A scientific panel working under the direction of the Royal Society of Canada has declared that genetically modified (GM) foods are not necessarily safe to eat.

About 60 percent of the food in supermarkets today contain genetically modified ingredients such as corn, soy or canola. The biotech industry says these foods are safe and that those who are worried about them are being sensationalists.

But the prestigious panel of Canadian scientists has concluded that there has been inadequate research into GM foods and that the industry’s claims of safety are based on unfounded assumptions.

In Canada, if a GM variety of corn appears superficially to be the same as an unmodified version-in taste, appearance and nutritional value-it is approved without rigorous testing. The panel recommends that GM foods be investigated to determine whether they are harmful to human health, ratherthan just assuming they are not. Their report notes that “mutations in single genes have long been known usually to produce multiple effects.”

Meanwhile, researchers in Britain say that GM plants do not turn into superweeds, combining with, and destroying, regular crops, as some have feared they might. Ten years ago, Mike Crawley and his team at the Imperial College London planted genetically modified oilseed rape, corn, sugar beets and potatoes, alongside natural varieties, in different parts of the U.K. Since that time, the GM foods have all withered and died, along with most of the “natural” crops. The only survivors are the ordinary potatoes.

The GM oilseed rape, corn and sugar beets were resistant to two weedkillers, so the weeds could be sprayed without destroying the crops themselves. Special genes in the GM potatoes produced toxins that were resistant to insects. Despite this, it was the ordinary, non-GM potatoes that lasted the longest.

However, Crawley cautions that these results apply only to the specific crops tested. “You can’t say all GM crops are safe,” he says.

British farmers aren’t taking chances. They are being made to increase the amount of space they leave between GM crops and non-modified ones, from approximately 160 feet to over 300 feet.

Agriculture Minister Baroness Hayman said, “The purpose of the separation distances is to help ensure that any possible cross-pollination with nearby crops is minimized.”

But the Friends of the Earth feel that the wider buffer zones are still “pathetically inadequate.” Member Adrian Bebb states that GM pollen has been found 2 ? miles from a GM trial site. “The livelihoods of conventional and organic farmers and beekeepers around the country who wish to produceGM-free food are now at risk,” he says.

British environment minister Michael Meacher has admitted that contamination could occur no matter what the distance is between GM and non-GM crops. The number of trials of GM crops has been increased, from 48 to 96. Fields of GMcrops will be sown throughout the country this spring, but their locations have not yet been decided.

While Brits are worrying about cross-pollination, it’s been discovered that U.S. farmers are breaking the rules, when it comes to planting GM corn. These rules were developed so that larvae of the European corn borer would not develop a resistance to the bacterial pesticide that is used toeradicate them. This pesticide has been incorporated into the genes of certain kinds of GM corn.

Farmers are supposed to plant regular corn alongside the GM variety, in order to provide a place where the insect larvae can live without developing resistance to the pesticide. The plan is for these insects to crossbreed with any that may develop resistance and thus stop it from spreading.

But a survey has found that only 71 percent of farmers fully complied with this requirement. “That’s not good enough,” says Margaret Mellon, of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Paul Bertels of the American Corn Growers’ Association sees it differently. “We’ve had 71 percent compliance,” he says. “That’s passing grade anywhere.

“There’s room for improvement, however,” he admits. He says that 90 percent of the farmers thought they had followed the rules, which were introduced a year ago by the EPA, but had misunderstood them.

As GM foods multiply, the rules may become too complex for farmers to comply with, meaning that mistakes are bound to occur. And least there are no superweeds in our future-not yet, at least. And we can be thankful for one thing: it looks like the ordinary spud will survive.

For the UK Greenpeace Genfoods website,click here.

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