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Health risks of genetically modified foods 

Editorial / The Lancet, V. 353, N. 9167  29may99

[More on Green Revolution]

Crops genetically modified to have reduced susceptibility to pests are promoted as a solution to low food yields in developing countries. The motive of these promoters is profit, not altruism. Monsanto, one of the largest developers of genetically modified crops, has developed a grain that gives an improved crop and is sterile, so instead of keeping back some seeds for the next year's sowing, farmers must return to the supplier for more.

In view of this unbridled commercial approach to genetic modification, it is perhaps not surprising that companies have paid little evident attention to the potential hazards to health of genetically modified foods. But it is astounding that the US Food and Drug Administration has not changed their stance on genetically modified food adopted in 1992 (http://vm.cfsan.fda.gov/~lrd/fr92529b.html ). They announced in January this year, "FDA has not found it necessary to conduct comprehensive scientific reviews of foods derived from bioengineered plants . . . consistent with its 1992 policy". The policy is that genetically modified crops will receive the same consideration for potential health risks as any other new crop plant. This stance is taken despite good reasons to believe that specific risks may exist.

For instance, antibiotic-resistance genes are used in some genetically modified plants as a marker of genetic transformation. Despite repeated assurances that the resistance genes cannot spread from the plant, many commentators believe this could happen. Of greater concern is the effect of the genetic modification itself on the food. Potatoes have been engineered with a gene from the snowdrop to produce an agglutinin which may reduce susceptibility to insects. In April last year, a scientist, Arpad Pusztai, from the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, UK, unwisely announced on television that experiments had shown intestinal changes in rats caused by eating genetically engineered potatoes. He said he would not eat such modified foods himself and that it was "very, very unfair to use our fellow citizens as guineapigs".

A storm of publicity overtook Pusztai. He was removed from his job, a sacrifice that did not quell public alarm in the UK or in Europe. Last week (May 22, p1769 ) we reported that the Royal Society had reviewed what it could of Pusztai and colleagues' evidence and found it flawed, a gesture of breathtaking impertinence to the Rowett Institute scientists who should be judged only on the full and final publication of their work. The British Medical Association called for a moratorium on planting genetically modified crops. The UK Government, in accordance with national tradition, vacillated. Finally, on May 21 the Government came out with proposals for research into possible health risks of genetically modified foods.

Shoppers across Europe had already voted with their feet. By the end of the first week in May, seven European supermarket chains had announced they would not sell genetically modified foods. Three large food multinationals, Unilever, Nestlé, and Cadburys-Schweppes followed suit. The Supreme Court in India has upheld a ban on testing genetically modified crops. Activists in India have set fire to fields of crops suspected of being used for testing. The population of the USA, where up to 60% of processed foods have genetically modified ingredients, seem, as yet, unconcerned.

The issue of genetically modified foods has been badly mishandled by everyone involved. Governments should never have allowed these products into the food chain without insisting on rigorous testing for effects on health. The companies should have paid greater attention to the possible risks to health and of the public's perception of this risk; they are now paying the price of this neglect. And scientists involved in research into the risks of genetically modified foods should have published the results in the scientific press, not through the popular media; their colleagues, meanwhile, should also have avoided passing judgments on the issue without the full facts before them.

The Lancet, V. 353, N. 9167 

British Medical Association enters GM-crop affray

Lancet 1999; 353: 1769 - 1776

In a report released on May 18, the British Medical Association (BMA) urged that genetically modified (GM) crops should not be grown commercially in the UK until proven safe. A UK Select Committee on Science and Technology report released the same day stressed that there was already a "de facto moratorium on commercial planting in place" but that the Committee had "seen no evidence to suggest that the risks associated with growing GM crops or eating GM crops are high enough to justify calls that have been made for a moratorium".

In its report, The Impact of Genetic Modification on Agriculture, Food and Health, the BMA said that too little is known about the risks posed by GM crops. There are potential health risks associated with human consumption of GM foods and with the release of modified genes into the environment and there should be no releases of GM organisms "until the level of scientific uncertainty is sufficient to make the risk acceptable", said the BMA, who also called for an end to the use of antibiotic resistance marker genes in GM crops, because of the risk of spreading antibiotic resistance to pathogens.

BMA head of research Vivienne Nathanson cited evidence showing that some GM foods cause unexpected allergies in people and said that some animal experiments have suggested that GM foods can be toxic. US safety data are not necessarily applicable to the UK, she added, because of geographical and agricultural differences. "We are not saying that toxicity is proven, only that there are suggestive results and more research is needed before there is any question of wider distribution of GM foodstuffs."

Data on toxicity of GM potatoes slated

Also on May 18, the Royal Society--the UK's independent scientific academy--released its review of data pertaining to the toxicity of GM potatoes, an issue first raised by a scientist on television. Based on six independent, anonymous reviews of the available data, the Society concluded that the reported work "is flawed . . . and that no conclusions should be drawn from it". It also stressed how the "whole episode underlines how important it is that research scientists should expose new research results to others able to offer informed criticism before releasing them into the public arena". However, members of the media present at the review's launch expressed concerns about the Royal Society's refusal to release the names of its reviewers. "How can you convince the public about your conclusions if you won't release the names?", asked one reporter.

The BMA also wants the government to insist that foods containing imported GM ingredients should be labelled. "We do not want doctors to be suddenly faced with a new worldwide epidemic, and to be unable to say whether it is caused by GM foods because patients have no idea whether they have been exposed to them", said Nathanson.

This is the first time opposition to GM foods has been declared by any national medical association, and the report has attracted a angry response from the government. The Minister for the Cabinet Office, Jack Cunningham, called the BMA's position "outrageous and totally unacceptable" and "even more extreme than the environmental lobbyists".

Peter Mitchell, Jane Bradbury


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