The Royal Commission on Genetic Modification opened yesterday (16 October) to hear two of the "big six" multinationals established in the field of GM products admit that it is impossible to guarantee containment. The two companies questioned were cross-examined by the anti-GM groups: Greenpeace, the Green Party, an organic industry group and the Nelson GE-free Awareness Group.

The 14-week Wellington commission is the first substantial inquiry into the topic of GM foods in the world, and it is seeking to weigh up the benefits and the risks of the new crops, dubbed "franken-foods" by anti-GM protestors.

Aventis, the French pharmaceutical giant and manufacturer of the StarLink corn currently causing no end of problems in the US retail sector, stood before the hearing first. Product safety manager, Robert MacDonald, conceded that cross-pollination would occur and agreed that strong regulation "would be required."

The company recommended a national biotech strategy to "realise the potential benefits" of the fledgling technology. Naomi Stevens, the head of public affairs, commented that future plants could combat diseases in humans and prove resistant to cold and drought, with the added advantage of improved nutrition and shelf life. She added, however that she was "not sure" that long term clinical testing would provide conclusive evidence on the allergenic effects of GM foods on human consumers.

The US-based DuPont also admitted that there were no guarantees with GM products. Clive Holland, representing the company, commented that: "nothing in life is risk free… but all our data shows we are comfortably way above the line on safety." To date, he added, no introduced DNA had been transferred into food products by animals reared on GM feed.

DuPont accepted that public concerns were rife about the technology, and that: "While much of these concerns arise from misinformation or alarmist exaggeration, we nevertheless believe that we should proceed with caution. A scientifically impeccable process is needed and as much information as possible should be made available publicly." This said, the company stressed that GM crops could increase productivity, provide new products and reduce pesticide use.