SGR Position Statement on Genetically Modified Foodstuffs 1999

Compiled by the SGR National Co-ordinating Committee in June 1999

1. Preamble

1.1 The National Cooordinating Committee of Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR)  has been debating the question of Genetic Engineering since its last Conference (held in November 1998), where the central topic was "Genetics and Ethics".  The consensus at this meeting and in subsequent online debate was against GM foods.

1.2  Despite a recognition that some aspects of GM crops could be beneficial - for example in reducing the use of pesticides in the countryside - the majority of members did not feel the implications of Genetic manipulation of plant materials destined for human or animal consumption had been sufficiently investigated, either in terms of their potential impact on consumer health or of their possible environmental impacts. Doubts were voiced whether any trials could ever be sufficiently comprehensive or extensive to ensure satisfactory identification of potential difficulties in terms of unforeseen side-effects from these unprecedented methods of experimental interference in gene-lines, and in all cases it was felt that the technology and its products had not been tested adequately enough to be considered safe for release into the environment.

1.3  Furthermore,  it was considered that tests conducted in the United States and pronounced 'safe' in the environments obtaining on that continent should not be taken as conclusively proving the safety of releasing such crops into the very different, more constricted countryside environment of the United Kingdom.

1.4   A moratorium on the commercial release of GM crops into the British countryside, and strong government regulation before any release of GM crops into the environment for test purposes, were considered essential.

2.  In view of these concerns:

2.1   SGR oppose categorically the development and release of any GM crop into the British countryside for commercial purposes until comprehensive, public, transparent and disinterested research has been carried out demonstrating that the crops in question are safe for release into the European environment.

2.2.   SGR also oppose the release for test purposes of  GM crops into the countryside pending the completion and publication of results of long-term, verifiable screening under glass in simulated 'open air' conditions to establish the potential ecological impact/s of each crop in terms of its dispersion characteristics under different atmospheric conditions and  patterns of cross-fertilisation with natural plant communities and  the knock-on effects such events may have on the wildlife associated with such communities. Transparent regulatory procedures incorporating such tests should be developed under the control of the government.

2.3   SGR call for an open, public, transparent and disinterested investigation into the role  and interests of international biotechnology companies in the food production business, particularly with regard to such developments as sterile strains and weed- and insect-resistant crops.  Such research should also explore the links between research institutions, biotechnology companies and the food retail sector, and government regulation should prevent control of the food-chain falling into the hands of unaccountable corporate organisations and their associates.

2.4   The issue of acquisition by companies in industrialised nations of intellectual property relating to seeds and plants from developing nations has not been adequately explored, and there is still potential for such organisations to profit at the expense of less developed nations in this respect.  SGR call for a public debate concerning the ethical dimensions and social implications of the acquisition and patenting of gene lines obtained outside the countries of origin of the biotechnology companies.

 2.5  SGR also call for a moratorium on the release of any new GM foods into the market-place pending a comprehensive, public, transparent and disinterested inquiry into its potential effects on consumers. Such a moratorium  should last for as long as it takes to ensure that all potentially deleterious effects are thoroughly understood by the scientific community and the public alike, and in any case for a minimum of five years.

2.6   In the event that such a moratorium is lifted for a foodstuff which has been openly investigated and pronounced  safe for consumption and in terms of its potential impact on the environment in which it is to be produced, SGR calls for legislation  to ensure comprehensive and honest labelling of foodstuffs containing GM ingredients, such that they can readily be distinguished from non-GM products in shops and stores.

2.7  SGR calls on the Food Standards Agency, on the Agriculture Minister and on the Minister for the Environment to adopt  the Precautionary Principle in all their dealings regarding the development and distribution of GM foodstuffs and plants. Their attitude should be that at all times the onus is on biotechnology organisations to prove the safety of their work and of any products which might result from this work, through the conduct of safe, transparent, environmentally segregated and long-term testing programmes conducted under governmental supervision.

3. Conclusion

3.1  The production of food is the right of each individual, as is the right to determine what s/he consumes. Genetic manipulation of  food crops which have hitherto evolved or been developed  through traditional means for the sole profit of  biotechnology companies and allied organisations, and which carry with them ...

- the potential for threatening the livelihood of other sectors of society,
- the potential for threatening the health and safety of consumers,
- the potential for threatening the integrity, health and safety of organisms in the natural environment,

... should not be permitted. The distribution of such materials into the food-chain should not be the automatic right of any company with the wherewithal to do so.

3.2  The implications of the safety issues surrounding GM foods, particularly in terms of  their environmental impacts,  are potentially so far-reaching that the profit motive alone should not be considered an adequate justification for conducting such technology.