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Major study casts new light on risks of GM farming

An extensive review of 250 scientific publications which address issues of the impacts of GM crops has concluded that many of the concerns which feature prominently in media coverage do not stand up to careful scrutiny.

The review, which has been published in the January edition of The Plant Journal, was co-authored by New Zealand scientists Tony Conner and Travis Glare with a Dutch colleague Jan-Peter Nap.

The authors have produced a very detailed analysis of the outcomes of 250 published research papers which studied a wide range of environmental impacts, weediness, horizontal gene flow, ecological, biodiversity and other concerns about gene technology.

This study will make a major contribution to the policy development process in New Zealand and other parts of the world, the Chairman of the Life Sciences Network, Dr William Rolleston said today.

It very clearly highlights the need to compare GM advances with the alternatives which are available through traditional breeding methods.

The authors conclude that GM agriculture, in conjunction with conventional agricultural practices such as integrated pest management techniques, can contribute to a cost-effective, sustainable, productive and sufficiently safe form of agriculture.

As the world’s population continues to grow and the pressure on good farming land from urban sprawl increases we must continue to find more efficient and sustainable forms of agricultural production, especially in developing countries.

The authors are of the view that bans on GM crops could limit options for farmers and end up being imprudent rather that precautionary. That is a very salutary message for New Zealand and Europe.

Major conclusions of the review are:

GM crops are no more likely than traditional crops to lead to super pests and diseases

GM crops are no more likely to become weeds outside farming situations than other cultivars.

GM crops are no more invasive, persistent or likely to become weeds than conventional counterparts.

GM crops are no more likely to transfer transgenes, or any other gene, than other crop cultivars.

Horizontal gene transfer can occur at exceptionally low frequencies and therefore deserves less attention than it gets but potential for development of resistance to useful antibiotics should be avoided.

Generally no undesirable effects have been found on insect predators from GM crops modified for insect resistance compared with traditional crops.

It’s too early to draw conclusions about secondary ecological impacts. The examples of secondary effects which have been discovered to date have not disclosed problems at an ecosystem level.

The use of GM crops has led to huge reductions in pesticides which is likely to have a positive impact on agrobiodiversity.

GM crops are no more likely than any other change in agriculture to affect biodiversity negatively.

When measuring impacts of GM crops the appropriate point of reference is a comparison with other plants which have been modified using traditional breeding methods.

The risk of not using GM crops should also be part of the risk assessment.

The Life Sciences Network urges all those people who are active in the debate about gene technology to lead the full paper. A summary can be found on the LSN’s website, concluded Dr Rolleston.

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