26 June 1998


GENETIC modification in agriculture is justified by its proponents on two main points. First, it is argued that only GM crops can meet the needs of the worlds ever-expanding population in a sustainable and environmentally friendly manner.

That claim is unproven whereas studies have shown, with better management of resources and minimal chemical inputs, yields from land in developing countries can be tripled using conventional crops.

A second more fundamental justification of GM is that it represents a natural extension of traditional breeding methods, only it is more precise and safer.

Many have expressed doubts. Prof Philip James, Food Standards Agency advisor, warns that: "The perception that everything is totally straightforward and safe is utterly naive. I dont think we fully understand the dimensions of what were getting into." These reservations are at odds with what one hears from MAFF and the biotechnology industry.

Genes, the inherited blueprints of life, exist and work in groups as an integrated whole within an organism. Breeding between closely related forms of life exchanges variations of the same genes in their natural groupings, thereby bringing out the best or desired traits that have been finely tuned to work harmoniously together by millions of years of evolution. Even this however can have its problems such as Moulin wheat.

In contrast, GM allows the isolation and transfer of only one or a few genes between unrelated organisms. GM plants and animals start life in a laboratory where artificial units of foreign genetic material are randomly inserted into the host which, to a lesser or greater degree, always disrupts natural genetic order and function. Also, GM brings about combinations of genes that would never occur naturally.

The artificial nature of GM does not automatically make it dangerous. It is the imprecise way in which genes are combined and the unpredictability in how the foreign gene will behave that results in uncertainty. In a post-BSE era, it should be logical to think twice about using a technology that blatantly violates well established natural boundaries. But people are rushing into the field with a badly thought through technology.

GM crops have produced very variable yields. A US company is paying millions of dollars in compensation to cotton farmers after severe crop failures. Crops engineered to produce their own pesticide not only kill pests but also natural predators such as ladybirds, lacewings and pollinators.

In the long term, GM is incompatible with low-input, sustainable farming methods such as integrated crop management. According to the NFUs Biotechnology Working Group: "In general, it can be said that scientists do not have a complete understanding of natural ecosystems. It is therefore impossible to predict accurately the effects of large scale releases of genetically modified organisms."

The only safe use of GM in its current form would appear to be clinical applications which by nature and necessity do not result in the intentional release of viable GM organisms into the environment.

Consumer pressure has forced processors and retailers to resource raw materials to ensure a full range of GM-free products. Imports into the EU of GM soya, maize and oilseed rape from North America have already suffered substantially.

So, by staying GM-free the UK will not only avoid the inevitable health, farming and environmental problems which basic science and mounting evidence tells us will arise, but also enjoy a premium and security in the market.

Feelings about

genetically modified

crops have been

running high. Better to

be safe than sorry and

stay GM-free, advises

Dr Michael Antoniou

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