GM deluge threatens UK
Can Britain's regulatory system deal with applications for the development of new foods using unprecedented combinations of genes? "Yes," says Janet Bainbridge, chair of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food's Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes.
Bainbridge, of Teesside University, chairs one of several bodies overseeing the use of genetically modified material. As well as the ACNFP, there is the Department of the Environment's Advisory Committee on Releases into the Environment, which advises ministers on field trials of GM crops. There is also the Health and Safety Executive's Advisory Committee on Genetic Modification, which deals with laboratory use of GM material.
Perhaps also relevant are MAFF's Food Advisory Committee, whose remit includes "giving advice to ministers on the labelling, composition and chemical safety of food"; the Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment; and the Committee on Medical Aspects of Food Policy. The Food Standards Agency may subsume all of these.
In Europe there is a Standing Committee on Foodstuffs and two scientific committees - one on food, one on plants - that deal with GM substances.
Under the European regulatory system, GM foods have first to be submitted to the competent authority (in Britain's case, ACRE or ACNFP) for approval; if that is granted, other countries have the chance to object. Enforcement, however, is a weak regulatory link. Last month Monsanto and the seed producer Perryfield Holdings were fined Pounds 17,000 and Pounds 14,000 for not providing a sufficiently wide barrier between an experimental GM crop and surrounding crops in a prosecution brought by the HSE.
There are seven HSE inspectors, but an HSE spokesperson admits that "in reality" funding pays for just six months' work by one inspector: "We work as hard as we can until the money runs out."