FRANKENFOODS The truth at last

FRANKENFOODS The truth at last

Norfolk Genetic Information Network (ngin),

Geoffrey Lean
"Mr Blair should now follow the public he has so long misled and end
this dangerous experiment with a hazardous and unwanted technology
before it is too late."
DAILY MAIL (London) February 6, 2002
FRANKENFOODS The truth at last
Geoffrey Lean

FORGET all those bland
reassurances about the safety of GM foods and crops. Ignore
all those patronising experts and Government ministers who
have long insisted that the public has been irrational to
suspect them. Two reports from the heart of the scientific
establishment now reveal that the British people were right
to have been worried. Housewives and their families turned
against the so-called Frankenstein foods years ago,
refusing to buy them. The supermarkets followed suit
quickly, taking them off their shelves. This is likely to
be recorded as the week in which those who are supposed to
govern and guide us finally begin to abandon GM foods too.

Already ministers are edging away from the technology,
which the Prime Minister once adopted almost as a personal
crusade, and are increasingly talking up organic
agriculture. Last week the official Curry Commision, set up
at the height of the foot- and-mouth epidemic to review
British farming, strongly backed chemical-free agriculture.
It also called for the public's fears on GM crops to be
'respected'. Ministers welcomed the report and called for
an independent debate on GM technology before any decision
was taken to grow the crops commercially. This week's
reports - one from the Government's official wildlife
watchdog, the other from Britain's principal scientific
body - are bound to accelerate the retreat. They confirm
that the two main concerns about the technology - first
raised by the Daily Mail more than three years ago - are
real. Genes have, as feared, escaped in pollen from GM
crops, creating 'super weeds' which are resistant to
herbicides; and GM foods - which Mr Blair said he was happy
to feed his children - may indeed damage human health. Lord
Melchett, who was arrested for uprooting GM crops, calls
the reports a 'breakthrough' and Peter Ainsworth, the
shadow environment secretary, says they show the Government
must 'put caution first'. The first report, by English
Nature, bluntly concludes that it is 'inevitable' that
super weeds will emerge in Britain if GM oilseed rape is
grown here. A Canadian Government study found them at every
site examined and discovered that the GM genes 'travelled'
more than 730 metres from the crops. This makes a nonsense
of Britain's safety precautions, which allow for a gap of
only 50 metres between GM rape and other crops. But,
alarmingly, the report adds that the genes spread so
readily that even multiplying this distance many
times over will do little to reduce the danger. It
concludes that the contamination 'is almost impossible to
prevent unless the crops are very widely dispersed'. It can
say that again. Studies carried out by the National Pollen
Research Unit for the Soil Association suggest that genes
from oilseed rape could travel four miles, not just
creating super weeds but endangering organic agriculture.

Organic farmers say they cannot coexist with GM
technology, and that the public would be denied the chance
to buy uncontaminated food if such crops were grown widely
in Britain. And that is not the only danger. Once the super
weeds get established, the
report says, only highly toxic chemicals will get rid of
them. The Canadians still use 2,4D, an ingredient of the
infamous herbicide Agent Orange that was used in Vietnam
and is banned in Britain.

The second report is, if
anything, even more remarkable. It comes from the Royal
Society which has been one of the most ardent proponents of
GM technology in Britain. In 1998 it produced a report
extolling its potential benefits for 'agriculture, food
quality, nutrition and health'. But now it has evidently had
second thoughts. A working group of
the society, including some leading GM supporters, now
reluctantly concludes that the foods may damage health
after all. It continues to insist that 'there is no reason
to doubt the safety of foods made from GM ingredients that
are currently available' but adds that the technology could
'lead to unpredicted harmful changes' in ingredients put
into infant foods or given to pregnant or breastfeeding
women in future. And it adds that introducing a new gene
into a plant could 'induce allergic reactions' in sensitive
people. Even more disturbingly, the Royal Society questions
the system used in Britain to determine whether GM foods
are safe. This has long been attacked by critics as being
specifically designed to avoid testing them. If GM foods
are similar to non-GM ones in a limited way - such as the
amounts of fibre and fatty acids, proteins, carbohydrates,
vitamins and minerals they contain - it is simply assumed
that the chemical and genetic differences will not make
them more toxic. The authorities declare them to be
'substantially equivalent' to non-GM foods and wave them
through. But the Royal Society, which is calling for the
system to be tightened, now admits that this may not reveal
'any unexpected effects of genetic modification'. This
change of heart is long overdue. Both the scientific
establishment and the Government have been complacent about
the risks of GM technology. It is scandalous that such a
slapdash method of checking for health dangers has been
allowed to persist for so long. But the Government's
attitude to testing for the spread of genes to create
'super weeds' and contaminate other crops has been almost
as negligent. Ministers have sugested time and again that
'farm-scale trials' - where scores of fields have been
split between GM and non-GM crops - would provide
conclusive evidence on their safety. But the trials were
not designed to look at whether genes escape, but at the
effect different ways of using pesticides on the two crops
had on wildlife. No wonder Environment Minister Michael
Meacher admitted last week that the Government does not
have high credibility' on GM issues and 'needs to listen' to
the public. As the reports reveal, it should have done so a
long time ago. Mr Blair should now follow the public he has
so long misled and end this dangerous experiment with a
hazardous and unwanted technology before it is too late.

GEOFFREY LEAN is an award-winning writer on the environment.

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