UK to fight European embargo on GM corn

Britain will try to break a five-year Europe-wide moratorium on new GM foods tomorrow by attempting to give the go-ahead for a modified sweetcorn to be put on sale to shoppers. But The Independent on Sunday can reveal that an official report shows the corn has not been properly tested for safety.

The move to approve the sweetcorn - developed by the biotech firm Syngenta and incorporating an insecticide - will be made by a European Union committee. The Food Standards Agency, which represents Britain on the committee, is pushing for it to be given the green light, against the wishes of environment and agriculture ministers.

No new GM foods have been approved for consumers anywhere in the EU since 1998, when a moratorium was imposed. But the Bush administration has campaigned against the halt, and the approval of the sweetcorn - codenamed Bt11 - is seen as a "symbolic gesture" to appease the United States.

Ministers are reluctant to give the go-ahead at a time when they have promised to consider the results of the Government's own consultation of the public this summer before taking action: the consultation showed that only 8 per cent of Britons would gladly eat GM food. But the FSA - which has been widely criticised for being pro-GM and anti-organic produce - is defying them, taking the view that it can see no reason not to approve the modified food.

The agency's position, however, is exploded by the report, which concludes that safety testing of GM foods - including the sweetcorn - has been sporadic, non-existent, or based on assumptions that cannot be verified. The report - Toxikologie und Allergologie von GVO-Produkten - is the result of a study "to investigate the practice of safety evaluation" carried out by the Austrian government, and is relevant to Britain because the tests and approval process are carried out on an EU-wide basis. The study focused on 11 applications covering maize, beet, potato, oilseed rape, cotton and carnations, as well as the Bt11 sweetcorn.

It says that tests for toxicity of GM products are "carried out rather sporadically". Not one of the applications made by biotech firms for approval of the proposed foods and plants provided information on the toxicity of the whole product, and most of such tests as had been carried out "cannot be verified or reviewed". It goes on: "GM products are very often declared as being safe just by assumption-based reasoning" but adds that "these assumptions are sometimes not easily, or not at all, verifiable". Meanwhile systematic "risk-assessment procedures" for the applications are "lacking".

Checking for "potentially allergic properties" of the products, one of the main concerns surrounding GM foods, is even more deficient. Here, the report reveals "no direct testing ... was carried out". Such indirect evidence as was assembled was "insufficient", and some of the scientific references provided to "confirm the safety of the products ... are cited wrongly, or are outdated, or are even suspected to be selectively quoted".

In the absence of proper testing, biotech companies have traditionally relied merely on asserting that GM foods are "substantially equivalent" to their non-GM counterparts, and regulatory authorities have waved them through on that basis.

But the Austrian government report shows that the applications - including the one for the sweetcorn to be considered tomorrow - fail even this undemanding requirement. It says that the concept is used "to argue for the safety" of every GM product it considered, but added: "The parameters chosen ... are not comprehensive enough to justify substantial equivalence and/or to detect probable unintended secondary effects."

Pete Riley, of Friends of the Earth, said last night: "The report clearly shows that safety testing is a sham. Yet the Food Standards Agency is over-ruling ministers by planning to give this new GM food the go-ahead.

"The agency was set up on the basis of putting the consumer first and should respect the clearly expressed view of the British people rather than flouting them in favour of its own prejudices." The FSA declined to comment.

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