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British Doctors Call for Halt to GM Crop Trials

The British Medical Association (BMA), which has a membership of over 120,000 and represents more than 80% of British doctors, has called for a moratorium on GM crop trials in Scotland. Lim Li Ching reports.

In its submission to the Scottish Parliament’s Health and Community Care Committee on 20 November 2002, the BMA urged that GM crop trials be stopped immediately, as a precautionary measure to safeguard public health. It said that "insufficient care" has been taken over public health and concerns are "serious enough" to justify an immediate end to the trials.

The Health Committee, in response to a petition from the Munlochy GM Vigil, had launched an inquiry into the health impacts of GM crops. The inquiry is considering whether the Scottish Executive’s decision to approve the testing of GM crops at a number of sites in Scotland will have negative consequences on public health.

The BMA originally called for a moratorium on the planting of GM crops in 1999. At that time, the doctors had already expressed deep concerns about the impact of GM foods on long-term health and had called for a halt to any further planting of GM crops until trials could be assessed for environmental contamination and ecological impact. Its latest submission is made with the benefit of more information, and notes instead that the numbers of crop trials have increased, without the requisite thorough assessments or adequate public consultation.

The BMA’s answer to the Committee’s question as to whether the Executive should prevent GM crops trials from continuing on the grounds that it is against the precautionary principle was a resounding "Yes". Citing the lack of a robust and thorough search into the potentially harmful effects of GM foods on human health, the BMA urged that on the basis of the precautionary principle, farm scale trials should not be allowed to continue. It stated that the concerns doctors have about the impact GM foods may have on long-term health are serious enough to warrant a precautionary approach.

It urged that GM crops be subject to rigorous and comprehensive risk assessment prior to farm scale trials, including the consideration of longer-term environmental and health consequences. Only once such rigorous assessment is made should field trials be allowed. And until these risks are fully understood and quantified by field trials, there should be a moratorium on any further planting of GM crops on a commercial basis.

Currently, the BMA said that not enough is known to give an accurate risk assessment of the health impact of GM crops on the health of local communities. It thus called for independently funded and reviewed research in the public domain, which considers the long term health and environmental health impacts of GM crop planting and the consumption of GM food. Until such research is conducted, GM crops should not be freely cultivated and extension of the current farm-scale trials would be "ill advised" and "potentially irresponsible".

According to the BMA, the most worrying issue is the potential danger posed by GM crops in creating antibiotic resistant pathogenic organisms. ISIS has been consistently drawing attention to this issue and to the dangers of horizontal gene transfer. The BMA asserted that there is evidence that these genes may be transferred to non-GM plants and that there is significant risk of antibiotic resistance transferring "possibly into pathogenic organisms causing human disease".

Any increase in the number of resistant micro-organisms through the transfer of marker genes from GM foods would potentially have very serious adverse effects on human health.The BMA cited the use of antibiotic resistant markers in GM foods as a completely unacceptable risk, however slight to human health, and called for the use of antibiotic resistant markers in GMOs to be prohibited immediately.

Another concern expressed was the potential adverse effects of allergenicity on human health from GM products. The BMA called for further research and tests on GM foodstuffs for allergenicity, pending which there should be an open-ended moratorium on transgenic products, and especially on introducing nut genes and proteins etc. into cereals.

The BMA warned that routine health surveillance currently in place would not pick up adverse effects on the health of people living in the vicinity of GM crop trial sites. It thus called on the Executive to monitor the health of people living near the trial sites and to track any subtle changes in these areas.

Dr Charles Saunders, Chair of the BMA’s Scottish Committee for Public Health Medicine and Community Health, cautioned that the absence of monitoring meant any potential side effects experienced by people living near GM crops trials were not being picked up. He said, "There are certain mechanisms within the NHS with regards to human health in relation to food that tend to pick up known organisms and known conditions. They are quite good at picking up things that kill people, but are relatively poor at picking up things that don’t. I would have no confidence in their ability to pick up unusual symptoms in people living near GM trial sites."

Following the BMA’s submission, Robin Harper, Green MSP, tabled a motion in the Scottish Parliament, calling on MSPs of all parties to demand the halting of the trials. The Scottish National Party, the main opposition party in the Parliament, also threw its weight behind moves to have the trials stopped, saying there was now overwhelming evidence against them continuing.

However, the Scottish Executive continues to insist that there is "no evidence" that the field trials are inherently harmful and denies that public health is being put in danger. Ross Finnie, the Scottish Minister for Environment and Rural Development, says that he has no plans to introduce a moratorium on GM crops. Sources:

Submission of the British Medical Association to the Health and Community Care Committee on the health impact of GM crop trials

  1. ‘Doctors want GM crop ban’, BBC News, 20 November 2002, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/2494267.stm
  2. ‘Crop trials must stop, say doctors’, The Scotsman, 19 November 2002, http://www.thescotsman.co.uk/index.cfm?id=1284692002
  3. ‘BMA report leads to call for halt on GM crop trials’, The Scotsman, 20 November 2002

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