PARIS - The French government has been urged by a panel of 14 members of the general public to be extremely vigilant about the cultivation of transgenic plants and their use in the production of food.

The panel, scientifically selected to be representative of the French population, spent two days late last month listening to the views of researchers, farmers, seed companies, environmentalists, consumer associations and lawyers.

The 15-page report it produced was not a unanimous document, and did not come out either for or against transgenic plants.

Some panel members went so far as to call for exclusion from the food chain of the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) transgenic corn introduced by Novartis AG, of Basel, Switzerland. The crop, designed to resist pests, will be harvested this fall.

Other panel members opted for the evaluation of transgenic plants on a case-by-case basis.

In the human health field, all panel members agreed on the virtue of research continuing, but recommended that “genes which are markers of resistance to antibiotics should not be used as selection tools in the construction phase of transgenic plants.“

The panel's main concerns did not relate to the science or application of genetic engineering, but to the legal and administrative framework circumscribing it.

In particular, it called for the reform of the Biomolecular Engineering Commission, the advisory body responsible for vetting and authorizing transgenic plant projects, considering both its membership and its working methods unsatisfactory.

The panel suggested the commission comprise a general committee of scientists, farmers, consumers and politicians backed by a multidisciplinary scientific group. This would consist of molecular biologists, doctors, environmentalists and others, who would be required to declare their interests, making particular mention of scientific or market research contracts with private business.

The commission, which would consider all applications for the cultivation of transgenic plants, should submit its decisions to the relevant minister, according to the panel, and all its opinions should be made public.

In addition, the panel recommended the establishment of a “biovigilance committee“ made up of “consumers, farmers, scientists, politicians who are transparent and known for their independence vis-à-vis industrial pressure groups.“

Among other things, this committee would decide the threshold of tolerance permitted for the quantity of genetically modified DNA.

As regards the environmental risk of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the panel said further research was required and that licenses to grow transgenic plants should be withdrawn in the event of unwanted propagation or unexpected toxicity.

The panel was unhappy about the legal situation. It said the law should be amended to make those who introduce GMOs into the environment (or onto the market) responsible for any harmful effects on people and to give victims up to 10 years to file a complaint.

In addition, it said seed suppliers should also be held responsible, and steps should be taken to ensure the traceability of genetically modified seed.

At a general level, some members of the panel stressed the benefits of GMOs for agriculture, but said the first generation of transgenic plants has been too oriented to the economic interests of producers. They would like the second generation to take more account of consumers' needs.

That said, French farmers do not seem to have been convinced by the economic arguments for transgenic plants, having planted only an estimated 2,000 hectares of Novartis' transgenic corn this year, despite the fact it is resistant to the pyral caterpillar, which costs them an estimated FFr500 million a year. *