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 EUs scientific regulatory committee. Ministers will now decide and, if they dont 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 natures 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.
In the tiny number of cases where tests have been carried out, the results have been worrying. A study in August 1998 by Dr Arpad Pusztai in Aberdeen found that young rats fed GM potatoes for just 10 days developed growth-like thickening of the stomach and intestinal lining. Could the overgrowth of the gut lining be a prelude to cancer? This was highly threatening to the biotech industry, but rather than pursue these questions, the research was closed down, and Pusztai vilified and hounded out of his job.
In a study at Newcastle University in 2002, volunteers were fed a single meal of GM soya. The GM DNA was found not to have been digested, as scientists had claimed it would be, but to have survived and transferred to the gut bacteria, which could compromise antibiotic resistance. In the US in 2000 many food products were accidentally contaminated with GM StarLink maize, and it caused allergic reactions in 50 Americans, some life-threatening. Recently in Germany 12 cows died after eating Syngentas GM Bt 176 maize, and the company paid the farmer compensation.
None of these results, which were rubbished by the scientific establishment, have ever been followed up by further research. Where research has been done, the results are sometimes suppressed. A study of GM Chardon LL maize, fed to cows at Reading University two years ago, has never been published, probably because the results were so unpalatable to the biotech industry.
The last word should go to the doctors. The BMA says: "There has not yet been a robust and thorough search into the potentially harmful effect of GM foodstuffs on human health". The Medical Research Council believes more knowledge is needed of the effects of GM on metabolism, organ development, immune and endocrine systems, and gut flora.
Instead of pursuing the arid and polarised debate about GM, isnt that precisely what we should now do before we launch it into our food supply?
Michael Meacher MP was environment minister, 1997-2003