There is a compelling moral imperative to make genetically modified crops readily available to developing countries who want them, to help combat world hunger and poverty. However, new measures are needed to minimise risks and to realise benefits that GM crops may offer, a report from the Nuffield Council on Bioethics says today. (May 27).

The Council concludes that the genetic modification of plants does not differ to such an extent from conventional plant breeding that it is in itself morally objectionable. It may, however, lead to significant changes in farming practices and the environment. The report concludes that it is therefore necessary to develop new regulations to guide the development of GM technology in the UK.

The report says there are no grounds for a ban on GM food or moratoria on commercial plantings in this country, but that a wider assessment is needed of the possible impact on the environment. It concludes that all the GM food so far on the market in this country is safe for human consumption.

The report acknowledges the widespread public unease about the technology and says that consumers should have a choice about whether to eat GM foods or not.

The Council calls for an overarching biotechnology advisory body to be set up to control and monitor the use and implications of GM foods, and therefore welcomes the Government announcements last Friday.

The report’s 36 recommendations cover a range of issues from protecting the environment and enhancing consumer information through to increasing donor aid to poor countries to allow them to benefit from GM technology.

GM technology can help developing countries

The report points out that in developing countries the ability to grow vitamin A-enriched rice and salt-resistant or drought-resistant crops could make a vital impact in combating hunger and malnutrition.

It says: “If we value the ethic of ‘to each according to need’ … then the introduction of GM crops on a large scale would be a moral imperative. This is because GM crops might produce more food, or more employment income with which to obtain food, for those who need it most urgently. More food for the hungry, unlike tomatoes with a longer shelf-life, is a strong ethical counterweight to set against the concerns of the opponents of GM crops.”

The report takes the view that the possibility that GM crops will make a substantial contribution to food security provides a sound reason for doing GM crop research. However, there is an urgent need to direct more GM research at the food staples of developing countries, such as white maize or cassava, rather than just at Western crops.

The report recommends a major increase in aid by the UK Government and others to encourage the application of GM technologies in those developing countries that want them. This effort should aim to boost agricultural employment.

It adds: “We agree that a precautionary approach to so novel a technology as that of GM crops is justified, but we would not wish concerns about the low risk to the inhabitants of developed countries to inhibit the research and development that can benefit the inhabitants of the poorer world.”

Is GM technology safe? Is it “unnatural”?

The report concludes that there is no evidence to suggest GM foods are harmful to human health. GM is in most respects an extension and refinement of what has been happening for ten thousand years. It concludes that the genetic modification of crop plants does not differ to such an extent from plant breeding as to make the process morally objectionable.

GM technology is a new tool which plant breeders are using to achieve their breeding goals more accurately and rapidly. The report accepts that some genetic modifications are truly novel but concludes that there is no clear dividing line which could prescribe what types of genetic modification are unacceptable because they are thought by some to be ‘unnatural’.

The report says: “At the present time public concern and anxiety about the introduction of GM crops and food is running at a high level. There are calls for bans on GM food and moratoria on GM plantings. We do not believe there is evidence of harm to justify such action.”

It therefore recommends a stronger policy framework to minimise risks, and maximise choice and potential benefits, determine the ethical desirability and maximise dissemination of clear information. The Working Party fears that excessive unease about GM crops in the UK and the rest of Europe may deny citizens and governments alike the benefits they can bring.

Future benefits to UK consumers

The report says that as yet the technology has brought little real benefit to consumers in the UK.

GM crops are currently vulnerable to questions about their real usefulness, and to questions about who benefits. But in the future the technology has great potential, and should be targeted to bring better flavoured, more nutritious and cheaper foods onto the shelves. GM research could bring tastier chips and mash, vegetables that contain added vitamins, nuts that don’t cause allergies, or warm temperature crops that could be grown in Canada or Sweden.

“The application of genetic modification to crops has the potential to bring about significant benefits such as improved nutrition, enhanced pest resistance, increased yields and new products such as vaccines,” says the report.

What additional regulations are needed?

The report calls on the UK Government to set up an over-arching, independent, biotechnology advisory committee with a broad remit to consider the scientific, ethical and public values associated with GM crops.

Although there is a continuing need for expert bodies to advise on GM crops, the Working Party considers that a wider group of stakeholder interests should form part of the regulatory structure. The report says field trials and limited commercial planting should be allowed to continue with close monitoring, but that there is a need for a wider regulatory framework that will take a broader approach to the potential problems arising from such technology.

This should include an assessment of the overall effect of plantings, rather than assessing each as a single case, and take account of possible environmental impact on wildlife. The report also calls for better risk/benefit assessment procedures and post-release monitoring.

The Working Party says that where there are detectable GM materials in food derived from GM products, these should be clearly labelled as such. Some people want to avoid GM foods because of how they are grown, not just because of what they contain. But in cases where products derived from GM plants are chemically indistinguishable from ordinary crops, the report concludes that statutory labelling is not necessary or practical.

The report calls for more reliable information to be given to the public about GM foods, and says the new Food Standards Agency should take the lead in providing this. “A well-informed consensus on the facts would resolve some of the arguments and reduce some of the public unease.”

The report makes wider points about the ownership of the research, and says there are dangers if an entire crop is controlled by a single company. It calls on international plant and patent offices to avoid granting broad patents that could lead to monopoly suppliers. The report acknowledges, however, that commercial incentives require that the companies that engage in the research can patent commercially useful results.

The report concludes: “We reaffirm our view that GM crops represent an important new technology which ought to have the potential for doing much good in the world provided that proper safeguards are maintained or introduced.”

Professor Alan Ryan, Chairman of the Working Party and Warden of New College, University of Oxford, said: “The technology behind GM crops and foodstuffs is one of many new technologies made possible by advances in genetics. Like all the rest, it promises considerable benefits at the same time that it threatens some dangers; and one of the messages of our report is that getting the benefits and avoiding the dangers can't be left to the marketplace alone. Intelligent government regulation is needed as well”.

“We think that GM crops are not intrinsically morally suspect. We do not think that GM technology violates nature in ways that other modern plant breeding methods do not. But we recognise that many people do believe it is unnatural, and we do think that anyone who does believe that GM food is unnatural and immoral should be able to avoid it.”