French researchers are spearheading an initiative to get governments and international organisations to impose a moratorium on the release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into the environment.
Launching the appeal for a halt to the marketing of GMOs, Jean-Marie Pelt of Metz University warned: "The presentation of GMO experiments as being very simple, perfectly safe, totally efficient and without side-effects, hides many aspects of the problem which must be dealt with."
Dr Pelt, who is head of the Institut European d'Ecologie, insisted that the "building-block" concept of genetic engineering "exists only in the mind" and does not take into account the complexity of reality.
The text of the appeal emphasises that at present, "science is unable to anticipate and predict with any certainty the behaviour and effects of GMOs" and warns that once GMOs have been released into the environment "they can never be brought back under control again".
"Among the risks connected to GMO release are migration, mutation and uncontrolled multiplication," warns the text, which calls for a moratorium until "socio-economic, health and environmental implications have been evaluated and regulations drawn up for appropriate monitoring and controls".
The text says that "in spite of the exponential growth of biotechnology, there is still a serious lack of 'biosafe' research and teaching infrastructures, a lack of impact studies and of safety measures".
Some 50 French researchers and a similar number of colleagues from other European countries have signed the appeal so far. Among British biologists signing the appeal are Richard Lacey of Leeds University, Jacqueline McGlade of Warwick, Brian Goodwin and Jonathan Silvertown, both of the Open University.
The text is now being circulated with the hope that many more signatures will be collected.
Regis Courtecuisse, research director at Lille University's pharmacology faculty, said: "All of the initiators of this appeal are now actively looking for new signatures. It is the first time I have got involved with the issue of GMOs. I am worried about the ecological implications."
"Perhaps we have reacted more slowly on this issue in France, but I think what has spurred this initiative is the current forcing through of genetically modified products by industry," he added.
The appeal has been drawn from a statement by scientists at a conference in Penang in April 1995. The French branch of an environmental organisation, Ecoropa, has played a key role in publicising and helping organise the researchers' initiative.
According to its spokesman Etienne Vernet, there was an extremely rapid response. "It shows that France needed a discussion on this issue. There has been no real debate since GMO releases were first authorised and the current legislation does not ensure that valid conclusions about the consequences of GMO releases are found before the go-ahead is given," he said.
"France is a Cartesian country with an uncritical view of science and no tradition of debate on the implications of science."
However, this initiative suggests that scientists here were ready to make a stand, it was just a question of the right opportunity," Mr Vernet argued.