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British scientists turn on GM food

Paul Brown, environment correspondent
Tuesday February 5, 2002
The Guardian

British scientists turn on GM food

The potential health effects of genetically modified foods should be rigorously investigated before allowing them into baby food or to be marketed to pregnant or breast feeding women, the elderly, and those with chronic disease, the Royal Society said yesterday. The scientists were also concerned that the new generation of GM crops might cause allergies, particularly among farmers or workers in the food industry. A report published yesterday marked a shift by the country’s most eminent scientific body from its positive report on GM food in 1998, and is expected to influence the government’s position.

The society said there were no known health effects from the GM foods on the market, but GM technology “could lead to unpredicted harmful changes in the nutritional state of foods”. So far no baby food containing GM products has been submitted for approval, but the society recommended that any that were should be referred to the scientific advisory committee on nutrition before they were allowed on the market.

Jim Smith, who introduced the report, said infants eating baby foods were particularly vulnerable, because they had such a narrow diet. If there were any nutritional deficiencies in the food – for example fewer fatty acids – health would suffer, particularly infant bowel function. Small nutritional changes could lead to bowel obstruction.

Professor Smith was also concerned for any group with restricted diets – for example the poor of central America, who have maize as 50% of their food – whose health might be affected by poorer nutritional standards in the new crops.

There were no known GM health effects, the scientists emphasized, and there was still the potential for improved nutrition from GM crops, although none had yet been commercially developed.

The scientists were concerned at what is known as the rule of substantial equivalence, which the US authorities had employed in many cases to decide that a GM product did not need testing because it was substantially equivalent to an existing food. The report said this might disguise the presence of unknown toxins, anti-nutrients, or allergens, and should not be accepted in the UK or the rest of Europe where rigorous testing should apply.

A second blow to the GM food industry yesterday came from English Nature, which showed that a generation of super weeds was developing in Canada. Weeds in field margins or some distance from GM crops “stacked up” genes from modified crops and themselves became resistant to a series of herbicides.

These “volunteer” weeds that collected GM genes were an alarming development, meaning the distances between GM crops and ordinary crops sown in the UK were not large enough to prevent cross pollination, according to the government’s nature watchdog. In Canada these weeds are resistant to several widely used herbicides, with farmers regularly resorting to old herbicides to control them. In effect they are on the road to being nuisance weeds.

Brian Johnson, English Nature’s biotechnology adviser, said: “The distance code is probably inadequate to prevent gene stacking in Britain. The consequences for farmers could be that ‘volunteer’ crops would be harder to control and they might have to use different, and more environmentally damaging, herbicides.”

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