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Thursday, October 21, 1999 Published at 02:45 GMT 03:45 UK


GM crops have 'significant snags'

GM food may harm developing countries, the report argues

By environment correspondent Alex Kirby

In yet another blast at the concept of genetically-modified (GM) crops, a group of UK experts has urged politicians and scientists to think again about persisting with the technology.

The group is the Food Ethics Council, set up last year with funding from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. Most of its members are academics or consumer affairs specialists.

In a report, Novel Foods: Beyond Nuffield, the FEC says that ethical concerns demand a much more precautionary approach to the approval and regulation of GM foods than that in force today.

The report criticises a report produced last May by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, which it says took a "yes, but ... " approach to GM technology, an argument that there were no major problems, only minor concerns.

'Novel foods'

The FEC report, by contrast, says there are significant drawbacks to genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), which suggest they will only rarely be appropriate. It argues for a "no, unless ... " approach - rejection of GM foods. In other words, they should only be developed when they serve vital roles with low risks.

The report devotes a section to what it calls "novel foods", defining them as including functional foods designed to benefit consumers' health in specific ways, for example by reducing blood cholesterol levels.

[ image: GM crops
GM crops "demand the precautionary princile"
It says novel foods are not the only way to health, and diet and lifestyle might achieve the same or better results, perhaps more economically. But it thinks "reliable, affordable products which are genuinely effective should be encouraged".

The authors believe that all novel food applications "should be subject to comprehensive ethical assessments of potential socio-economic and environmental impacts" by the use of an agreed ethical framework.

And they want a comprehensive review of agricultural aims and methods, looking at GM, conventional, organic and other approaches.

'Adverse effects'

"The advantages claimed for GM crops are generally relative to other intensive forms of agriculture, but this ignores the enormous social and environmental benefits that could be derived from increased investment in organic and other sustainable systems."

The report's recommendations include:

  • Making the precautionary principle a cornerstone of the approval system for novel foods
  • Promptly establishing close links between the planned Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission and the Food Standards Agency
  • Recognising that GM crops, far from helping developing countries as the Nuffield report argues, "may have adverse effects by encouraging further industrialisation and monoculture in agriculture"

The authors say: "A mere handful of multinational biotechnology companies control most developments in GM crops worldwide - a concentration of commercial power that seems unlikely to benefit starving people."

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