ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

6 February 2002




Press releases and pdfs of the reports from the Royal Society and English Nature referred to below.
Royal Society
press release:

and the report
English Nature
[ngin has pdf of the EN report which we can forward]
Scientist to warn of GM food danger for babies
The Independent, 04 February 2002
UK scientists: Better testing needed for GM foods  (Reuters)
BY: Steve Connor Science Editor
The Independent (London); February 5, 2002
GM crops may create superweed-report
LONDON (Reuters)
Rogue GM plant warning, BBC online
Nick Drainey
The Scotsman February 5, 2002, Pg. 1


UK: Scientists urge caution on genetically modified foods

06 Feb 2002
Source: editorial team

The leading body of scientists in the UK dealt a surprise blow to advocates of genetically modified food this week when it published a surprisingly critical report.

The Royal Society had been widely expected to help allay consumer concerns over the safety of GM foods. Instead, the Society called for tougher regulations before GM food is passed as safe for human consumption. It also drew particular attention to the potential risks for babies, who are more susceptible to changes in the nutritional make-up of the food they eat. The Society’s report went on to call for a thorough re-examination of UK and EU laws to ensure testing of any GM ingredients for use in infant formula is particularly stringent. It said the system for testing and approving ingredients should be made "more explicit and objective".

While the study concluded that there was "no reason" to doubt the safety of GM foods, it said the industry had not worked hard enough to calm consumers‚ safety concerns.

Environmental groups latched on to the report as a sign that scientist are waking up to public concern over GM food. Adrian Bebb, GM campaigns director at Friends of the Earth, commented: "It’s quite a big U-turn for them because they've had a very pro-GM viewpoint in the past [...] I think this report confirms all the concerns raised over the last few years.

Meanwhile, a report released yesterday [Tuesday] by six biotechnology companies confirmed that most British citizens feel they do not have sufficient knowledge about genetically foods. The newly formed Agricultural Biotechnology Council (abc), which includes biotech heavyweights Monsanto, Aventis, BASF, Dow AgroSciences, Dupont and Syngenta, said they took some of blame for this inadequate information stream. "Clearly we have not done ourselves justice in providing good information, valid information to allow a balanced debate," Syngenta's head of UK seeds and abc chairman Stephen Smith told reporters at a news briefing.


Testing regime for GM foods "must improve"

Environment Daily

Existing tests designed to ensure that new foods are safe for human consumption are not sufficient and should be strengthened before more foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are approved, concludes a report published yesterday by the UK's leading science academy, the Royal Society. It calls for testing to be stepped up on all novel foods, with a specific focus on products containing GM material. The goal should be to determine whether individual products containing GMOs increase the risk of allergic reactions or reductions in the nutritional content of baby food. The report makes clear that there is no evidence indicating that GMOs in food pose a threat to human health. However, it argues that UK and EU regulations must be amended to weed out "important gaps and inconsistencies".

The society's views on safety testing echo those of the French food agency, published last week

Together, they point to growing pressure for the EU to develop more stringent approval procedures governing GM foods than those in place in North America.

In a related development, England's nature conservation agency has warned that current guidelines on separation distances between conventional and GM crops do not offer enough protection against the development of so-called "superweeds", resistant to multiple pesticides.

It calls on the government to show commitment to biodiversity by revising the rules.


Fears for babies from GM milk

Robert Uhlig Food Correspondent
THE DAILY TELEGRAPH, February 05, 2002, Pg. 01

BOTTLE-FED babies could be undernourished if given genetically modified infant formula milk because of inadequate regulations and testing regimes for GM foods, leading scientists said yesterday. After spending more than a year reviewing the health risks of GM food, a Royal Society working group called for tighter safety checks before all novel foods, including GM, are declared fit for human consumption. Its report said that regulations governing foods made from GM plants were "rather piecemeal" and might contain "some important gaps and inconsistencies". Although it found no reason to suspect the safety of GM food, the report said it was concerned that "genetic modification might lead to unpredicted and harmful changes in the nutritional status of the food". Dr Eric Brunner, an epidemiologist at University College, London and one of the report's authors, said babies dependent solely on formula milk were particularly vulnerable to any nutritional changes. He said there was a "potential concern that small changes to the nutritional content might have effects on infant bowel function. Although infant formula is meant not to contain any GM ingredients, Food Standards Agency research published last week found that one in seven loaves, cakes, pies or pastries - some labelled as organic - had trace amounts of GM soya. The Royal Society said it was concerned that much of the research into the safety aspects of GM foods was kept secret because it was commercially sensitive information. It called for the current regulatory regime to be overhauled. Adrian Bebb, of Friends of the Earth, said the scientific establishment had at last woken up to public concern about GM food.


