BANGKOK - The political furor surrounding genetically modified foods has hampered scientific work and resulted in lax regulation, experts told a conference debating the safety of the technology Tuesday.
Legitimate scientific concerns about the environmental effects of transgenic crops have often been ignored due to fears investors or consumers will be scared away, said Philip Regal of the University of Minnesota.
"I have questions about whether the scientific community has prepared for this era" of genetically modified crops, he told the conference, sponsored by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Regal said the overshadowing of science by politics in the United States began with the Reagan administration in the late 1980s, when biotechnology was almost completely deregulated and critics of the science were ignored.
"Those political problems will not go away" he said, adding that decisions on the future of biotechnology would continue to be heavily influenced by industry and politics rather than governed by good science.
Regal, a long-time observer of the environmental risks of GM food and crops, warned that "we should expect some very strange things to happen. We are making some very powerful interventions in biological systems."
He noted some surprising results from transgenic research that scientists had not predicted, including that transgenic crops are capable of cross pollinating with traditional or wild crops.
Scientists have also found that transgenic fish produce growth hormones in their livers rather than their brains, and that transgenic pathogens could become deadly bioweapons, he said.
Regal called on the scientific community to communicate better across disciplines to assess the risks of transgenic crops or animals. "There are a lot of reasons to be concerned," he said.
Conference organizer Gabrielle Persley of the Paris-based International Council of Scientific Unions underscored Regal's comments.
"None of us know as much as we think we know and none of us know as much as we need to know," she said.
The United States is the largest developer and producer of transgenic crops, and the US regulatory system is often seen as a model for other countries developing their own systems.
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