GENET archive


RISK ASSESSMENT & FOOD: UK scientists develop new methods to assess risks of GE plants and food

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SOURCE: The Scotsman, UK

AUTHOR: Dan Buglass


DATE:   04.07.2007

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SCIENTISTS at the Scottish Crop Research Institute (SCRI), which is based at Invergowrie, near Dundee, have been awarded a share of a £400,000 grant to investigate techniques relevant for the safety assessment of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Working in partnership with a team at the John Innes Centre in Norwich the scientists will research improved and more rapid methods for determining whether plant genes may be disrupted by the genetic modification process and if entirely new proteins might arise from the GM process.

The new process will also aid the development of diagnostic tools for GM plants. It will also enable scientists to trace GMOs in the food chain as part of the EU’s regulatory regime. The funding has come from the Food Standards Agency and builds on significant funding already obtained by SCRI for GMO safety assessments.

Leading the work at SCRI will be Dr Mark Taylor and Professor Howard Davies.

Taylor said: ”Methods for producing GM plants are continually being improved.”

Professor Davies, who is a member of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) GM panel, added: ”Europe has a rigorous system for the risk assessment of GMOs. An important starting point in the process is the molecular characterisation of what happens when transgenes are inserted into the plant’s DNA.

GM crop trials of potatoes with genes to produce resistance to late blight control were recently authorised in England. Late blight caused the great potato famine in Ireland in 1845-46 during which over one million people starved to death while a million more emigrated. Only recently has the population of Ireland recovered.

The growing of GM crops on a commercial basis is banned throughout the EU. However, in parts of the world, including the US, South America and China huge tracts of land are now down to GM crops such as soya, maize and canola (oilseed rape).

Farmers are also prohibited from using GM-derived material in animal feeds in the conditions attached to virtually every recognised farm assurance scheme. That much is made clear to consumers on the labels of beef, pork and chicken in supermarkets.

But livestock producers are now faced with a huge increase in feed costs, perhaps as much as 40 per cent over the last 12 months. Only last week proposals to allow the importation of GM maize into the EU for feed purposes were rejected by the EU’s standing committee on the food chain and animal health. This was despite clearance from EFSA that deemed the maize variety ”Herculex” to be safe.

The Irish government had previously indicated that it would favour a relaxation of the ban on GM crops, always provided they were reserved for animal feeds. But at the last minute in the Brussels meeting the junior Irish agriculture minister Trevor Sargent of the Irish Green Party, which is part of the coalition administration with Fine Gael, opted to abstain on any moves to allow imports of GM maize. Sources in Dublin told The Scotsman yesterday that farmers now face the inevitability of even higher costs with little prospect of recovering that expense from supermarkets.

The proponents of GM technology, and they include a sizable number of UK farmers, claim that crops require substantially less inputs of herbicides and that the yields are generally higher than those from conventional crops.

However, those who oppose GMOs allege that there is a real danger of cross-contamination with conventional varieties. Sensible discussion has not been helped by some vivid press coverage, not the least of which was the phrase ”Frankenstien crops.”

There is general agreement within the scientific community that the entire issue was very badly handled when the technology first became available. Some claim that agriculture will have to embrace GMOs if the world’s rapidly growing population is to be fed. This issue cannot be ignored for much longer.



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