Science review uncovers GM angst

July 25, 2003

Research into genetic modification is at a crossroads after the publication of the first report of the independent GM science review this week.

The report by a panel of experts has found no scientific case for ruling out all GM crops and their products, but nor does it give them blanket approval.

Carlo Leifert of the Tesco Centre of Organic Agriculture, University of Newcastle, called for restraint by the government and biotech companies. He resigned from the review panel a month ago.

Professor Leifert said the main reason for his resignation "was that the underlying review process was coming up with a message that there was nothing to worry about in GM. But I felt there were too many issues being ignored."

He added: "We should be doing tests on GM because it is a completely new technology. We can't really afford another 20-year human trial. That's why we're getting rid of pesticides now."

The review says: "There is a clear need for the science community to do more research in a number of areas, for companies to make good choices in terms of transgene design and plant hosts, and to develop products that meet wider societal wishes."

But public distrust of GM is already having an impact on research in the UK. Mark Harvey of the Centre for Research and Innovation and Competition, and co-author of Exploring The Tomato , said: "The real danger is that because of the prominence in the public mind of GM food in Europe, there has been a dramatic decline in research in these areas."

Review panellist Michael Reiss of the Institute of Education at the University of London called for universities to increase research on the social impact of GM crops. He said: "It's classic social science research - how would farmers react to GM? Some farms will become more intensively farmed using this technology, but alongside that I would expect to see growth in the organic farming movement."

Additional research funding will depend on the outcome of the government's consultation process, which is looking at scientific knowledge, public concerns and the economic case for GM. A decision on GM policy is not expected until at least the end of the year. Public comments on the science review will be considered when the panel reconvenes after October 15.

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