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Human assessment of risk, danger, probability, hazards and worst-case scenarios with regard to genetic engineering biotechnology and its applications. [further issues]
Risks of field trials Date Posted: 09/01/1999 Posted by:
      The following letter on the GM crop trials, published in the press in Norfolk UK, is from Dr Jeremy Bartlett who has a doctorate in plant genetics from the John Innes Centre, often described as the UK's leading plant biotech institute (for more on the JIC see -
            Evening News, Tuesday, August 31, 1999
            GM crop trials are just not worth doing
      I am writing in response to your request for readers' views on genetically modified crop trials in Norfolk (Evening News, August 20).
      I believe there are two fundamental questions that we must ask about these trials.
      Firstly, what will the trials achieve and, secondly, if there are risks involved, are they worth taking?
      The trials are supposed to provide evidence of whether GM crops can be safely grown in this country.
      However, scientists from English Nature have described them as fundamentally flawed, which is a view that I share.
      Numbers of wildflowers, earthworms and beetles in the trial fields are being compared with those in nearby fields of non-GM crops.
      No monitoring is being done on the effect on soil fungi and bacteria, in spite of concerns by leading scientists that horizontal transfer of genes will take place from GM crops to soil microbes.
      Deer, crows or other animals could easily eat or carry off GM material, but again this is being ignored.
      The effects of GM crops on their surroundings are likely to be subtle and may only become known after several years.
      Yet the plan is to grow GM crops for one year on a particular site then monitor for three years hardly long enough to detect any long-term changes or damage.
      As a report from Norwich's John Innes Centre has shown, cross-pollination of GM with non-GM crops is inevitable.
      Oilseed rape, being planted in the latest trials is especially prone to cross-pollination and GM varieties have already been shown to cross with relatives such as wild radish.
      What are the benefits?
      Not more profits for the farmer. GM crops are very expensive to develop and biotechnology companies charge a premium for the seeds and also profit from selling the herbicides to which the crops are resistant. In contrast, nongenetically-modified crops, such as soya from Brazil, can fetch a premium price.
      Not higher yields.
      In studies in the United States, yields of GM crops have been found to be between 12 and 20 per cent lower than non-GM varieties.
      Not fewer chemicals.
      The growing of Roundup resistant soya beans in the United States has led to an increase in the application of this herbicide, usage doubling since 1998.
      The British public has soundly rejected GM foods and most British farmers have rejected GM crops. Indeed, the National Farmers' Union in Scotland has described growing genetically-modified crops as "commercial suicide".
      The Government seem to be the only people backing GM crops. But it is easy for them it is our money, as taxpayers, that they are wasting.
      Dr Jeremy Bartlett, Helena Road, Norwich.
The precautionary principle in GE-Biotech A new paper on the precautionary principle and agricultural biotechnology is now available on the AgBiotech Info website: or direct link:
The paper was written by the Science and Environmental Health Network, in collaboration with several other NGOs. A summary is attached below. (25MAR00)
Comments welcome: Katherine Barrett Science and Environmental Health Network

SUMMARY: "Applying the Precautionary Principle to Agricultural Biotechnology"

This paper sets out a framework for applying the precautionary principle to the release of new and existing genetically engineered (GE) crops. The framework aims to assist NGOs, scientists, regulators and others who are currently addressing issues related to genetic engineering and/or the precautionary principle. The steps outlined here suggest a way forward in the current genetic engineering debate by emphasizing positive, yet precautionary actions to protect the environment and public health.

Existing statements and analyses of the precautionary principle have identified several core elements. These elements can be used to structure a more detailed framework for applying the principle to particular issues, such as genetic engineering.

(1) Protection of public health and the environment is the primary aim of the precautionary principle. However, evaluation of hazards and benefits of a specific technology must be preceded by several larger considerations: long-term goals, alternatives to reaching those goals, open decision-making processes, and a research agenda that supports precautionary action.

(2) More specific steps in precautionary decision-making are required when a particular technology or activity is recognised as potentially -- but not yet proven to be -- harmful. This requires that potential for harm is acknowledged and documented in some way. Harms should be characterised broadly including consideration of: indirect, non-linear effects; standards against which harm is assessed; distribution of harm; and the degree of potential harm both in biological and social terms.

(3) Recognition of scientific uncertainty is a third element of the precautionary principle. Interactions among complex ecological, social and political systems place limits on our predictive capacities, and we must therefore acknowledge an irreducible element of ignorance in all decision-making. Specifically, sources and types of uncertainty should be identified (ranging, for example, from technical difficulties to pervasive indeterminacy), and a weight-of-evidence standard for determining the likelihood of harm should be adopted, rather than relying on strict, quantitative standards evidence akin to "beyond reasonable doubt".

(4) Anticipatory action despite scientific uncertainty is a central tenet of the precautionary principle. Such actions may range from conditional approvals with ongoing monitoring of effects to a complete, permanent ban.

(5) Shifting the burden of proof places responsibility on developers of potentially hazardous technologies to demonstrate that this activity is necessary and that there are no safer alternatives. Proponents must also assume responsibility for testing for harm, monitoring for effects, notifying those who may be affected, and bearing financial costs of any damage incurred. While proponents must shoulder these responsibilities, they must not act in isolation or in secrecy. All analyses and data must be conducted through open, transparent processes and must be subject to review by multidisciplinary, independent third parties. Precautionary principle paper - direct link
back to precautionary principle page

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