Cancer expert says GM crops can be healthier

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The Independent Online

One of Britain's leading geneticists has attacked Lord Melchett, executive director of Greenpeace, for demanding absolute proof that genetically modified (GM) crops are safe.

Sir Walter Bodmer, principal of Hertford College, Oxford, and a world authority on human genetics, also accuses the Soil Association of being"utterly irrational" when it excludes GM plants in its definition of organic farming.

Sir Walter, a former director of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund and one of the founders of the international human genome project, criticises Lord Melchett for saying to a House of Lords inquiry that uncertainties over GM can never be eliminated because absolute proof is not in the nature of science.

"Lord Melchett's response smacks of blind fanaticism. It is totally alien to the sort of rational argument and discussion that I believe most of us would like to see in order to achieve the greatest benefit with the least risk from these new technologies," Sir Walter says in an article published today.

"There is no such thing as zero risk. The only sure things for a living person are that they were born and that they will die," he says. Sir Walterargues that GM technology is little different to the way farmers have bred conventional crops for thousands of years.

"Many natural sources of plant food are toxic without treatment or selective breeding, a process carried out by conventional agriculture over thousand of years," Sir Walter says in the magazine Science and Public Affairs. "It is much more likely that there is a risk from newly introduced crops than from genetic manipulation of known crops. The greatest ecological catastrophes have occurred through the introduction of alien species," he says.

Sir Walter decided to speak out because of his knowledge of genetics and evolution. "This is an area where I've got no commercial or academic interests. I talk entirely from the point of view of a geneticist," he told The Independent. He is particularly scathing about the Soil Association's decision to eliminate GM crops from its definition of "organic" farming. "This is completely and utterly irrational, reflecting an extraordinary prejudice for an apparently respectable organisation."

By transferring the genes for nitrogen fixation - the ability to convert nitrogen in the atmosphere into nitrates for plants - GM technology offers to reduce the dependency of farmers on artificial fertilisers, Sir Walter says. "One would have thought that would be important for the organic farmer."

Arguments that GM crops are likely to transmit alien genes to wild plants are not supported by the evidence of conventionally bred crops, which often contain quite different combinations of genes to those found in the wild.

"Domesticated cereals have been cultivated alongside their wild progenitors in Israel for thousands of years without apparent problems. Why should there be any greater likelihood of gene transfer from a genetically manipulated crop than from one produced by conventional breeding?" Sir Walter says.

"How ironic that Friends of the Earth should welcome a conventionally bred pestresistant oil seed rape when it probably has more unknown consequences than its genetically manipulated counterpart," he says.