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Genetically Modified Crops

All living organisms including bacteria, plants, animals and humans, contain genes which determine that organisms physical characteristics such as eye and hair/fur colour, fertility and flower colour and scent.

Improvements to plants have traditionally been achieved through breeding programmes which seek to optimise the chance of specific characteristics being inherited. For example by crossing a sweet smelling rose with a disease resistant variety with the intention of retaining both desirable characteristics in the off-spring. A more accurate and faster way to deliver improvements is via genetic modification.

Genetically modified crops, also known as transgenic crops, are plants which have been modified or altered, via genetic engineering, to enhance or add certain desirable characteristics. Many people view this process as a simple extension to the traditional plant hybridisation allowing the cross breeding of plants which would not be possible via tradition techniques. The characteristics which may be introduced are varied, differ from crop to crop and include, for example:

  • enhanced flavour;
  • improved protein quality and quantity;
  • higher yield expectancy;
  • better resistance to disease and pests;
  • and enhanced ability to cope with stress and environmental pollution.

Therefore, they offer the promise of cheaper, more nutritious foods to the consumer. However, there are many concerns regarding their use and their general release into the environment. These are primarily;

  • the behaviour of the modified organisms in the environment and the ability of the gene to transfer to unintended species;
  • their dominance and environmental persistence;
  • unforeseen allergens and toxins; and
  • public perception and consumer resistance.

Within the Europe all foods which contain genetically modified material must be labelled as such (Novel Food and Food Ingredient Regulations) and can only be sold, in the UK, after a tough and lengthy process of scientific checks. These controls include:

  • Laboratory research controlled by HSE;
  • Consultation with the Advisory Committee on Genetic Modification (ACGM);
  • Consent for field trials by the Secretary of State for the Environment (Genetically Modified Micro-Organisms Directive);
  • Environmental Risk Assessment by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions; and
  • Consideration by the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP).

Within the UK regulations also exist which control their on-farm use. These include for example, the need to keep the crop strictly separated from other non-GMO crops. If mixing occurs the whole will be treated as GMO's.

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