British scientists turn on GM food,3604,645054,00.html
Paul Brown Environment correspondent
The Guardian (London); February 5, 2002

The potential health effects of genetically modified foods should be rigorously investigated before allowing them into baby food or to be marketed to pregnant or breast feeding women, the elderly, and those with chronic disease, the Royal Society said yesterday. The scientists were also concerned that the new generation of GM crops might cause allergies, particularly among farmers or workers in the food industry. A report published yesterday marked a shift by the country's most eminent scientific body from its positive report on GM food in 1998, and is expected to influence the government's position. The society said there were no known health effects from the GM foods on the market, but GM technology "could lead to unpredicted harmful changes in the nutritional state of foods". So far no baby food containing GM products has been submitted for approval, but the society recommended that any that were should be referred to the scientific advisory committee on nutrition before they were allowed on the market. Jim Smith, who introduced the report, said infants eating baby foods were particularly vulnerable, because they had such a narrow diet. If there were any nutritional deficiences in the food - for example fewer fatty acids - health would suffer, particularly infant bowel function. Small nutritional changes could lead to bowel obstruction.

Professor Smith was also concerned for any group with restricted diets - for example the poor of central America, who have maize as 50% of their food - whose health might be affected by poorer nutritional standards in the new crops.

There there were no known GM health effects, the scientists emphasised, and there was still the potential for improved nutrition from GM crops, although none had yet been commercially developed. The scientists were concerned at what is known as the rule of substantial equivalence, which the US authorities had employed in many cases to decide that a GM product did not need testing because it was substantially equivalent to an existing food. The report said this might disguise the presence of unknown toxins, anti-nutrients, or allergens, and should not be accepted in the UK or the rest of Europe where rigorous testing should apply. A second blow to the GM food industry yesterday came from English Nature, which showed that a generation of super weeds was developing in Canada. Weeds in field margins or some distance from GM crops "stacked up" genes from modified crops and themselves became resistant to a series of herbicides. These "volunteer" weeds that collected GM genes were an alarming development, meaning the distances between GM crops and ordinary crops sown in the UK were not large enough to prevent cross pollination, according to the government's nature watchdog. In Canada these weeds are resistant to several widely used herbicides, with farmers regularly resorting to old herbicides to control them. In effect they are on the road to being nuisance weeds. Brian Johnson, English Nature's biotechnology adviser, said: "The distance code is probably inadequate to prevent gene stacking in Britain. The consequences for farmers could be that 'volunteer' crops would be harder to control and they might have to use different, and more environmentally damaging, herbicides."

Special report on GM food at


Call for more curbs and improved safety tests for eating genetically modified foods

Financial Times (London) February 5, 2002

Safety tests for eating genetically modified foods should be improved and more controls introduced to prevent environmental damage, two authoritative reports said yesterday. The Royal Society, the leading scientific institution, said new research showed GM food was safe to eat. However, it warned that current tests based on the "substantial equivalence" principle - when GM foods are considered so similar to non-GM counterparts that their safety is assumed - should be improved and harmonised internationally. Separately, English Nature, the statutory body for wildlife conservation, said other research showed GM crops were damaging the environment more than predicted by the biotechnology industry and that controls in Canada and Britain were inadequate. The Royal Society said "substantial equivalence" remained an acceptable starting point for tests. However, its application should be more transparent and objective. European Union member states had to agree common standards in applying the principle to plug possible loopholes in the approval regime, it said. The principle of substantial equivalence has been promoted by the biotech industry, particularly in the US, although scientists in Europe and North America have suggested it is seriously flawed. The society concluded the dangers of eating GM food were negligible. It discounted threats such as viral DNA sequences replicating into other viruses inside the human body or DNA being ingested into the body and altering human genetic material.

English Nature's study of Canadian oilseed rape crops showed "gene-stacking" - the accidental creation of new GM plants through cross-pollination - was becoming a serious problem. New "volunteer" plants were resistant to widely used herbicides forcing farmers to use older, more environmentally damaging herbicides to control them. Dr Brian Johnson, English Nature's biotechnology adviser, said this could mean GM science becoming "self-defeating" and failing to deliver one of its main promises - the use of fewer and less dangerous chemicals. The biotech industry's code of growing GM crops was probably inadequate to prevent this also happening in Britain, he warned. Dr Johnson said the issue could not be solved by increasing separation distances between GM crops and others - a tactic seen as one option to make GM commercialisation politically acceptable. The solution lay in limiting the number of genetic traits introduced into any single plant. However, this could be opposed by the industry, which has forecast the creation of highly-complex GM plants with multiple-gene sequences.



