GM debate could hinder crop research

February 26, 1999

The furore over genetically modified food will lead to an "unofficial slowdown" whether or not a moratorium is introduced, a leading scientist will tell a Dundee University conference on the consumer and food today.

Howard Davies, head of cellular and environmental physiology at the Scottish Crop Research Institute, said the heated public debate in the wake of claims that GM foods may cause damage to rats' health would probably mean more money being ploughed into the risk assessment of these foods and less commercial planting of GM crops.

He doubts, however, that any answers on the safety of GM foods for consumers or the environment will come quickly. "I remain unconvinced that we would have all the answers should a three-year moratorium be imposed," he said.

Professor Davies serves on the European Scientific Committee, which assesses applications from commercial companies for producing GM crops, and was a member of the Rowett Research Institute's audit committee, which reviewed Arpad Pusztai's controversial findings of damage to rats. He said of that debate: "Any scientist who has a finding that is contentious has to be 100 per cent sure of the facts before going to the press."

The Royal Society this week announced it was forming an independent expert group to look at toxicity and allerginicity related to GM foods. This will include assessing the Pusztai data. Aaron Klug, president of the society, told a meeting of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee: "In view of the many misleading commentsI we are setting up an expert group. I would stress that premature, partial or selective release of unsubstantiated research only serves to mislead the general public in a complex area." He said the government was right not to "be bullied into abandoning GMOs by emotion".

His views were mirrored by a group of 19 Royal Society Fellows, including the director of Kew Gardens, Sir Ghillean Prance, and Oxford University's Roy Anderson, who wrote to national newspapers this week.

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