LONDON, U.K.--A panel of experts appointed by the British government to assess the safety of genetically modified (GM) crops gave a qualified thumbs up today in a report that may lead to a breach in the 5-year Europe-wide moratorium on commercial GM crop planting. In the most comprehensive scientific review yet attempted--filling 300 pages and with roughly 600 references to scientific studies--the 24 scientists and other experts argued that there is no scientific basis for banning GM crops but there is still a need for tight regulation and further research.
The U.K., along with the rest of the European Union, has had a moratorium on commercial GM crops since 1998. In spring 2002, in the face of largely hostile public opinion, the British government commissioned "three strands of evidence," including this review, a series of public debates (Science, 13 June, p. 1637), and an economic report released last month. That report argued that with few GM crops currently suited to British conditions, short-term financial benefits would be minimal but long-term profits could be large. These strands, along with farm-scale trials of GM crops expected to be completed this summer, will figure in Britain's final decision on whether to give GM crops the go-ahead--a decision the government hopes to announce later this year.
The new report notes that there has been little evidence of harm to human health in countries where GM crops have been grown over the past 7 years, nor is it likely that these crops will invade the countryside. But the panel concluded that the most important issue is the potentially detrimental effect on farmland biodiversity and wildlife and it called for more research on biodiversity, soil ecology, allergenicity, and gene flow to non-GM plants. "This is not a red light or a green light for GM crops," says chemist David King, the government's chief scientific adviser, who chaired the panel.
Sue Mayer of the genetic technology watchdog GeneWatch UK commended the review for bringing "the issue of uncertainty to the fore." These uncertainties include the lack of suitable methods to detect any potential harm to human health and the lack of accurate predictions of environmental impacts.