British Lords OK Transgenic Crops

HEBDEN BRIDGE, U.K.--A new legislative report from the United Kingdom says that the possible benefits of transgenic crops outweigh the drawbacks. But the report, released yesterday by a committee of the House of Lords, appears unlikely to change minds or ease the storm of debate over genetically modified foods.

Britain is one of the hotbeds of European dissent over genetically modified food, with environmentalists tearing up experimental crops, tabloids ranting about "Frankenstein Foods," and the Prince of Wales declaring himself opposed to tinkering with genes. The new report comes from the House of Lords' 12-member Select Committee on the European Communities, which collected evidence from dozens of scientists, environmentalists, and trade and industry representatives.

Genetically modified crops, the Lords conclude, hold great promise for reduced use of chemicals, lower prices, and better food quality. The committee said there was little evidence to back up many of the alleged dangers, such as harm to human health or spreading of resistance to microbes or herbicides. The report addresses a few thorny European issues--for example, it backs the right of European Union members to set their own policies on planting genetically modified crops--but mostly deals with the situation in Britain. It also calls for a new advisory body to identify and fill gaps in safety research, review monitoring practices, and dig into other strategic, technical, or ethical issues.

The Food and Drink Federation, which represents manufacturers, welcomed the report as "a valuable contribution to the debate." But British environmental groups, such as Friends of the Earth (FoE), called it "flawed." Although the report calls for the phasing out of the practice of using antibiotic resistance genes as "markers" out of concern that such resistance will be passed on to humans, it said nothing about importing crops that already contain them. FoE spokesperson Peter Riley says the United Kingdom should ban the practice, as Austria and Luxembourg have done.

Others criticized its suggestion for another advisory committee, noting that Britain already has a committee advising the government on the safety of transgenic test sites and another that oversees transgenic food safety. "I believe the existing advisory bodies are adequate," says John Beringer, dean of science at the University of Bristol, who chairs the latter committee.