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UBC Reports | Vol. 47 | No. 04 | Feb. 22, 2001

Scientists issue food biotechnology warning

Absence of evidence of risk to humans is not enough, says Agricultural Sciences Prof. Brian Ellis

by Bruce Mason staff writer

The Royal Society of Canada has serious questions about the regulation of genetically modified (GM) foods and crops.

National attention and debate has focused on a report of its Expert Panel on the Future of Food Biotechnology, co-chaired by Brian Ellis, professor of Agricultural Sciences and associate director of UBC's Biotechnology Laboratory.

Among 53 recommendations by Ellis and 13 other top national scientists are the conclusions that more rigorous and independently reviewed testing is required along with a moratorium on growing GM fish in net-pens on Canada's coasts.

"Genetic engineering is a powerful technology and it won't be going away," Ellis says. "However, the public needs to be confident there will be thorough and objective assessment in which the public good remains the ultimate benchmark."

Ellis reports on new problems with control of herbicide-resistant canola, a multibillion-dollar crop on the Prairies.

Three types of GM canola, each engineered to resist a different type of weedkiller, have crossed spontaneously to yield new strains resistant to multiple herbicides. These new "superweeds" are now sprouting where farmers don't want them and their control requires the use of older, more toxic chemicals.

"This development illustrates the unanticipated ecological outcomes that can accompany GM crops," Ellis says. "The next generation of GM crops will carry new genes that make them more frost or drought tolerant, providing potential advantages over their wild cousins."

The panel was strongly critical of the level of secrecy surrounding testing of genetically modified organisms.

"The credibility of scientific process requires peer review and independent analysis of results," Ellis told national media at a press conference in Ottawa.

With co-chair Conrad Brunk of the University of Waterloo, he warned that mere absence of evidence of risk to human and environmental safety is not enough.

The panel was established one year ago at the request of Health Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Environment Canada to provide advice to the federal government.

Asked specifically to assess the risks to human and animal health and the environment, it was strongly critical of inadequate funding levels for independent research.

Increasing domination of university research by commercial interests is removing incentives for scientific research aimed at the public good the report warned and noted the need to maintain a strong pattern of such research.

Canada, the third largest producer of GM crops, has no law requiring labeling of GM foods, unlike Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.

On this contentious issue, the panel favoured thorough and appropriate testing over labeling unless there is scientific evidence of significant risks to certain people, such as those with allergies. It did, however, advocate strong government support of a system of voluntary labeling.

more information

For a copy of the report including a citizen's summary by Ellis, visit the Royal Society Web site at www.rsc.ca.


Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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