want to go.

Our concern about this technology is that it may be introduced in a way which moves away from sustainability, local production, organic production, in the direction of ever more chemical and intensive farming.

Novartis:This is a personal view; but I would like to live in a world where we have adequate food that is produced in a sustainable manner, with the right sympathy to social economic and environmental issues.

Also I would like to live in a world where anyone who is operating in a completely legal manner, pursuing the development of a new technology, is allowed to do so, is allowed to produce the evidence on which that technology should be judged - and not subject to illegal actions which deny the very scientific data evaluation that's being asked for.



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