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for a responsible, fair & sustainable food system

Groups press Spelman for real reform on GM Crop Risk Assessment

Immediate release (5 May 2011)

Calls to Pete Riley 07903 341 065

An alliance of 19 environment, consumer and sustainable development groups from across Europe recently wrote to Defra Secretary of State Caroline Spelman [1] calling for major changes to the draft risk assessment procedures companies will have to follow when applying for approval to grow GM crops.

They say current proposals lack rigour and are based on approaches developed by the biotech corporations themselves, so cannot hold them properly to account.

The Environment Council of the EU (on which Mrs Spelman sits) still has to approve the draft environmental risk assessment guidance before it becomes a legal requirement. Other EU environment ministers have also been contacted.

The draft risk assessment guidance was prepared by the European Food Safety Agency GMO Panel [2].

The Signatories to the letter welcome move to make the risk assessment procedure legally binding and they are strongly advising Mrs Spelman to:

…substantially improve the guidance. Otherwise, it will be “business as usual” with EFSA continuing to rubber-stamp industry data without ensuring thorough testing, and it will be impossible for Member States to justify GMO environmental risk assessments to their citizens. Once the text of the guidance is strengthened, it is of utmost importance that you ensure that it is rigorously implemented: EFSA has to improve its assessments in practice, when formulating its opinions on the safety of GM crops.

The letter and annex detail the shortcomings of the current draft guidance including:

  • Failure to require wide consultation on “problem formulation” or deciding where risk assessment are needed.
  • Continued reliance on the concept of comparative risk assessment or substantial equivalence [3] which is widely viewed as unscientific.
  • Failure to provide guidance on how applicants should deal with scientific uncertainty[4].
  • Failure to provide guidance for testing for combinational and synergistic effects [5].
  • Failure to require stacked GMOs [6] to assessed as new GMOs.
  • Failure to require a comprehensive assessment of non-target organisms [7] at all levels in the food web including the soil.

The group is also urging Mrs Spelman to support moves to improve transparency and access to raw data from GM assessments, usually conducted by the biotech companies themselves, so that independent scientists can re-evaluate their findings.

Commenting Pete Riley of GM Freeze said:

There is EU-wide support for tightening the risk assessment for GM crops and making the approvals process far more inclusive so that allowing the concerns of Member States, individual farmers, independent scientists and the public to be fully considered alongside the analysis of the biotech companies.

The current draft guidance leaves a lot to be desired and leans far too heavily on outdated concepts, such as ‘substantial equivalence’, developed by the very biotech companies who stand to profit from GM crops gaining approval. Nothing should be approved without solid evidence that there will be no long-term impacts, especially on non-target organisms above and below the ground.

Mrs Spelman must work with other EU Ministers to ensure that the precautionary principle is applied to every application. Allowing GM crops to be grown commercially before identifying what long-term damage they may cause would be folly, and problems identified may come too late to take remedial measures. The cat would be out of the bag leaving European environment and consumers to pay the price.



[1] See letter and annex here.

[2] The draft EFSA guidance is available at

[3]Substantial equivalence is based on the assumption that the only difference between the GM crop and its non-GM parent is the presence of the GM trait and ignores the possibility of unintentional changes in the function of genes and plant chemistry arising from the process of genetic engineering. These could have significant health and/or environment impacts.

[4] In risk assessments, data may be lacking, poor quality or inconclusive which would create uncertainty in how it should be interpreted and how such uncertainty should be interpreted should be covered in the risk assessment guidance.

[5] Some GM crops may have several GM traits. The additive effects of these traits in combination needs to be assessed as well as possible synergistic effects where the impact of the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

[6] GM crops were two or more GM traits are described as “stacked” (Smartstax maize which is commercially available in the US has eight GM traits).

[7] GM crops and there management may impact on organisms which are not specifically the target of the GM trait, eg insect resistant genes could affect beneficial predatory insects such as lacewing or ladybirds.