Top scientists urge more caution over GM crops

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The Independent Online

A distinguished panel of scientists has warned that international standards for the testing of genetically modified food are "scientifically unjustifiable" and called for a far more cautious attitude to approving GM crops.

A distinguished panel of scientists has warned that international standards for the testing of genetically modified food are "scientifically unjustifiable" and called for a far more cautious attitude to approving GM crops.

An extensive investigation by the Royal Society of Canada, the country's foremost scientific body, has concluded that "the mere absence of evidence" that genetic modification can damage human health or the environment does not justify allowing GM products to reach the food chain.

The report says there has been insufficient research into potential allergic effects or toxicity. GM foods could pose "serious risks to human health, of extensive, irremediable disruption for the natural ecosystems or of serious diminution of biodiversity".

Chief among the 53 recommendations is that a fundamental testing standard, also used in Britain to assess whether to license GM food, should be abandoned immediately because it offers inadequate protection to health.

The panel calls for a far more "conservative" approach to approving GM food and warns that approval of GM products "with these potentially serious risks" should not be given unless scientists are absolutely sure that they can rule out such "potentially catastrophic risks" through testing.

Its damning report is likely to put pressure on the Government urgently to reassess the British testing standards.

Professor Conrad Brunk, chairman of the panel of scientists, said: "When it comes to human and environmental safety there should be clear evidence of the absence of risks - the mere absence of evidence is not enough."

Ministers and British scientists have been closely observing developments in North America, where GM crops have been widely grown commercially for years.

Tim Yeo, the Conservative agriculture spokesman, said: "If they are coming to these conclusions about the risks of GM food it raises disturbing questions for Britain and Europe. This puts the whole GM debate in a new light."

The Royal Society report also raises serious concerns about the scientific community's close links to the biotechnology industry.

It expresses concerns about "the undermining of the scientific basis of risk regulation" because of the "increasing domination of the research agenda by private corporate interest".

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