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                                  PART I
------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:  Michael Meacher: Are GM crops safe? Who can say? Not Blair
SOURCE: The Independent, UK, by Micheal Meacher
        http://argument.independent.co.uk/commentators/
        story.jsp?story=417687
DATE:   June 22, 2003

--------------------- archive: www.gene.ch/genet.html --------------------


Michael Meacher: Are GM crops safe? Who can say? Not Blair

At Prime Minister's Questions in the Commons last Wednesday Tony Blair
stated that "it is important for the whole debate [on genetic modification] to be
conducted on the basis of scientific evidence, not on the basis of
prejudice".

Exactly so. But what does the science actually indicate? Not, I think, what
he appears to believe.

A public debate is now taking place before the Government decides later this
year whether to allow food from GM crops to go on sale commercially. Tony
Blair's contribution has been to emphasise the importance of the biotech
industry to the UK.

Contrary to the assurances of the biotech companies that genetic engineering
is precise and simply extends traditional breeding techniques, it is
actually quite different. When genetic crops are engineered, the gene is inserted
randomly, out of a sequence that has evolved over hundreds of millions of
years.

But genes don't operate in isolation; they interact with each other. Genetic
engineers have assumed that each gene has one function, but the recent
discovery that human beings have only some 30,000 genes to produce the quarter of
a million proteins in the human body shows that this premise was wrong. Most
genes are multi-functional. It is not known how to determine artificially a
single function of a gene without triggering other unpredicted and undesired
effects.

The random position and lack of control of the gene's functions could change
any character of the plant and might not be evident immediately. One example
is the increased lignin in GM soya which only became apparent in hot weather
when the stems began to split. In the United States there are already many
examples of undesired effects only being identified after approval had been
given - again one example is GM cotton where the cotton boils became deformed.

Another problem is that genetic engineers usually introduce other material -
viruses or bacteria - into the plant which have the role of inserting the
gene, activating it, and identifying where transfers have been successful.
Viruses in particular are good at inserting their genetic material into other
organisms. But that opens up the risk of "horizontal gene transfer" whereby
genes transfer out of the genetically modified organism (GMO) and into other
organisms. But we don't know how frequently or intensively this might occur, or
what the safety implications might be.

GM technology also often involves producing novel substances which may cause
allergic reactions. If such substances are used in food, consumers may quite
often be exposed to this risk. It was recently found, for example, that a GM
soya with a brazil nut gene could cause allergic reactions.

A further health risk is that creating herbicide (weedkiller) resistant
plants allows the application of much more toxic herbicides to the growing
plants. People therefore become exposed to more toxic residues than previously. In
the recent case of the GM forage maize, Chardon LL, the herbicide used was
glufosinate, a neurotoxin and a teratogen (ie it damages embryos). What is
particularly worrying is that there seems to be a 10 per cent reconversion rate
of the degraded herbicide back to the original toxic form in the gut.

Given that there is so much uncertainty, it might be expected that there
would be routine testing of GMOs for healthy effects as a legal requirement.
This applies to new pharmaceutical drugs which are subjected to lengthy trials
so that all side-effects can be uncovered. However, whilst it is often claimed
that all GMOs have been "rigorously tested", all that this testing amounts
to is deciding whether a GM crop is similar in terms of its composition to the
non-GM plant. This is justified under the rubric of "substantial
equivalence", which was originally a marketing term, and is scientifically vacuous. It
wholly misses the point that health concerns are focused, not on known
compounds, but on the effects of the GM technology which are unpredictable.

It is really extraordinary that there have so far been virtually no
independent studies of the health effects of GM. What there is has mostly been done
by the companies themselves. We are constantly told that there is no evidence
of any greater health risk from a GM crop than from its non-GM counterpart.
What is not added is that there have been no health checks to find out.
Indeed, the only Government-sponsored work ever carried on the health impacts of
GMOs was Dr Pusztai's work on rats and GM potatoes, and then, when it found
negative effects, it was widely rubbished in government circles, even though his
paper had been peer-reviewed six times before publication.

These uncertainties have been acknowledged by some of the leading UK
institutions. The Royal Society, in its reports last year, said that the potential
health effects of GM foods should be rigorously investigated before allowing
them into baby food or to be marketed to pregnant or breast-feeding women,
elderly people, and those with chronic disease. This was because GM "could lead
to unpredicted harmful changes in the nutritional state of foods".

Any baby food containing GM products could lead to a dramatic rise in
allergies, and unexpected shifts in oestrogen levels in GM soya-based infant feed
might affect sexual development in children. Infants, the report said, are
very vulnerable because they have such a narrow diet. If there were any
nutritional deficiencies in their food, such as fewer fatty acids, their health would
suffer, especially the infant bowel function since even small nutritional
changes could cause bowel obstruction.

