GM presentations raise concerns over human health
Farmers Guardian, 12 October 2011 |
ANY relaxation of the existing GM crop restrictions in Wales is going to be a long way off, if at all, given the views of the speakers at a special one-day conference staged by the Welsh branches of the Women’s Food and Farming Union in Aberystwyth.
Billed as 'an insight into GM' and asking the question whether GM crops are fit for purpose, the somewhat 'damning' presentations raised major concerns over human health, the environment and the long-term damage to conventionally grown food crops.
From an internationally renowned medical researcher with 27 years' experience of genetic engineering to a nutritionist working in the field of food security, a Euro MP and a working farmer, the overriding message was that the risks far outweighed any possible benefits.
By far the hardest hitting expression of doubt came from Dr Michael Antoniou, from the London School of Medicine at Guy's Hospital.
"GM breeding is very different to normal plant breeding, having an inherent destructive effect on the structure and functions of genes which can have knock-on effects in numerous areas, including human health," he said.
"In fact, there is an increasing body of evidence from controlled laboratory studies showing adverse effects in the functioning of the kidney and liver from the consumption of GM crops.
"The worrying aspect is that some of the studies showing high levels of toxicity relate to commercialised varieties – findings which should have been carried out before commercialisation.
"All of the GM crops currently out there have been engineered to either produce their own insecticide or to be tolerant to a herbicide – and any animal or human eating them is going to subject themselves to consuming residues of these chemicals.
"Disturbing the biochemistry can produce all kinds of unexpected toxic effects and there are signs of that happening," he added.
"This is something the GM regulators have not taken on board. They are still sticking to outdated flawed principles with crops that have never been fully tested and are a danger to human health. But the warning signs are there.
"There are far better ways of going forward with biotechnology than genetic modification."
International food safety expert, Dr Naheeda Portocarero, broadened the argument with her doubts on the make up of the regulatory body, pointing to the absence of any real scrutiny of possible adverse effects beyond crop agronomy.
"When you have doubts, especially within the field of medicine, you take them seriously but there are gaping loopholes in the system that urgently need addressing," she said.
"One is that the companies involved are compiling the data themselves with no external scrutiny and another is the impartiality and competence of the regulatory body itself.
"If consumers are to have confidence in GM foods there needs to be a major rethink otherwise there is the risk of sleepwalking into a repeat of the problems farming endured with the likes of organo-phosphates, BSE and dioxins, all of which came from the same industries that are now giving us genetically modified food."
Welsh MEP, Jill Evans, also expressed her 'serious concerns' over the threats to public health and the environment from GM crops a view she said was echoed by the majority of people in Wales and across Europe.
"Food security is a basic human right, but having control over what we eat is our right as well," she said.
"But we only have that control when we know what the food is, where it comes from, how it was grown, processed, packaged and reached the shopping shelves.
"There is a massive lobby to increase the production of GM crops but in the interests of farmers and consumers there should be a ban on new GMOs until science can prove there is no risk at all to consumers’ health and the environment.”
Putting the Welsh Government's position, civil servant Nic Shilton said that cross party Assembly support, the body of Welsh consumers and the importance of quality food production to the economy all pointed to there being no changes in Wales to the existing precautionary measures on GM crops within the five-year life of the current administration at least.
The only farmer on the panel was Michael Hart, a conventional livestock producer who has been farming in Cornwall for nearly 30 years and has travelled extensively in Europe, India, Canada and the USA looking in depth at GM technology.
He said that consistently he was told of the ever-increasing costs of seeds and chemicals, as well as weeds becoming resistant to herbicides.
US farmers had told him that a single pass herbicide was a fallacy, with three or more passes now the norm for GM crops.
As weeds had become more resistant to glyphosate there had also been a sharp increase in the use of herbicide tank mixes, most of them patented and owned by the biotech companies.
Some farmers were now even having to resort to hand weeding, costs had spiralled nearly three-fold and the ability to grow GM crops next to conventional and organic crops was unsolvable.
"In summary there is a huge weed problem, crop co-existence is a myth, farmers are trapped into the genetically modified biotech system and there have been huge price increases for seeds and sprays – well beyond the price increases farmers have received for their crops," said Mr Hart.
"In short, US farmers are urging great caution in adopting GM technology."
While there were no speakers from the GM companies it was left to Dr Tina Barsby, director of the National Institute of Agricultural Botany, to put the case for GM crops and the benefits they could bring in helping to solve the world's growing food needs.
Answering some criticism that the conference could have been branded 'one-sided', former WFFU president and chairman for the day, Ionwen Lewis, said the purpose had not been to extol the virtues of one side or the other.
"It is important, however, that consumers know the full facts surrounding GM crops. They are the people farmers rely on for their livelihoods," she added.