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23 October 2013 04:59:12 |

No consensus on GM crops, scientists say


A group of 93 scientists have declared there is 'no scientific consensus' on the safety of genetically modified food and crops. The group of academics and physicians, calling themselves the European Network of Scientists and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER), reacted to claims by industry and public figures about the potential benefits of GM crops.
The controversial issue of GM technology has come to the fore once more in Europe, where in the last year the governments of Poland and Italy have introduced contested bans on the crops, and the United States, where consumer organisations are pushing for legislation to label foods containing GM ingredients across a number of states, most famously Washington, where voting will take place on labelling laws next month.
But a number of leading members of the Coalition government in the UK have given GM crops their support, most recently environment secretary Owen Paterson, who called GM sceptics "wicked" in an interview earlier this month.
In January, writer and former environmentalist Mark Lynas told delegates at the Oxford Farming Conference that "The GM debate is over," generating a significant amount of media attention for Lynas, who claims to have been an anti-GM activist before recanting around January 2010.
ENSSER chair Dr. Angelika Hilbeck elaborated that claims such as those made by Messrs Lynas and Paterson "may place human and environmental health at undue risk and create an atmosphere of complacency." She said the ENSSER statement, signed by over 90 eminent scientists aims to draw attention "to the diversity of opinion over GMOs in the scientific community and the often contradictory or inconclusive findings of studies on GMO safety."
"These include toxic effects on laboratory animals fed GM foods, increased pesticide use from GM crop cultivation, and the unexpected impacts of Bt insecticidal crops on beneficial and non-target organisms," Dr Hilbeck added.


The scientists warn that, in spite of the nuanced and complex picture built up in GM studies so far, a group of influential, like-minded people has consistently made the claim that GM foods are safe, whereas in reality, there are unanswered questions around the technology.
The group's signatories include World Food Prize winner and this year's Alternative Nobel Prize laureate Dr Hans Herren. They point out that, whereas it is often claimed that millions of people around the world regularly eat GM foods with no ill effects, as there is no labelling in countries such as the United States (where the majority of the world's GM crops are grown) and no epidemiological studies have been carried out, there is no way of knowing what (if any) the crops' effects are.
The signatories to the statement call for the compliance to the precautionary approach to GM crops and foods internationally agreed upon in the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and UN's Codex Alimentarius.
Commenting on the statement, one of the signatories, Prof Ernst-Ulrich von Weizsäcker, Co-Chair of the International Resource Panel (UNEP) and Co-President of The Club of Rome, said, "The future of food and agriculture is one of the great challenges of humankind of the 21st century. The claim of scientific consensus on GMO safety is misleading and misrepresents diverse and inconclusive scientific evidence. The full range of scientific research needs to be taken into account, in open, transparent and honest debates which involve the broader society, when decisions of global concern are being made. This is a responsibility of scientists and science."
Last week, the World Food Prize was awarded to employees of agribusinesses Monsanto and Syngenta, both of which are heavily involved with the production and promotion of GM technology. The decision to award the Food Prize to the two companies provoked widespread outrage from GM sceptics and food activists.
In addition to the growing number of European countries that have outlawed or restricted the commercial cultivation of GM crops, Mexico, Bangladesh, the Philippines and India have all seen recent bans, restrictions and popular protests against the controversial crops.
ENSSER pointed to India, where an indefinite moratorium on field release trials has been recommended by the Technical Expert Committee of the Supreme Court unless certain conditions are met (including proper safety testing), and South American agricultural heavyweights Argentina and Brazil, where further approvals of GM corps have been subject to legal challenges due to questions over the scientific basis of approvals. The Network believes "Most if not all [such incidents] underline the lack of proof of safety and insufficient testing."


Andy Stirling, professor of science and technology policy at Sussex University and formerly a member of the UK government's GM Science Review Panel, also commented on Monday, "The main reason some multinationals prefer GM technologies over the many alternatives is that GM offers more lucrative ways to control intellectual property and global supply chains. To sideline open discussion of these issues, related interests are now trying to deny the many uncertainties and suppress scientific diversity. This undermines democratic debate – and science itself."
Many food policy and sustainable farming experts believe genetic modification has no great role to play in efforts to achieve global food security. Instead, approaches such as agroecology, which combines cutting edge plant and soil science with social science to devise context-specific 'agroecosystems' that include the communities and ecosystems by which and for whom food is produced, could provide a more viable alternative.


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