Friday 25 June 2004

GM food is heading for your fridge

It may well be dangerous - and it is about to enter our food chain

by Michael Meacher

Genetically modified food is coming to Britain. Two applications for the approval of GM animal feed are reaching their final stages in Brussels. This will lead to their import into the UK, and into the human food chain. The 1998 moratorium put in place by the EU to prevent this is being broken.

One of these applications concerns Syngenta Bt 11 GM sweetcorn. It failed to get a majority vote in the EU agricultural ministers' council but, following ministerial deadlock, it has now been approved by the commission itself (as Ukip might note). The second application is for Monsanto NK 603 GM maize, which is being introduced under the novel foods regulations. It also failed to get a majority vote in the EU's scientific regulatory committee. Ministers will now decide and, if they don't agree, the commission will take the decision.

The safety of GM food remains a very open question. And one is not encouraged when the guardian of our food safety, the Food Standards Agency, and particularly its chairman, John Krebs, is so strongly pro-GM. They naively rely on company data to prove the safety of GMOs, despite numerous reports which have revealed the dubious credibility of company studies. The FSA has also focused mainly on the safety of inserted GM material, and neglected the inherent risks of the gene insertion process itself, such as the production of new toxins and allergens.

This is a remarkable omission given that the GM process is so new. GM introduces genes from other species, even distant ones, which nature would never do. It also breaks up nature's all-important sequencing of the genes. Making a GM plant thus involves breaking and joining the DNA at random locations. This leads to substantial scrambling of both foreign and host DNA, which can produce abnormalities in animals and unexpected toxins and allergens in food crops.

The genetic material of any species can be recombined and transferred in the lab. Genes and new combinations can be introduced into our environment and food chain that have never previously existed. Indeed, GM DNA is often designed to cross species barriers. Its structural instability enhances horizontal gene transfer and recombination, the very process that creates new diseases and spreads antibiotic and drug resistance.

Against this background it is almost incredible, but true, that there have been no peer-reviewed clinical studies on the human health effects of GM food. Instead, when the biotech companies manufacture a new GM product, they compare it with its non-GM counterpart in terms of nutrients, toxins and allergens, and if they allege it to be "substantially equivalent", they deem it to be safe. Such an assumption would never be allowed in the regulation of pesticides or drugs. It is simply a device to circumvent direct trials of the effects of GM foods on human health, and ensures that GM crops can be patented without even animal testing.

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