Right of Reply

The head of science and ethics at the British Medical Association replies to Steve Connor

STEVE CONNOR is right to subject all "expert" opinion to critical scrutiny, but wrong to accuse the BMA of being out of its depth on environmental issues. It is facile to construct an artificial divide between health and environmental issues. The food we eat, the air we breathe and the water we drink have been central concerns of public health doctors for a century and a half.

The BMA has a strong track record in highlighting the impact of environmental hazards on health. In 1992, we challenged the orthodoxy of the agrochemical industry by advocating minimisation of pesticide use. That is now mainstream opinion.

We are emphatically not in the business of raising unnecessary alarm, but we would argue that new technologies, especially if their effects may be irreversible, should be required to show that they are safe and that they are necessary.

There is a world of difference between claiming that there is no evidence of harm, and demonstrating that something is safe. Unfortunately, it is a very short step for a spin doctor. The BMA has not said that GM foods or GM crops are harmful, but we are quite some way from the necessary level of scientific consensus that would make their widespread use acceptable. Unless GM and non-GM foods are clearly segregated and labelled, we will not be able to conduct the rigorous health surveillance that the Government accepts is necessary.

The BMA has argued for an open-ended moratorium on the commercial planting of GM crops to allow data from the trial sites to be properly assessed. Why the need for haste? A central principle of medical ethics is primum non nocere - first do no harm. It is a principle that ministers would do well to embrace.

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