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Restoring Confidence after Discredited GM Report

Restoring Confidence after Discredited GM Report

10 October 2012

ANALYSIS - EU politicians have shown scepticism over the safety of genetically modified products, in particular grains for some time, writes Chris Harris.

In France, the concerns have often run deeper than in many other EU countries.

Earlier this year the French government tried to restore a European-wide ban on growing Monsanto's MON810 corn, citing environmental risks despite the French High Court ruling against the ban last year following a similar decision by the European Court of Justice in September last year.

However, the government at the time said it would look at ways to maintain the block on GM planting.

The move failed when the European Food Safety Authority ruled that "there was no specific scientific evidence, in terms of risk to human and animal health or the environment" to support the ban.

Following the failure of the campaign against MON810 maize, last month a paper was published casting doubt on the long-term safety of Monsanto's GM maize NK603.

The animal feeding trial studied the lifetime effects of exposure to Roundup tolerant GM maize, and Roundup, the world's best-selling weed killer.

The researchers said the study, published by the scientific journal Food and Chemical Toxicology, showed that levels currently considered safe can cause tumours and multiple organ damage and lead to premature death in laboratory rats.

The researchers reported that they found that rats fed on a diet containing NK603 Roundup tolerant GM maize, or given water containing Roundup at levels permitted in drinking water and GM crops in the US, died earlier than rats fed on a standard diet.

They suffered mammary tumours and severe liver and kidney damage.

The paper, "Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize was based on a study conducted by a team of scientists led by molecular biologist and endocrinologist Professor Gilles-Eric Seralini, co-director of the Risk Quality and Sustainable Environment Unit at the University of Caen, France, and was supported by independent research organisation, CRIIGEN.

The stir the study caused led the French Government to step in and send the findings to the National Agency for Sanitary Safety. The study's results were also examined by the High Council of Biotechnologies and were sent to the European Food Safety Authority.

The French Agriculture Minister, Stéphane Le Foll, said: "According to the opinion of the ANSES, the Government will ask European authorities to take all necessary steps in terms of protection of human and animal health, measures which may go to authorize the emergency suspension of imports into the European Union of NK603, pending a review of this product.

"This study seems to confirm a lack of toxicity studies required by Community rules on the placing of GM products on the market. It validates the position of precaution taken by the French Government moratorium on GM crops."

However, last week EFSA completely demolished the study and its findings declaring the research unsound.

"The European Food Safety Authority has concluded that a recent paper raising concerns about the potential toxicity of genetically modified (GM) maize NK603 and of a herbicide containing glyphosate is of insufficient scientific quality to be considered as valid for risk assessment," EFSA said.

"EFSA's initial review found that the design, reporting and analysis of the study, as outlined in the paper, are inadequate. To enable the fullest understanding of the study the Authority has invited authors Séralini et al to share key additional information.

"Such shortcomings mean that EFSA is presently unable to regard the authors' conclusions as scientifically sound. The numerous issues relating to the design and methodology of the study as described in the paper mean that no conclusions can be made about the occurrence of tumours in the rats tested."

Despite this categorical rebuff of the findings, campaign groups had already picked up the story and have spread the message that the product is unsafe. The seed of doubt and concern has already been sown in the minds of sceptical consumers - particularly in France.

These concerns that a product can be severely damaged by such a report have been taken up by France's own Institute for Agricultural Research, INRA.

This week INRA president, Francois Houllier (pictured above) pulled no punches.

"The poison of fear and doubt is now in the air, with fear among consumers," Mr Houllier said.

"The impact of this study, even if its conclusions are not yet confirmed, has led to a recent survey stating that eight out of 10 French people are concerned about the possible presence of GMOs in their food.

"Doubts also abound vis-à-vis publicly funded research not fulfilling its function or deliberately ignoring this issue because of its relationships with firms in the agro-chemistry industry.

"Following such reasoning, those who criticise this study would thus be suspected of conflicts of interest or collusion with these firms, in addition to being held guilty of abandoning consumers at risk. The effect is immediate: increased distrust toward "the system" as a whole.

"The harm is done. It is unfair, but not irreparable. Some examples, known to those, who challenge the supposed inertia of State and research organisations, show that public research is indeed conducted on GMOs, and often in difficult conditions.

"Some activists aim to prevent experimental work in a real environment despite the fact that this is necessary in order to provide valid answers regarding legitimate questions from our citizens."

He added that the study only satisfies those, who want to believe in its findings, and he called for more high level research and the resources to fund that research to help restore public confidence and to produce legitimate findings on such products.

Chris Harris

Chris Harris

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