UK Government announces new biotech measures

Many of the issues raised by GM foods are equally applicable to foods produced by conventional means, a Report by the UK Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser has concluded.


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“There is no evidence to suggest that the GM technologies used to produce food are inherently harmful,” the report said. “We are reassured by the precautionary nature and rigour of the current procedures used to assess the safety of individual GM foods.”

The report was published as part of the UK Government’s new measures intended to allay public fears over genetically modified (GM) crops and biotechnology in general, while allowing the biotech industry to continue to develop.

The initiatives are:

  • The Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Adviser’s report on the public health implications of GM foods,
  • a review of the regulatory framework and
  • consultation with the public using the People’s Panel.

The Government also backed strengthened guidelines for managing the cultivation of GM crops.

Report by the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser

The Report by the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser concluded that many of the issues raised by foods resulting from genetic modification were equally applicable to foods produced

by conventional means.

“There is no evidence to suggest that the GM technologies used to produce food are inherently harmful,” the report said. “We are reassured by the precautionary nature and rigour of the current procedures used to assess the safety of individual GM foods.”

They recommended:

  • a close watch to be kept on developments and to continue to fund research to improve scientific understanding in this area;
  • moves to improve the openness of the regulatory procedures to public scrutiny; and
  • consideration to be given to the establishment of a national surveillance unit to monitor population health aspects of GM and other types of novel foods.

The Government accepts all of their recommendations. The last of these is already being considered by the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes. The Ministerial Committee will review progress in the autumn.

Review of the regulatory framework

The Review found that there was confidence in the existing system of case-by-case assessment of new biotech products and processes. However, it recommended that the system be strengthened by two commissions to take a long-term view of biotech developments:

  • the Human Genetics Commission will advise on applications of biotech in healthcare, and the impact of human genetics on people’s lives; and
  • the Agricultural and Environment Biotechnology Commission to cover the use of biotech in agriculture and its environmental effects.

These will work alongside the Food Standards Agency which takes on responsibility for GM food.

Members of the new Commissions will be drawn from a broad range of interests – those with expertise of consumer issues and ethics, for example, will sit alongside scientists. The new Commissions will be in place as soon as practically possible.

To make the regulatory system more open, the UK Government is publishing a set of guidelines which all committees involved in biotech will be required to follow.

Safeguards for cultivating GM Crops

New safeguards to ensure that genetically modified crops are carefully controlled as they are grown on the farm were published by the industry group Supply Chain Initiative on Modified Agricultural Crops (SCIMAC).

The UK Government said it welcomed the new rules, saying they are underpinned by legally binding contracts and an independent system of enforcement and audit. The Government considers that in the longer term they could form the basis of legislation.

The publication of the Government’s measures has failed to end the current confusion over the planting of GM crops, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) said.

The group said that the UK Government’s assurances relating to the planting of GM crops are still ambiguous and have failed to assuage fears that the crops may be commercially released before their environmental safety has been proven.

“Despite the Government’s insistence that it is seeking to reduce public confusion over GM crops it has significantly failed to shed any further light on when these crops might be commercially released,” said Dr Mark Avery, Director of Conservation at the RSPB. “The RSPB believes that there can be no commercial release of GM crops until their environmental safety is proven and that this cannot be demonstrated any earlier than 2003. It is time for the Government to say whether it agrees with the Chief Government Scientist and the RSPB or not.”

The RSPB has also criticised the SCIMAC guidelines for growing newly developed herbicide tolerant crops. The RSPB believes that the guidelines fail to fully address the need to protect wildlife.

“The Government describes these industry guidelines as ‘tough rules,'” said Avery, “yet they are neither rules nor tough. The guidelines fail to incorporate many of the suggestions from environmental groups and will not address the key problems which wildlife will face from GM crops.”

© Faversham House Ltd 2022 edie news articles may be copied or forwarded for individual use only. No other reproduction or distribution is permitted without prior written consent.

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