UBC Reports | Vol. 47 | No. 04 | Feb.
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
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
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
"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
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
type of weedkiller, have crossed spontaneously to yield new strains resistant
to multiple herbicides. These new "superweeds" are now sprouting
don't want them and their control requires the use of older, more
"This development illustrates the unanticipated ecological
outcomes that can
accompany GM crops," Ellis says. "The next generation of
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
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
Asked specifically to assess the risks to human and animal health and the
environment, it was strongly critical of inadequate funding levels for
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
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.
For a copy of the report including a citizen's summary by Ellis, visit the
Royal Society Web site at www.rsc.ca.