Steve Connor
The Independent (London); February 5, 2002

SAFETY TESTS for genetically modified (GM) food are subjective and rely on poor arguments, the Royal Society warned yesterday. The society, Britain's most distinguished scientific body, said increased allergies and unwitting changes to the nutritional content of food, especially for babies, might be two of the dangers not being adequately addressed. The Royal Society said that although it had found no evidence that GM crops were a danger to the public, it had identified potentially serious problems with the way safety was assessed. "In particular, it has been argued that the approach is subjective and inconsistent and even that it represents 'pseudo- science'," a report by a Royal Society working group on the health implications of eating GM plants said. Opponents of GM foods have argued that products should be treated in the same way as new drugs, with extensive testing and human trials before they are allowed on the market. However, the Royal Society said it preferred a refined version of the existing system, in which a new GM product is compared to the non-GM version to see whether there is any difference. But the working group found the criteria for establishing difference were unclear. "There was no consensus on the tests that needed to be carried out," said Professor Jim Smith of the Wellcome/CRC Institute in Cambridge, who chaired the working party.


Scientists warn of GM 'super weeds'

DAILY MAIL (London) February 4, 2002
James Chapman

GENETICALLY modified crops could interbreed to produce mutant plants impossible to destroy with conventional weedkillers, researchers have warned. A study commissioned by English Nature, the Government's conservation agency, showed that genes from separate GM varieties can accumulate in plants that grow from seed spilled at harvest. Analysis of GM oilseed rape plants in Canada proved that different varieties had cross-pollinated in fields. Their offspring contained the accumulated genes from various GM plants. Each had been engineered in the laboratory to resist a specific herbicide, so the farmer can use it to clear weeds without harming his crop. The development means the hybrid plants are resistant to several widely-used herbicides and farmers are having to resort to older, more powerful chemicals to kill them. Dr Brian Johnson, English Nature's biotechnology adviser, said: 'They are on the road to becoming nuisance weeds.' He said it was urgent that the Government considered the possibility of GM varieties interbreeding and causing such 'gene stacking' before giving the goahead for commercial cultivation in the UK. The existing code of practice, drafted by the industry body SCIMAC (Supply Chain Initiative on Modified Agricultural Crops), would not be enough. 'The consequences for farmers could be that crops would be harder to control and they might have to use different and more environmentally damaging herbicides,' said Dr Johnson. 'We don't yet know how "stacked gene" plants would behave either in farmers' fields or in the wild.' Dr Johnson was speaking ahead of the publication today of a major report from the Royal Society on the safety of genetically modified plants in food. It reviews the latest scientific findings from around the world and is expected to address the possibility that GM foods could cause new allergic reactions. Another issue under the microscope is the claim that DNA in GM food can survive the digestive system, with unknown and possibly harmful consequences. Even before the English Nature revelation, there had been claims that the final round of Government GM trials, at sites throughout the UK, would lead to contamination of neighbouring fields. Ministers have been condemned for failing to increase separation distances around the GM sites, despite an admission by Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett that the current distances may not protect neighbouring crops from significant levels of pollution. Campaigners said last night the separation distances for GM oil seed rape trials should be at least three miles, rather than the current 160ft. It was announced yesterday that the Government's independent scientific steering committee has chosen 27 sites for oilseed rape and 17 for sugar and fodder beet. Possible sites for maize, which is sown later in the year, are being assessed and will be announced separately. It is the final year of the Government's three-year, GBP 4 million research programme to assess the environmental impact of GM crops.

 The trials were launched to help ministers assess whether GM varieties should be given the goahead for commercial cultivation.


Rogue GM plant warning

BBC Online Sci/Tech 5 February, 2002

GM crops in Canada are in danger of creating nuisance weeds, says a UK conservation body. New research shows that herbicide-resistant oilseed rape crops are cross-breeding at the edge of fields. The plants are accumulating extra genes and are rapidly becoming resistant to agrochemical sprays, says English Nature. [Pull quote: "Volunteer crops would be harder to control" Brian Johnson, English Nature] It could lead to rogue GM crop plants that are harder to control, warns the government agency, which champions wildlife conservation in Britain. Farmers in Canada are advised to leave a distance of 175 metres (575 feet) between different GM varieties but the guidelines are voluntary. English Nature says genes from different GM varieties are accumulating (gene stacking) in plants that grow from seeds spilled at harvest (volunteer plants).

