UK committee gives green light to crop biotech

Analysis of EU law revision stresses benefits of GM crops, controllability of risks

A UK parliamentary committee has endorsed the main changes proposed by the European Commission to EU law on the deliberate release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and backed swifter introduction of GM crops into European agriculture.

In a report published today, the House of Lords committee distances itself from strong concerns over GM crops and food being expressed by European non-governmental organisations, consumers and some governments. It concludes that the "potential benefits" of agricultural biotechnology "far outweigh the risks provided that there is a proper regulatory framework." The committee condemns the destruction of some GM crop trials, rejects demands for a moratorium on commercial GM crop introductions, and even promotes a role for genetic modification in organic farming.

Its report stresses the importance of strong regulation of GM crops, such as an expansion of risk management to consider long-term and indirect implications as well as immediate and direct ones. Commenting on recent changes in UK policy, the committee supports the government's decision to require large-scale trials of GM crops before commercialisation (ENDS Daily 21 October 1998).

Nevertheless, the main thrust of its conclusions point towards a longer-term deregulation of GM crops on the model of the USA or Canada. For example, the committee supports a Canadian system under which risks associated with new crop varieties are assessed based on plant characteristics and not on production technologies. While conceding that such an approach would be "unlikely to secure acceptance in Europe," it calls for "triggers other than genetic modification" to be introduced to risk assessment systems.

Furthermore, the committee criticises the one significant strengthening of EU controls on new GM crops that has been proposed by the Commission - the introduction of seven year limits on marketing approvals. "We find no merit in it," the peers comment, arguing that it could cause "severe difficulties to plant breeders".

Obviously not afraid to court disapproval of a public overwhelmingly sceptical of GM crops and foods, the committee goes on to warn that "public ignorance may mean that the benefits offered by the technology are insufficiently appreciated". Consumers have a right to have a choice on whether or not to eat GM foods, the committee says, but any segregation of GM crops "must be driven by the market and not required by government". Requiring traceability of GM crops would be "exceedingly costly...for little benefit" and potentially "irrational," the committee concludes.

Environmental and organic farming groups strongly criticised the report today. Greenpeace described the committee members as "perhaps the only group in our society that has fallen for Monsanto advertising," while the Soil Association accused the committee of "swallowing the biotech industry's propaganda...hook, line and sinker".Follow Up:
House of Lords, tel: +44 171 219 6083. References: "EC Regulation of Genetic Modification in Agriculture," HL Paper 11-I.

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