Similarly, the only human GM trial, commissioned ironically by the Food
Standards Agency, found that GM DNA did in fact transfer to bacteria in the human
gut. Previously many scientists had denied that this was possible. But
instead of this finding being regarded as a serious discovery which should be
checked and re-checked, the spin was that this was nothing new and did not
involve any health risk - a Nelsonian putting the telescope to the blind eye if
ever there was one.

A recent BMA report noted that "any conclusion upon the safety of
introducing GM materials into the UK is premature as there is insufficient evidence to
inform the decision-making process at the moment". In their report to the
Scottish Parliament six months ago, the BMA stated that "there has not yet been
a robust and thorough search into the potentially harmful effects of GM
foodstuffs on human health... In the UK not enough is known to enable us to give
an accurate risk of assessment of the health impact of GM crops on the health
of local communities".

Equally, a recent report from the General Medical Council stated that GM
could switch on "silent" genes whose effects we know little about or know to be
toxic. They also noted that GM elements in food might be taken up by bacteria
in the gut, and this could alter the balance of bacteria in the gut, leading
to possible instability or further modification of GM food in later
generations. Their conclusion was that more knowledge was needed of the effects of GM
on metabolism, organ development, immune and endocrine systems, and gut
flora.

Finally, it is often claimed by the biotech companies that there have been
millions of people consuming GM foods over several years in the US, but
without any ill-effects. However, there have actually been no epidemiological
studies to support this claim. What is known is that coinciding with the
introduction of GMOs in food in the US, food-derived illnesses are believed by the
official US Centres for Disease Control to have doubled over the past seven
years. And there are many reports of a rise in allergies - indeed a 50 per cent
increase in soya allergies has been reported in the UK since imports of GM
soya began. None of this of course proves the connection with GM, but it
certainly suggests an urgent need for further investigation of this possible link.
Typically, however, this has not been forthcoming.

As the Prime Minister said, we should act on the basis of science, not
prejudice. Quite so. But since the science is still clouded with such deep
uncertainty, that means deferring decisions till the science is clear and reliable,
not rushing to desired conclusions which cannot be scientifically supported.

Michael Meacher MP was, until the recent government reshuffle, Minister for
the Environment


                                  PART II
------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:  Meacher's GM charges rejected
SOURCE: British Broadcasting Corporation
        http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/3010254.stm
DATE:   June 22, 2003

--------------------- archive: www.gene.ch/genet.html --------------------


Meacher's GM charges rejected

Claims by former minister Michael Meacher that the government played down a
report criticising the safety of GM food have been denied by an environment
spokesman.

An official at the Department for Rural Affairs (Defra) said the government
regarded both health and environment as "top priorities".

Mr Meacher has revealed he was sacked as environment minister - a post he
had held since the 1997 election.

It had been suggested that the veteran of the Wilson and Callaghan
administrations had quit the government.

His views over GM foods are believed to have been increasingly at odds with
those of the prime minister.

In an article for the Independent on Sunday, Mr Meacher accused the
government of deliberately undervaluing negative research findings on the safety of
GM foods.

He said scientific reports indicating possibly damaging effects on humans
had been "widely rubbished in government circles".

'Very worrying'

And the debate on GM foods had been deliberately stifled with pressure from
bio-technology companies, he said.

But a spokesman for Defra said: "Both GM crops and foods have to undergo
rigorous safety assessments before they can get approvals.

"These approvals require there is no risk to health or the environment."

He said a public debate on the GM issue was under way, and people were
welcome to contribute views.

Liberal Democrat environment spokesman Andrew George said Mr Meacher's
comments "blow a hole in any claims the government might make about their desire
for an open debate on GM".

Anti-GM campaigners welcomed Mr Meacher's comments on Sunday.

Pete Riley, of Friends of the Earth, said they confirmed the fears of those
who suspected the government-funded debate on the GM issue was a mere PR
exercise aimed at getting the green light for GM crops to be grown in the UK.

Patrick Holden, the director of the Soil Association, which campaigns for
organic food and farming, said: "Mr Meacher's comments are very worrying
because they suggest the government has already made up its mind on GM."

But a farmer involved in GM crop trials claimed some of Mr Meacher's
comments were "inaccurate".

Bob Fiddaman, who is also a board member of pro-GM group Scimac (Supply
Chain Initiative on Modified Agricultural Crops), said: "The GM foods that are
released for human consumption have been tested and there are no known negative
effects on humans."

Mr Meacher said studies on the effects of GM foods on human health had been
"scientifically vacuous", and warned the government against rushing the
debate.

Adequate testing, sound scientific conclusions and an understanding of the
effects on people were still lacking, he said.

