ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

8 February 2002


"Mr Blair should now follow the public he has so long misled and end this dangerous experiment with a  hazardous and unwanted technology before it is too late."
DAILY MAIL (London) February 6, 2002
FRANKENFOODS The truth at last
Geoffrey Lean

FORGET all those bland reassurances about the safety of GM foods and crops. Ignore all those patronising experts and Government ministers who have long insisted that the public has been irrational to suspect them. Two reports from the heart of the scientific establishment now reveal that the British people were right to have been worried. Housewives and their families turned against the so-called Frankenstein foods years ago, refusing to buy them. The supermarkets followed suit quickly, taking them off their shelves. This is likely to be recorded as the week in which those who are supposed to govern and guide us finally begin to abandon GM foods too.

Already ministers are edging away from the technology, which the Prime Minister once adopted almost as a personal crusade, and are increasingly talking up organic agriculture. Last week the official Curry Commision, set up at the height of the foot- and-mouth epidemic to review British farming, strongly backed chemical-free agriculture. It also called for the public's fears on GM crops to be 'respected'. Ministers welcomed the report and called for an independent debate on GM technology before any decision was taken to grow the crops commercially. This week's reports - one from the Government's official wildlife watchdog, the other from Britain's principal scientific body - are bound to accelerate the retreat. They confirm that the two main concerns about the technology - first raised by the Daily Mail more than three years ago - are real. Genes have, as feared, escaped in pollen from GM crops, creating 'super weeds' which are resistant to herbicides; and GM foods - which Mr Blair said he was happy to feed his children - may indeed damage human health. Lord Melchett, who was arrested for uprooting GM crops, calls the reports a 'breakthrough' and Peter Ainsworth, the shadow environment secretary, says they show the Government must 'put caution first'. The first report, by English Nature, bluntly concludes that it is 'inevitable' that super weeds will emerge in Britain if GM oilseed rape is grown here. A Canadian Government study found them at every site examined and discovered that the GM genes 'travelled' more than 730 metres from the crops. This makes a nonsense of Britain's safety precautions, which allow for a gap of only 50 metres between GM rape and other crops. But, alarmingly, the report adds that the genes spread so readily that even multiplying this distance many times over will do little to reduce the danger. It concludes that the contamination 'is almost impossible to prevent unless the crops are very widely dispersed'. It can say that again. Studies carried out by the National Pollen Research Unit for the Soil Association suggest that genes from oilseed rape could travel four miles, not just creating super weeds but endangering organic agriculture.

Organic farmers say they cannot coexist with GM technology, and that the public would be denied the chance to buy uncontaminated food if such crops were grown widely in Britain. And that is not the only danger. Once the super weeds get established, the report says, only highly toxic chemicals will get rid of them. The Canadians still use 2,4D, an ingredient of the infamous herbicide Agent Orange that was used in Vietnam and is banned in Britain.

The second report is, if anything, even more remarkable. It comes from the Royal Society which has been one of the most ardent proponents of GM technology in Britain. In 1998 it produced a report extolling its potential benefits for 'agriculture, food quality, nutrition and health'. But now it has evidently had second thoughts. A working group of the society, including some leading GM supporters, now reluctantly concludes that the foods may damage health after all. It continues to insist that 'there is no reason to doubt the safety of foods made from GM ingredients that are currently available' but adds that the technology could 'lead to unpredicted harmful changes' in ingredients put into infant foods or given to pregnant or breastfeeding women in future. And it adds that introducing a new gene into a plant could 'induce allergic reactions' in sensitive people. Even more disturbingly, the Royal Society questions the system used in Britain to determine whether GM foods are safe. This has long been attacked by critics as being specifically designed to avoid testing them. If GM foods are similar to non-GM ones in a limited way - such as the amounts of fibre and fatty acids, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals they contain - it is simply assumed that the chemical and genetic differences will not make them more toxic. The authorities declare them to be 'substantially equivalent' to non-GM foods and wave them through. But the Royal Society, which is calling for the system to be tightened, now admits that this may not reveal 'any unexpected effects of genetic modification'. This change of heart is long overdue. Both the scientific establishment and the Government have been complacent about the risks of GM technology. It is scandalous that such a slapdash method of checking for health dangers has been allowed to persist for so long. But the Government's attitude to testing for the spread of genes to create 'super weeds' and contaminate other crops has been almost as negligent. Ministers have sugested time and again that 'farm-scale trials' - where scores of fields have been split between GM and non-GM crops - would provide conclusive evidence on their safety. But the trials were not designed to look at whether genes escape, but at the effect different ways of using pesticides on the two crops had on wildlife. No wonder Environment Minister Michael Meacher admitted last week that the Government does not have high credibility' on GM issues and 'needs to listen' to the public. As the reports reveal, it should have done so a long time ago. Mr Blair should now follow the public he has so long misled and end this dangerous experiment with a hazardous and unwanted technology before it is too late.

GEOFFREY LEAN is an award-winning writer on the environment.

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