Genetically modified foods do not pose a threat to human health or the environment and will aid in feeding a growing world population in a sustainable manner, the Royal Society says. It published a factual Q&A guide on 24 May aimed at dispelling myths and misconceptions about GM food.

The 40-page document, written by leading British scientists in the field, said half the UK population was ill informed about GM crops and a further 6% had never heard of them.

It stated that currently available GM produce is "at least as safe to eat" as non-GM food, but conceded that new GM varieties can potentially cross-breed with closely-related plants and lead to undesirable environmental side effects.

A GM crop variety is created by altering the plant's DNA in a lab. This typically involves adding a new trait it does not naturally possess, such as resistance to certain pests or pesticides.

Several European countries have banned the commercial cultivation of genetically altered crops, but the European Union as a whole imports large quantities of GM produce from overseas – mostly soy bean, cotton and maize from the US.

No danger

"There is no evidence that a crop is dangerous to eat just because it is GM," the Royal Society guide said. "There could be risks associated with the specific new gene introduced, which is why each crop with a new characteristic introduced by GM is subject to close scrutiny. Since the first widespread commercialisation of GM produce 18 years ago, there has been no evidence of ill effects linked to the consumption of any approved GM crop."

GM Crops
GM crop varieties of maize, soy bean, sugar beet and cotton are widely cultivated in the US Reuters

Currently, GM produce is grown by 28 countries around the world, including the US, Canada, Australia, China, India and Brazil, and on 10% of the planet's arable land. There are no GM crops cultivated in the UK.

Crops being grown commercially include alfalfa, aubergine, sugar beet, squash, tomato, sweet pepper, papaya, oilseed rape, maize, soy beans and cotton.

The Royal Society said there was no documented evidence to suggest a crop is bad for the environment just because it is GM. However, "there could be unexpected side effects from any new crop variety, GM or non-GM, as well as with any agricultural practices," it added. "Risk assessment and appropriate testing of all new crops, along with ongoing monitoring should mitigate the risks."

The Royal Society went on to say that GM food will be an important tool to meet the challenges of sufficient food and sustainable agriculture in the future. "It will not be sufficient on its own but it may be useful for addressing some of the challenges facing agriculture," it stated.

Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society, added: "We recognise that our answers will not end the controversy, but we hope that they will inform people about the science and allow those who might previously have felt excluded from the discussion to form a view."