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    Factor GMO Launch Biggest ever Study into Genetically Modified Crops

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    Campaigners have given a letter to Downing Street warning of the hazards of genetically modified crops. Their plea came when a Russian-led initiative was launched as the World's largest ever study on GMO safety.

    In a swanky London hotel close to Buckingham Palace, scientists and campaigners rubbed shoulders at the press launch of a study whose ambitions are as grand as the world-famous residence a stone's throw away.

    Since the first genetically modified crop, a tomato, was approved for sale in the US in 1994, research on GM crops has mostly been carried out by biotech companies or GMO critics.

    But the Russian-led initiative, Factor GMO, aims to utilise the heat of the debate while also shedding some light on it.

    Co-ordinated by the Russian National Association for Genetic Safety (NAGS), it will look at whether GM food and its associated pesticide use over the long term cause cancer, reduce fertility and increase birth defects.

    At a price tag of $25m, Factor GMO says it is the most expensive and comprehensive long-term study of the impact of GMO crops and pesticides.

    Reducing the uncertainty

    Elena Shroykina is the initiator of the project and co-founder of NAGS.

    She says most of the money has been raised by as yet undisclosed donors in Europe and Russia but none of the funding has come from the Russian state.

    The study, which will start next year, will be independent of vested interests.

    She said that previous studies had caused controversy over factors such as the choice of animal, inadequate statistics and the duration of the tests.

    "The project organizers have considered all of the points of disagreement and distrust surrounding the project. In order to prevent irreversible consequences, humankind must ensure the total safety of GM crops and their associated pesticides before they are planted more widely," she said.

    One of the scientists at the launch was Bruce Blumberg who is Professor of Developmental and Cell Biology at the University of California.

    He said that herbicide-resistant crops are widespread in the US.

    "There is a notable lack of published, peer-reviewed data on their safety as well as data on the safety of the increased use of herbicides with which they are grown.

    The Factor GMO study could be very useful in reducing the uncertainty about the safety of these products."

    Five generations of rats

    Most GM crops, such as soya and maize, have been genetically engineered to withstand spraying with glyphosate. It is the main ingredient in the weed killer Roundup which allows the crops to grow even if fields have been sprayed with the chemical.

    The three-year experiment will involve scientists testing thousands of rats which will be fed differing diets of a Monsanto GM maize and glysophate.

    Dr Oxana Sinitsyna is from the Russian-based Sysin Institute of Human Ecology and Environmental Health.

    She says that most rat feeding trials with GM food have been limited to 90 days and only looked at two generations.

    However, this project will follow five generations of rats and will look at changes to cancer rates or birth abnormalities.

    "There has never been comprehensive research investigating the effects of a GM food on reproductive function," she said.

    ‘I want science to find out'

    Biotech companies insist many studies have proved GM crops and food are safe.

    A European Commission report in 2011 looked at 130 research projects over a period of 25 years which concluded there was no evidence linking GMOs with higher risks to the environment or food than other plants and organisms.

    However, the Factor GMO study has been welcomed in many quarters by both GM sceptics and those who support the technology.

    Fiorella Belpoggi is a cancer specialist with the Ramazzini Institute in Italy and a board member of the study.

    She said: "This is not at all an anti-GM study. We are neutral, we don't know if it's good or bad. Maybe in the future I will be a cheerleader with Monsanto but I want science to find out."

    The voice of 50 million people

    The study will take place at undisclosed locations in Western Europe and Russia for security reasons to avoid outside interference that could compromise the experiments or their results.

    Policy director of the Soil Association, Peter Melchett, said: "it is regrettable that there is some secrecy" but acknowledged there would be a risk that the scientists involved could come under pressure."

    He added: "It is welcome that you have announced this study in advance. This is really good scientific practice, almost never done. None of the GM companies have ever announced in advance a study they are going to do of this sort. This is a very good progressive study."

    The announcement of the experiment came as British anti-GM campaigners delivered a letter to Downing Street signed by US environment groups representing over 50 million people, as well as celebrities including Susan Sarandon, Daryl Hannah and Robert Kennedy.

    The letter, which was also published as a full page ad in the Times newspaper, warns Britain that the intensive growing of GM crops has caused major environmental problems in the US.

    The open letter states that GM crops have never delivered on their promises to increase yields and profits or to decrease pesticide use.

    "In fact, they have done the opposite with the cost of growing GM crops now greater than conventional crops in the US and pesticide use 24% higher amongst GM farmers than non-GM farmers planting the same crops".

    Vote scheduled for January 2015

    The UK and the rest of the EU have yet to adopt GM crops in the way the US has, but the group ‘Beyond GM', which co-ordinated the letter said this could be about to change due to pressure from biotech lobbyists and large corporations.

    ‘Beyond GM' spokeswoman Francesca Price said in January 2015, the European Parliament will vote to allow member states to make their own decision on the planting on GM crops.

    "If EU legislation on member-state opt-out is passed, the UK government would almost certainly give the green light to the planting of commercial, Roundup-ready GM crops. This could happen in the next six to 18 months."

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