WASHINGTON (DTN)--Worries about genetically modified foods will endure until the products are proven to be safe and scientists can convince people they offer some benefit, a prominent geneticist said March 17.

"We will not go forward at all simply by reassuring consumers from a scientific viewpoint," Brian Johnson, head of the Biotechnology Advisory Unit at the British government's nature conservation agency, told .

"Consumers perceive that they are the people who are taking any risks that might be there and they can see no real benefit to them of eating GM foods," said Johnson, who advises British authorities the release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into the environment.

"They are thoroughly convinced that all the benefits are there for the biotech companies and all the risks are for them," he said in an interview on the sidelines of a biotechnology conference in Alexandria, Egypt.

Consumer groups in Europe and Japan have protested vigorously against what the popular media have termed "Frankenstein foods", fearing health and environmental risks from genetically modified crops.

Environmental activists have uprooted GM crops and disrupted shipments of GM grain and oilseed cargoes from the United States, which staunchly backs foods derived from biotechnology.

Advocates of biotechnology say GM crops can boost crop yields and farmers' incomes, reduce prices and help combat hunger and disease in the developing world.

Johnson said the key to taking GM crops forward would be the development of products that are clearly more advantageous to the environment or consumers directly.

"Until those products come along, I think it's going to be very difficult to convince consumers in Europe and other parts of the world that eating GM foods is safe and wholesome," he said.

Johnson downplayed the current safety concerns.

"The health risks are extremely small by the time the food has actually been through the regulatory system," he said.

"The human digestive tract is remarkably good at dealing with a huge range of substances that are produced by genes," he added.

Johnson said GM foods could only be linked to allergies in the same way as conventional foods. Pollen from commercially grown conventional oilseed rape, for example, could trigger allergies, he said.

"We put up with the risks of allergies simply because we can see the benefits of growing oils to replace the fats that we have traditionally eaten in our food which are so bad for us," he said.

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