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British Doctors caution on GM products

by Chakravarthi Raghavan


Geneva, 20 May -- The British Medical Association (BMA) have called for the publication of the precautionary principle and for continuance of the moratorium on commercial planting of Genetically Modified crops or consumption of products until further research on risk factors.

They have also called for a ban on the use of anti-biotic marker genes (used in the biotech industry to 'engineer' and implant, by a random process, genes from one species into cells of another) in GM food

The BMA, with a membership of over 119,000 doctors, and acting through its Board of Science and Education has since 1990, been taking a sustained interest in the environmental impact of agricultural practices, and has produced an interim statement now on a raging controversy on GM products (with normal varieties mixed with GM ones) put on sale in markets, and the consumer resistance and campaign.

The full report of the BMA's interim statement and recommendations are in a report available on sale at the BMA bookshops in the UK, while the introduction and recommendations are on BMA web pages: <http://www.bma.org.uk/public/science/genmod.htm> (Click here  for the statement).

In their recommendations, the BMA says that the precautionary principle should be applied in developing genetically modified crops or foodstuffs, "as we cannot at present know whether there are any serious risks to the environment or to human health involved in producing GM crops or consuming GM food products."

"Adverse effects," the BMA says, "are likely to be irreversible; once GMOs are released into the environment they cannot be subject to control. It is therefore essential that release does not take place until the level of scientific certainty is sufficient to make the risk acceptable.

"This will require a comprehensive cost/benefit and health impact assessment, comparing genetic modification with other forms of agricultural engineering."

"Careful consideration needs to be given to the effect of GMOs on farming practices, the countryside and wildlife and we therefore recommend a moratorium on the commercial planting of GM crops in the UK."

"The moratorium should continue until there is scientific consensus (or as close agreement as reasonably achievable) about the potential long-term environmental effects.

GM foodstuffs, the BMA says, should be segregated at source, to enable identification and traceability of GM products.

"This is important as there are considerable doubts about the behaviour of GMOs once they are released into the environment, and this will also facilitate monitoring in the interests of public health. It is unacceptable that at present some GM and non-GM products are mixed at source, and are not adequately labelled."

"If the biotechnology industry persists with its stance of mixing GM and non-GM products, the BMA report recommends, "the Food Standards Agency should consider banning imports of such products (until such time that possible hazards, if any, have been identified) or insist that such products are labelled to indicate that there is no guarantee that products are GM free.

On the planting of GM seeds for crops, the BMA says that the regulatory committee approved standard separation distance between GM and non-GM crops should be reviewed in the light of new research on the risks of cross pollination.

Within a species gene transfers take place "vertically" - from parent to progeny. More rarely, there are also "horizontal" transfers, sometimes with mutations. But such transfers take place within a species. There is no horizontal transfers across species, and the genetic engineering involves this, and ways to overcome the immune systems response to the foreign gene or other material invading a cell.

The entire bio-engineering technology involves horizontal transfer of genes, across species -- which is not possible by normal natural processes. To promote such a transfer, and transplanting genes of one species into another, bio-tech firms usually use viruses, and other bacterial pathogens, in theory after making them inert, as marker genes and "shoot them" into the cells of other species into which the new gene is sought to be implanted. But the entire process is a random one - since there is no way the foreign gene can be implanted at any particular spot in the chain. A number of eminent scientists have expressed some concern that marker or anti-biotic resistant genes used can produce unforeseen results, including creation or spread of anti-biotic resistant viruses, and have been hazarding the view that this is one of the reasons why a number of old diseases have come back in virulent forms.

In a reference to this, the BMA says that "there should be a ban on the use of antibiotic resistance marker genes in GM food, as the risk to human health from antibiotic resistance developing in micro-organisms is one of the major public health threats that will be faced in the 21st Century. The risk that antibiotic resistance may be passed on to bacteria affecting human beings, through marker genes in the food chain, is one that cannot at present be ruled out." Due to the potential scale of use of GM material in the environment and in the food chain, there is a need for a considerable strengthening of the UK disease surveillance systems, both in their scope and depth, says the BMA. Disease surveillance and even monitoring procedures will need to be sufficiently robust to deal with the potential emergence of new diseases associated with GM material which will be obscure and difficult to diagnose.

The risk that GM crops may increase the use of herbicides and pesticides in the environment needs to be comprehensively assessed to determine their full environmental impact.

"Biotechnology companies must provide satisfactory evidence that such chemical use will not increase -- otherwise the use of such GM crops must be regarded as being environmentally unacceptable."

The BMA is concerned that while genetically modified foodstuffs could contribute substantially to improving nutrition and health (not only because good nutrition leads to good health but because vaccinations could be carried out through administration of GM foods), further research needs to be conducted on the possible health risks of GM foods consumption.

"In particular further research is needed on the mechanisms of allergic reaction to GM products and the health risks arising from antibiotic resistance.

There should be more long-term research into the environmental effects of GMOs -- in particular to consider the cumulative effect of GMOs in the environment and the food chain and the fate of metabolic (or digestive) transgenic DNA in animals and human beings.

The BMA has called, as a matter of urgency and priority, for vesting statutory power to the UK Food Standards Agency, so that it could consider the wider and long-term implications of GM food on human health. This statutory power will provide for greater regulatory coherence than the current case by case approach to GMO production and consumption, and provide a single reference point for research on all aspects of the food chain, from 'plough to plate'. The inclusion of medical experts in existing and new advisory committees is essential.

Once a scientific consensus is reached on the safety of GM crop planting, the Food Standards Agency should introduce new regulatory controls to conduct post-release monitoring and surveillance of commercially grown GM crops. Comprehensive health and environmental impact assessments should be applied to all GM crop site applications, and be open to public scrutiny. Evidence of safety submitted by Biotechnology companies should be openly presented and subject to critical peer review.

"Commercial secrecy should not take precedence to openness of information in matters relating to public health," the BMA insists.

Breaches of crop site regulations should be met with appropriate fiscal measures. In particular, fines for companies which ignore legally required risk control measures should be of a sufficient nature to act as an effective deterrent.

Referring to the problems of Third World countries, the BMA says that "regulatory procedures in the Third World should be as rigorous as those in developed nations in order to prevent companies escaping legal constraints."

There should be a co-ordinated effort by industries and governments worldwide to ensure that the regulations and provisions affecting GM products do not favour the developed countries at the expense of other more vulnerable developing nations. Export of GM foods to developing countries should be carefully monitored to ensure that packaging, labelling and possible environmental consequences are fully regulated.

"The UK Government should consult with European and other governments to support a review of the World Trade Agreement to ensure that governments rather than companies determine whether countries accept with, or without restrictions, the importation and use of GM seeds, plants or foods," the BMA said.

Identifying consumer choice as an area of public concern, the BMA recommends that "Governments should ensure that non-genetically modified foods continue to be widely available and affordable to consumers, and that GM foods are labelled in a consistent and understandable manner."

"More information on new scientific technologies, especially developments in biotechnology, should be made available to the public."

This should include information about the costs and benefits in terms of health, the environment, the economy and other social considerations.

The Government and the biotechnology industry should not ignore public concerns, and must seek to allay fears through greater dialogue, effective consultation and transparency of information.

This should include a centralised information service for public enquiries relating to GMOs, and an easily accessible database of trial crop site consents, and research evidence. Unless public confidence over GM crops and GM food is considerably enhanced, there is a danger that medical biotechnological advances will be similarly rejected by the public, at great cost to medical progress. (SUNS4439)

* Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Chief Editor of the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) in which the above article first appeared.

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