"Since the science is still clouded with such deep uncertainty, that means
deferring decisions till the science is clear and reliable, not rushing to
desired conclusions which cannot be scientifically supported," he said.

'Toxic residues'

He told the Independent on Sunday the only human GM trial commissioned by
the Food Standards Agency found genetically modified DNA did transfer to
bacteria in the human gut.

Many scientists had denied this was possible.

"But instead of this finding being regarded as a serious discovery which
should be checked and rechecked, the spin was this was nothing new and did not
involve any health risk," he said.

Some GM substances had already been found to cause allergic reactions, he
said.

There were concerns the development pesticide-resistant GM crops meant
consumers were being exposed to increasingly toxic residues, some of which could
damage embryos in the womb.

Mr Meacher said the so-called rigorous testing of GM products only amounted
to considering whether a crop was similar in composition to a non-GM crop.

"This is justified under the rubric of 'substantial equivalence', which was
originally a marketing term, and is scientifically vacuous".

Further tests

He said it was "really extraordinary" there had so far been virtually no
independent studies of the health effects of GM.

Mr Meacher has pledged to continue campaigning on environmental issues from
the back benches.

The government launched a series of nationwide public consultations on GM
crops earlier this month.

 
                                  PART III
------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:  'No proof of GM health risks'
SOURCE: British Broadcasting Corporation
        http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/3012192.stm
DATE:   June 23, 2003

--------------------- archive: www.gene.ch/genet.html --------------------


'No proof of GM health risks'

GM foods have never been shown to pose any risk to human health, according
to new Environment Minister Elliot Morley.

He was speaking the day after his sacked predecessor, Michael Meacher, said
studies on the effects of GM foods on human health had been "scientifically
vacuous", and warned the government against rushing the debate.

Adequate testing, sound scientific conclusions and an understanding of the
effects on people were still lacking, he said.

But Mr Morley told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "There have been studies
in this country, there have been studies in France, there's been studies by
the food and agricultural organisations of the UN.

"There have been lots of studies in terms of toxicology, in terms of
potential allergies, in terms of potent health risks, in any of the existing
products there has never been any indication there has been a health risk."

Mr Morley conceded that Mr Meacher was "quite right" to raise health issues
in the light of developments in the production of food.

"The issue of health is one which must be carefully examined and that is why
all the science that we have on this work is going to be put into the public
domain next month as part of the overall debate."

Weighing the arguments?

Mr Morley said his position on GM foods was that although care should be
taken, both sides of the argument needed to be listened to.

Writing in the Independent on Sunday, Mr Meacher said the only human GM
trial commissioned by the Food Standards Agency found genetically modified DNA
did transfer to bacteria in the human gut.

Many scientists had denied this was possible.

"But instead of this finding being regarded as a serious discovery which
should be checked and rechecked, the spin was this was nothing new and did not
involve any health risk," he said.

Mr Meacher - a veteran of the Wilson and Callaghan administrations - was
widely believed to be at odds with the prime minister over his stance on GM
foods.

In his article, Mr Meacher accused the government of deliberately
undervaluing negative research findings on the safety of GM foods.

He said scientific reports indicating possibly damaging effects on humans
had been "widely rubbished in government circles".

'Very worrying'

And the debate on GM foods had been deliberately stifled with pressure from
bio-technology companies, he said.

He said a public debate on the GM issue was under way, and people were
welcome to contribute views.

Liberal Democrat environment spokesman Andrew George said Mr Meacher's
comments "blow a hole in any claims the government might make about their desire
for an open debate on GM".

Anti-GM campaigners welcomed Mr Meacher's comments.

Pete Riley, of Friends of the Earth, said they confirmed the fears of those
who suspected the government-funded debate on the GM issue was a mere PR
exercise aimed at getting the green light for GM crops to be grown in the UK.

Patrick Holden, the director of the Soil Association, which campaigns for
organic food and farming, said: "Mr Meacher's comments are very worrying
because they suggest the government has already made up its mind on GM."

But a farmer involved in GM crop trials claimed some of Mr Meacher's
comments were "inaccurate".

Bob Fiddaman, who is also a board member of pro-GM group Scimac (Supply
Chain Initiative on Modified Agricultural Crops), said: "The GM foods that are
released for human consumption have been tested and there are no known negative
effects on humans."

Mr Meacher argued that some GM substances had already been found to cause
allergic reactions, he said.

There were concerns the development pesticide-resistant GM crops meant
consumers were being exposed to increasingly toxic residues, some of which could
damage embryos in the womb.

Mr Meacher said the so-called rigorous testing of GM products only amounted
to considering whether a crop was similar in composition to a non-GM crop.

The government launched a series of nationwide public consultations on GM
crops earlier this month.

 


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