Weed attack

In the UK, a code of practice for farmers growing GM crops has been developed by the industry body Supply Chain Initiative for Modified Agricultural Crops (Scimac). But Dr Brian Johnson, English Nature's biotechnology advisor, says the guidelines may not be enough. "Our report shows that the Scimac code is probably inadequate to prevent gene stacking happening in Britain, if these crops were commercialised," he said. "The consequences for farmers could be that volunteer crops would be harder to control and they might have to use different, and more environmentally damaging, herbicides to control them."

The environmental group Friends of the Earth says the research shows the UK Government faces a stark choice between siding with industry or the public.

'Third way'

Adrian Bebb, GM campaigner, said: "Either we keep the current separation distances between GM and non-GM crops, in which case contamination and gene stacking looks certain, or we can have an effective separation distance - of at least three miles (5 kilometres) - in which case GM crops have no commercial future in the UK. There is no third way. [Photo caption: [Monarch butterfly (PA)] Monarch butterfly: Potent symbol of GM crop fears] "The government must choose between continuing its support to the biotech industry or backing the British public who have clearly said they don't want GMOs."

The European Commission recently proposed that a threshold of up to 0.7% GM seed should be allowed in batches of conventional crop seed. English Nature is concerned that if this proposal were to be adopted, gene stacking might occur. The report comes a day after the UK's leading body of scientists, the Royal Society, called for stricter safety controls for GM food.


GM food safety checks inadequate, says report

The New Scientist, 04 February 02
James Randerson

The way genetically-modified food is tested for safety in Europe must be improved before any new GM plants are declared fit for human consumption, according to a report by the Royal Society, the UK's foremost scientific society. "The battery of tests should be spelt out much more clearly," says Eric Brunner at University College London and one of the authors of the report. Some animal testing may also be required, he says. The testing regime must be independently scrutinised, recommends the report, so that companies cannot submit selective data about their new GM products. Otherwise, Brunner says: "Companies could carry on generating data until they get the answer they want."

However, the report concludes that there is no reason to doubt the safety of foods made from GM ingredients that are currently available, nor to believe that genetic modification makes foods inherently less safe than their conventional counterparts. The UK Food Standards Agency welcomed the report but said it was "satisfied that the current safety assessment procedures are sufficiently robust and rigorous to ensure that approved GM foods are as safe as their non-GM counterparts". Adrian Bebb of Friends of the Earth believes that the report will add to public scepticism about GM foods. "It confirms the public's suspicions," he says. "But the report leaves lots of questions unanswered."

Blunt instrument

At present, companies must demonstrate that a GM product is 'substantially equivalent' to its conventional version. This is a less rigorous standard than used, for example, in testing new drugs. But the report accepts that using such standards for foods would be impractical, given the complexity of foodstuffs. Also, many traditional foods would fail such tests. The equivalence test compares, for example, protein, carbohydrate and fatty acid levels between the GM and non-GM plants. But there are no clear and universal guidelines over exactly what to test and how similar the two should be. Brunner says different interpretations of the regulations by different countries might leave a regulatory 'back door': "One country should not be used as a fast route into the EU market."

 Such differences of interpretation are already apparent between the EU and the US. For example all products from a herbicide resistant variety of GM oilseed rape developed by Aventis were approved in the US. In the EU, only the processed oil was deemed safe. "Substantial equivalence is a very blunt instrument," says Brunner. "It is a flawed concept if used on its own." Animal testing may be needed to explore particular safety aspects of a new food, he adds.

Allergic reaction

While the report's authors were sceptical about current testing arrangements, they saw no reason to believe that current GM varieties are unsafe. They argue that if were they dangerous, problems would have emerged during widespread consumption in the US. Bebb counters that there has been no post-market monitoring of the long-term health effects of GM ingredients. So problems caused by the foods might have been missed. They also quash fears that engineered genes could incorporate into the human genome via the gut. We eat DNA in our food all the time without any such problems, says Jim Smith, chairman of the Wellcome Cancer Research Campaign Institute in Cambridge, who chaired the report. But the report does recommend that all new foods be tested to see if they cause allergic reactions when particles are inhaled. GM foods are no more likely to trigger such allergies than conventional crops, the report says, but they say that current regulation would miss these lung allergies.

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