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New GM foods offer no consumer benefits

13th April 2000

The consumer benefits of the next generation of GM foods - those with nutritional modifications - are being overstated by the biotech industry, says a new research report launched today at the House of Commons by The Food Commission and GeneWatch UK.

The major beneficiaries of GM crops with altered oils, starches, proteins and vitamins are likely to be the biotechnology companies, food and animal feed processors and other industrial non-food users, rather than consumers concludes the report.

Biotech - The Next Generation looks behind the much-hyped claims of benefits for consumers in the developed and developing worlds from the 'second generation' GM foods in the pipeline. It reveals that:

Most second generation GM crops are targeted at making food processing easier or cheaper, such as genetically modified oils to make chocolate and margarine, or ingredients for animal feed, cosmetics and biodegradable plastics.

In the developed world, there is little evidence that foods with enhanced nutritional characteristics ('functional foods') have a significant role to play in improving public health. GM 'functional foods' are unlikely to find a market in developed countries although they may provide cheaper sources of ingredients, such as beta-carotene or vitamin E, for food fortification or food supplements.

In the developing world, crops with increased levels of vitamins (such as vitamin A rice) may have a role to play, but this should not be overstated. Such crops are many years from being available to farmers and alternative solutions to poor diets exist that have wider health benefits. Progress towards the elimination of micronutrient deficiencies in developing countries is hindered, not by lack of GM foods, but by political, economic, cultural and social factors.

Despite its obvious consumer benefit, only limited work has been undertaken to remove allergens from allergy-triggering foods such as peanuts, rice and milk.

Nutritionally altered GM foods raise new safety concerns compared to those being sold now and current systems of assessment are not adequate to deal with the risks.

'In a desperate bid to reverse its failing fortunes, the biotech industry wants to convince us that there will be real consumer advantages to GM foods, but we could find no significant evidence to support this claim' says Sue Dibb of The Food Commission and co-author of the report. 'GM is unlikely to play any significant role in providing healthier diets, either in the developing or developed world.'

The report calls for governments to support nutrition programmes which have proven benefits, and for tighter regulation of nutritionally altered foods.

'These new GM foods may pose safety risks that the current system is unable to deal with. Health claims for functional foods - whether GM or not - are poorly regulated' said Sue Mayer of GeneWatch UK, co-author of the report. 'The Government must act to ensure people are not misled and that any GM nutritionally altered foods will be safe to eat'.

Notes to editors:

1. For press copies of the report: The Food Commission: Tel: 020 7837 2250 Fax: 020 7837 1141. Note: this publication is no longer available

2. For further information:

Sue Dibb Tel: 020 7837 2250 (work); 020 7625 8685 (home).

Sue Mayer Tel: 01298 871898 (work); 07930 308807 (mobile).

3. Biotech - the Next Generation. Good for whose health? by Sue Dibb of The Food Commission and Dr Sue Mayer of GeneWatch UK, is launched at 10am on 13th April 2000, at the House of Commons with Joan Ruddock, MP, Professor Tim Lang (Thames Valley University) and Clare Joy (World Development Movement).

4. Copies of the report are available from: Food Commission Publications, 94 White Lion Street, London N1 9PF (Tel: 020 7837 2250). Price 40 (10 individuals/non-profit organisations).Note: this publication is no longer available

5. The Food Commission is an independent consumer watchdog on food issues which researches and campaigns for safer, healthier food. GeneWatch UK is an independent policy research group that monitors developments in genetic technologies.