4 June 1999

Moral case for GMcrops, says bioethics group

THERE is a compelling moral imperative to develop genetically modified crops to help combat world hunger, according to a report by the bioethics council of independent research charity the Nuffield organisation.

But the council, comprising leading theologians, scientists and philosophers, adds that new measures are needed to minimise risks and to realise any benefits that GM crops may offer.

And while it believes a ban on GM foods or a moratorium on commercial plantings is unwarranted, it calls for a wider assessment of the possible impact on the environment.

"Genetic modification may lead to significant changes in farming practices and the environment and it is necessary to develop new regulations to guide the development of GM technology in the UK," says the report.

"Field trials and limited commercial planting should be allowed to continue with close monitoring, but there is a need for a broader approach to the potential problems arising from such technology," the council says.

That should include an assessment of the overall effect of plantings, rather than assessing each as a single case and better risk/benefit assessment procedures and post-release monitoring, it recommends.

The report points out that vitamin-enriched or drought-resistant crops could make a vital impact in combating world hunger and malnutrition.

It says: "GM crops might produce more food, or more employment income with which to obtain food, for those who need it most urgently. More food for the hungry is a strong ethical counterweight to set against the concerns over GM crops."

But there is an urgent need to direct more GM research at the food staples of developing countries, such as white maize or cassava, rather than just at Western crops.

And it warns that there are dangers if an entire crop is controlled by a single company and calls on international plant and patent offices to avoid granting broad patents that could lead to monopoly suppliers.

Alan Ryan, chairman of the bioethics council working party, says: "Getting the benefits of GM crops and avoiding the dangers cant be left to the marketplace alone. Intelligent government regulation is needed as well.

"We think that GM crops are not intrinsically morally suspect. But we recognise that many people do believe it is unnatural, and anyone who believes GM food is unnatural and immoral should be able to avoid it." &#42