Science in Society Archive

Royal Society Still Ignoring Scientific Evidence

A critique of the new Royal Society Report, Genetically Modified Plants for Food Use and Human Health - An Update, produced for I-SIS by Dr. Sean Lawler is available on I-SIS Members website. The Executive Summary is reproduced below.

Executive Summary

The Royal Society Report ( recommends several changes to current GM food safety regulations:

  • characteristics used in substantial equivalence assessments should be specified;
  • biochemical profiling techniques should be developed in order to define plant composition, and industry and academia should share the data;
  • regulations concerning GM foods for infants should be examined;
  • allergenicity should be studied further, including inhaled allergens, particularly in high risk groups.

The report also examines the health risks of transgenic DNA, concluding them negligible, thereby overlooking a potentially serious hazard.

Major Criticisms

  1. Throughout the report, evidence that seriously questions the safety of GM foods, or the wisdom of GM technology is ignored or dismissed. This includes a whole slew of experimental findings relating to recombination of transgenic DNA. A truly independent analysis of GM foods should give more consideration to such experimental evidence.
  2. Genetic instability of transgenic crops is a major safety issue, but it is not mentioned. The new EC Directive for deliberate release requires that there is strict molecular evidence of genetic stability, to establish the identity of the transgenic line, and to ensure traceability. However, these rules are not being implemented fully at present. A consultation document issued by the UK Advisory Committee for Release to the Environment is in danger of watering down the new stricter EC Directive by asking for molecular data over one generation only.
  3. An earlier 1998 Royal Society report recommended that antibiotic marker genes used in GM plants should be replaced with other markers. This was because of concerns that antibiotic resistance could spread to bacteria. To acknowledge this risk and disregard other risks from horizontal gene transfer is unscientific, and hypocritical.
  4. The possible scenario considered in the Report is oversimplified, there are many more ways genes could affect human health. For example, DNA could be inhaled and affect the respiratory system, where it wouldn’t be subjected to the acidic environment of the stomach, and may persist much longer.
  5. The Report says that viral coat proteins could recombine to form new plant viruses, and crops containing these have in fact been made although not yet released. It recognizes that these crops pose a genuine risk of recombining with natural viruses. This emphasizes the kind of possibility that can arise through the unwise use of GM technology. Any novel viruses could be very damaging, both to the food supply and to ecosystems, which are already under siege by pollutants and shrinking habitat, thus affecting human health indirectly.
  6. The earlier1998 report expressed concern that allergic responses to GM foods may be impossible to predict. The present Report is now satisfied with current testing procedures, "which should ensure that any food that is allergenic will not reach the market". This turn around is striking, because little has changed since the last report.
  7. The Report claims that GM technology offers the benefits of reduced herbicide and pesticide use, through the use of tolerant crops. However, there is a great deal of evidence, again not cited, that these crops have led to an increase in the use of agricultural chemicals, and that these crops are being attacked by new diseases, perhaps due to effects on plant defences.
  8. GM crops often show reduced yields, and are susceptible to new pests. This could well be due to a weakening of the crop due to the effects of the transgene. This evidence is not mentioned in the report
  9. The money, time, and effort invested to promote GM technology that we don’t need, and may not even work, would be much better spent elsewhere. In the light of the evidence there should at least be a recommendation to adopt the precautionary principle and to impose a moratorium on the release of GM plants until all the issues are properly resolved.

Article first published 11/03/02

Got something to say about this page? Comment

Comment on this article

Comments may be published. All comments are moderated. Name and email details are required.

Email address:
Your comments:
Anti spam question:
How many legs on a spider?