GENTECH archive


'miserably inadequate' moves to boost public confidence (in UK)

GUARDIAN (London)  Saturday May 22, 1999 

GM measures scorned

Cunningham moves to boost public confidence 'miserably inadequate'

Government attempts to shore up public confidence over genetically
modified crops appeared to be foundering last night as a raft of measures
announced by the cabinet enforcer, Jack Cunningham, were dismissed as
'miserably inadequate'.

Ministers promised new monitoring and surveillance arrangements for the
new technology, including what one called 'a comfort blanket' of national
checks that GM and other new foods were not affecting human health.

They announced two new advisory panels of experts and also rejected
anything other than a voluntary code for managing GM crops, saying that
binding legislation would take too long to implement even though it might
yet be necessary.

But doctors said that the measures failed to meet safety concerns and
supermarkets said they would continue to phase out GM ingredients grown
abroad in their own products because of consumer pressure.

The government's attempt to reassure the public was led by Mr Cunningham,
who told MPs: 'Biotechnology has the potential to improve our quality of
life in many ways.

'It is the government's responsibility to encourage this potential. But we
will not do so at the risk to public health and the environment.'

He announced that voluntary guidelines on growing GM crops would be
toughened and underpinned by legally-binding contracts. 'They could well
form the basis of future legislation,' he said.

Two new commissions, made up of experts on ethics and consumer interests,
will examine the long-term effects of the new sciences.

The human genetics commission and the agricultural and environmental
biotechnology commission will work alongside the food standards agency,
which will be set up next year and will police GM food.

At the same time Mr Cunningham reported the conclusions of Professor Liam
Donaldson, the chief medical officer, and Sir Robert May, the chief
scientific adviser, that 'there is no current evidence to suggest that the
genetically modified technologies used to produce food are inherently

They were also 'reassured by the precautionary nature and rigour of the
current procedures used to assess the safety of individual genetically
modified food'.

Mr Cunningham later appealed for 'more rational' debate. He said: 'We are
certainly not prepared to be blown around hither and thither by shock
horror or alarmist reports that are not substantiated or underpinned by
good science.'

Arrangements for national monitoring still have to be decided. Ministers
are interested in whether supermarkets could provide information on GM
products brought through loyalty cards within postcode districts, which
could then be compared with the incidence of illnesses such as cancers,
heart diseases and diabetes, allergies and foetal abnormalities.

Jeff Rooker, the food safety minister, said surveillance would act as a
'comfort blanket' or safety net. 'We are not going to introduce these
foods on an experimental basis. The public are not going to be used as
guinea pigs.

'Foods will only be sanctioned and made available after they have gone
through the regulatory process.' This year's trial crops would be

Professor Donaldson and Sir Robert said problems could be caused by
conventional as well as GM foods. 'Nevertheless, nothing can be absolutely
certain in a field of rapid scientific growth and technological

'The development of robust population health surveillance in relation to
consumption of GM foods is essential to ensure that government is able to
respond rapidly should any unexpected effects occur.'

The British Medical Association said the report did not address the
long-term implications for the ecosystem and 'without separation of GM and
non-GM foods and without clear labelling, rigorous health surveillance
would be impossible'. The Consumers' Association echoed concerns over

Friends of the Earth called the government package 'miserably inadequate',
while the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds said: 'The fact
ministers are so coy about saying whether or not they will consider the
commercial release of GM crops before the end of the field trials is
enough to make anyone suspicious.'

But Roger Turner, chairman of Scimac, the industry body for genetically
modified crops, claimed its code of practice was robust. 'Genetic
modification is a fundamentally sound technology, which will enable us to
produce cheaper, better quality food in more sustainable ways.'


 *National surveillance to monitor incidence of cancers, allergies, foetal
abnormalities and chronic diseases in people eating GM and new foods

 *Food standards agency to be key advisory body on GM foods

 *New commission to look at effect of genetic technologies on humans

 *New agriculture and environment biotechnology commission to advise on
other aspects, including environmental issues linked to GM plants and

 *Voluntary guidelines with industry for the planting of GM crops, backed
up by legally binding contracts and audit. May form the basis of future