BioWorld International Correspondent

PARIS - A report produced by a French parliamentary committee studying the pros and cons of researching and using genetically modified organisms showed that a large majority of the 31 members are in favor of full-field trials of transgenic plants.

They argued that such trials are a "necessary, even indispensable" stage for arriving at a rigorous scientific judgment and for enabling "French research to regain its place in the international debate." In the committee's view, France has to ask itself whether it wants to leave developing and producing GMOs to other countries, or whether it should keep up a scientific research effort of its own to forestall any danger of foreign hegemony in genetic engineering technology.

The committee, nevertheless, thought that full field GMO trials should only be authorized on a "case-by-case basis and extremely stringently" and that they should be conducted with complete transparency. At the same time, it calls for a moratorium in 2005 on authorizing new development trials aimed at obtaining marketing approval for particular GMO crops.

A new law on GMOs based on the 60 recommendations contained in the committee's report is due for debate in the French Parliament this summer. It will include a provision for the creation of a new biotechnology council, which would be the government's adviser on everything related to GMOs. The council will be composed partly of representatives of the scientific community and partly of "lay" members, and the Ministry of Research will ask for its opinion before granting authorizations for GMO trials in the future.

Presenting the report, the committee's chairman, Jean-Yves Le Déaut, pointed out that transgenesis was simply a technology.

"In itself, it is neither good nor bad, neither white nor black, neither left nor right. It has to be judged on the merits of the applications submitted by researchers or doctors," he insisted. While most opinion polls showed that the French were afraid of GMOs, he went on, an equally large number was opposed to the destruction of experimental fields of GMO crops each summer by anti-GMO activists. One well-known campaigner immediately responded by threatening to resume plowing up fields of GMO crops this summer.

The report was particularly positive in assessing the impact of GMOs on human health. The committee said it was not informed of any "authenticated health risks" but was told about numerous "potential benefits." Those include enhanced nutritional value in some foods (such as vitamin A-enriched golden rice); significant reductions in mycotoxins and in the allergenic effects of some plants; reduced exposure to pesticides on the part of farmers, especially in the Third World; and the possibility of producing medicines from plants that are devoid of prions or viruses. The committee, nevertheless, advocated continued vigilance to ensure detection of even the slightest degree of toxicity that might develop over the long term.

Regarding the environmental impact of GMOs, the committee saw possible advantages in the form of significantly reduced use of pesticides, as well as improved conservation and quality of water resources through the planting of drought-resistant crops and a reduction in the use of nitrates. At the same time, it warned of the possible risk of resistance genes spreading to wild flora and/or to bacteria in the soil, stressing that one of the reasons for authorizing properly monitored field trials is to remove the doubts that persist at that level. It insisted that such experiments cannot be carried out in a confined space since it is not possible to recreate faithfully all the conditions of the natural environment.

In that regard, the committee also recommended that farmers with harvested crops that are found to contain GMOs in proportions exceeding the 0.9 percent limit in the European Union should be compensated.