Important Document
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Royal Society issued an important document this February. It is called

Genetically modified plants for food use and human health - an update

and can be found at www.royalsoc.ac.uk

We are presenting here the SUMMARY formulated in 9 points.

It is obvious - as declared in the point 3) - that the document reflects British public opinion and is "taking account of wider issues than the science alone". This evoked criticism of several scientists. When filtering off specific atmosphere in UK created mainly by the BSE affair, following comments could be suggested:

Ad 3) Public opinion is very important for the development of biotechnology and its application. To establish effective dialogue with public is an important task of academic community. But these factors must not affect scientific evaluation of the impact of GM plants as food components on human health.

Ad 4) The principle of substantial equivalence has certain scientific value showing the inserted gene did not affect other traits. However, it is of limited value in regulatory measures as stated at the Bangkok OECD Conference (July 2001) for following reasons: a) it is not applicable to the second generation of GM crops; b) no new variety developed by "standard" techniques that might induced risk (e.g., radiation mutagenesis) is evaluated in this way; c) the scatter of values in the set of all commercial "conventional" varieties is not known therefore the importance of their fluctuation in the GM variety cannot be interpreted.

Ad 5) This point in fact supports the above comment: it is necessary to "define the 'normal' compositions of conventional plants" before we ask for "substantial equivalence"

Ad 6) This chapter is lacking logic: is said "Such alterations might also occur in the course of conventional breeding" but it asked for safety just for GM plants. Again, not science, but politics formulated this chapter. Naturally, certain "conventional" techniques of breeding might generate unknown mutated proteins with unknown health impact (this is science), but to ask for health evaluation of all new varieties as a condition of their registration will not be accepted by the breeding companies (this is politics). Thus, the populist focus just on GM plants was preferred.

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The Summary of the Royal Society document:

Summary

  1. In 1998 the Royal Society published a report, Genetically modified plants for food use, which concluded that the use of genetically modified (GM) plants had the potential to offer benefits in agricultural practice, food quality, nutrition and health, but that there were several aspects of GM technology that required further consideration. The Royal Society appointed a group of experts to update this report based on research since 1998. This update focuses on the effects that GM foods might have on human health and the use of the principle of substantial equivalence in GM food safety testing.
  2. Few, if any, GM food products are currently available to buy in Europe and the UK. Commercial varieties produced elsewhere, in the USA and Canada for example, are designed to confer resistance to pests and to produce tolerance to specific herbicides. Over the next decade biotechnology will be aimed at improving many qualities of crops, including nutrition and agronomic performance. We support the continuation of research in this area as valuable in itself and as the only way to assess the true potential of GM plants.
  3. We endorse the conclusions of the 21st report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (1998) that scientific assessments must inform policy decisions but cannot pre-empt them, and that public opinion must be taken into account throughout. We believe that the public debate about GM food must take account of wider issues than the science alone. We also wish to stress the importance of informing debate with sound science.
  4. We have some concerns about the regulatory processes governing the development and use of GM plants. We agree with the FAO/WHO 2000 report that the criteria for safety assessments should be made explicit and objective and that differences in the application of the principle of substantial equivalence, for example in different Member States of the European Union, need to be resolved. We welcome the development of consensus documents by the OECD for different crops so that the principle of substantial equivalence can be applied uniformly. It may not be necessary or feasible to subject all GM foods to the full range of evaluations, but those conditions, which have to be satisfied, should be defined.
  5. In the future safety assessments of GM and non-GM foods could make use of various new profiling techniques. Long-term research is required before these techniques can be applied. We recommend that research should continue to develop such technologies and thereby define the 'normal' compositions of conventional plants. We welcome the funding initiatives already put in place by the European Union Framework V programme and the UK's Food Standards Agency. Collaboration between the chemical industry, academia and regulators to develop techniques and share reference data will help ensure that agreement is reached on interpretation of results and use of new technologies.
  6. One potential application of GM technology is to improve the nutritional quality of crops. It is possible that GM technology could lead to unpredicted harmful changes in the nutritional status of foods (Nicoletti, C. 2000, Unsolved mysteries of intestinal M cells. Gut, 47, 735-739). Such alterations might also occur in the course of conventional breeding. Nutritional assessments are made as part of the safety assessment of GM crops, but more detailed guidelines would be beneficial. Vulnerable groups such as infants need special guidelines. To date no GM food for use in infant products has been submitted for approval. Detailed guidelines and legislation already exist for infant formulas and follow-on foods but it is not clear how they interact with GM food regulations. Therefore we recommend that both the Government and the European Commission should ensure that these two sets of regulations are complementary. Guidelines such as those described by COMA (1996) for nutritional assessment of infant formulas and more recently by Aggett et al. (2001) (Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition, 32, 256-258) should be adopted for both novel and GM foods.
  7. There is at present no evidence that GM foods cause allergic reactions. The allergenic risks posed by GM plants are in principle no greater than those posed by conventionally derived crops or by plants introduced from other areas of the world. One shortcoming in current screening methods, which applies to both conventional and GM foods, is that there is no formal assessment of the allergenic risks posed by inhalation of pollen and dusts. We therefore recommend that current decision trees be expanded to encompass inhalant as well as food allergies.
  8. Plant viral DNA sequences are commonly used in the construction of the genes inserted into GM plants, and concern has been expressed about this. Having reviewed the scientific evidence we conclude that the risks to human health associated with the use of specific viral DNA sequences in GM plants are negligible.
  9. One concern associated with GM foods is the possibility that genes introduced into GM plants might become incorporated into the consumer's genetic make-up. Since the Royal Society's 1998 report various papers have been published on this topic. The results need to be viewed in the context of a normal diet, which for humans and animals comprises large amounts of DNA. This DNA is derived not only from the cells of food sources, but also from any contaminating microbes and viruses. Given the very long history of DNA consumption from a wide variety of sources, we conclude that such consumption poses no significant risk to human health, and that additional ingestion of GM DNA has no effect.

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