Rules on genetics 'are too cautious': Scientists question Lords conclusions on safety

PLANTS and animals whose genes have been altered in the laboratory should be released in to the environment with much less hindrance from government safety inspectors, according to a controversial report from the House of Lords.

The Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology also recommended yesterday that food containing genetically engineered organisms should not be labelled to tell consumers what they were eating.

According to the report, the biotechnology industry in Britain is being handicapped because regulations to control genetic engineering in the UK are stricter than those in Japan and the United States. It described the regulations as 'excessively precautionary', 'obsolescent', and 'unscientific'.

But its conclusions were criticised by two eminent scientists with expert knowledge of the new biotechnology. Professor John Beringer, chairman of the Department of the Environment's Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, said that the burden on industry was already being relieved by simplifying administrative procedures, rather than by dismantling regulations.

Mark Williamson, Professor of Biology at the University of York, said his evidence might have been misunderstood by the committee. 'My position is that I agree with the Department of the Environment that caution is needed. There is a risk, a small risk, posed by the release of genetically manipulated organisms into the environment, and we ought to take it cautiously.'

He took particular issue with the claim that genetic engineering was safer than traditional plant breeding because it was more precise. 'A lot of molecular biologists say 'it's safer because we know where we are putting a gene'. But with higher plants and animals, you simply don't: with plants you blast the genes in,' he pointed out.

The existing regulations were put in place following an exhaustive investigation by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution in 1989.

But Lord Howie, chairman of the select committee, said yesterday that 'all the evidence we got led us to the conclusion that the Royal Commission had been unduly cautious. We thought the British regulations have ignored scientific opinion as it has developed; we want the regulations to be science-based rather than anything else'.

Although release of genetically modified organisms into the environment is also controlled by a European Community directive, Lord Howie said that 'Belgium implements the regulations in a flexible manner. France is flexible too'.

Professor Beringer said that the Department of the Environment and other departments had held a meeting with the biotechnology industry three weeks ago to try to speed up safety assessments. Simplified procedures are being put in place so that in cases where the science was well understood and there was no safety hazard, a definite ruling could be delivered within 30 days of an application being made, whereas in difficult cases, it might take up to 90 days.

Regulation of the United Kingdom Biotechnology Industry and Global Competitiveness, House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology 7th Report, HL Paper 80; HMSO; pounds 21.00.