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Why has the government ignored its own scientific advisors and given in to environmentalist scaremongering about genetically modified foodstuffs? Tony Gilland reports

Genes, greens and soya beans

Globally, an area the size of Switzerland and Austria combined is under crops which have been genetically modified (GM). This is the beginning of what is being called a 'food revolution', one which the United Nations expects to be complete within 10 years. For the industrialists and scientists involved, the prospect is for cheaper, pest-resistant crops such as soya, more nutritious and tasty varieties of meats, vegetables and fruits, and plants which produce medicines. In the future, crops which need hardly any water or fertiliser are envisaged as a solution to food shortages.

Others find genetically modified foodstuffs hard to swallow. Greenpeace, the Consumers' Association and the Guardian newspaper have all recently voiced their fears for the future of food in the hands of genetic scientists. In a series of articles at the end of last year, with headlines such as 'Food: the £250 billion gamble - Big firms rush for profits and power despite warnings' and 'Fears over "killer crops" - Call for three year ban on genetically modified plants', the Guardian suggested that multi-national corporations could push governments into licensing potentially unsafe products, so allowing the food magnates to foist them onto unsuspecting consumers. The Guardian compared the American-led 'food revolution' to the arrival of the Bomb, and, just in case we had not made the link ourselves, the paper raised the spectre of another BSE-type threat in the food chain.

Until recently, the New Labour government had seemed sympathetic to the companies which want to develop the new crops. As recently as 27 November, on a BBC First Sight programme, Jeff Rooker, Minister for Food Safety, seemed quite happy with the regulatory controls in place to deal with GM foods, and comfortable with the decision to grant a licence for a number of novel crops, which have been grown in the USA for the past three years, to be grown in the UK starting in 1998.

Since then, however, genetically modified food has suddenly stuck in the government's throat. The government decided to delay issuing the licences, expressing fears that Whitehall had 'underestimated the dangers of the new food revolution' (Guardian, 16 December 1997). At the same time, a Cabinet sub-committee approved a White Paper, setting up a new Food Standards Agency with a remit for a tougher licensing system to cover GM foods.

Has the food minister seen sense and moved to avert a potential catastrophe? Or have the environmental lobby, consumer groups and the Guardian stoked up an irrational panic which, fuelled by official fears of another BSE fiasco, has helped to slow the introduction of innovations that could benefit us all?

Build a better bean

Agrochemical corporations like US-based Monsanto, famous for its genetically modified soya bean, and UK-based Zeneca, responsible for GM tomato puree, create GM products by copying a gene from one organism and inserting it into another, in order to give it enhanced properties. For instance, Monsanto has developed the 'Roundup Ready Soya Bean' containing a gene from a bacterium which makes it resistant to Monsanto's own Roundup herbicide. This enables farmers to use less toxic herbicides to kill weeds without damaging the crop. Genetic modification can also protect plants from insects and diseases which currently cause substantial damage. In the near future vegetables with enhanced nutritional qualities, such as increased vitamin content, are expected to be on supermarket shelves.

Only the most luddite of Greens reject all GM foods; there have as yet been no major campaigns to get the Co-op's vegetarian cheese, which contains a GM enzyme, off the shelves. Yet the public discussion is dominated by problem-mongering, as the concerned groups raise fears that the new products will restrict consumer choice and endanger safety standards. So what are the facts?

Consider the argument about consumer choice. The Guardian and the Consumers' Association are certainly correct to say that it is increasingly difficult to avoid eating food containing genetically modified organisms. For example, 60 per cent of processed foods contain soya beans and about 25 per cent of the US soya bean harvest now consists of genetically modified beans mixed up with ordinary beans. Given that the USA is the main producer of soya beans, most of us will soon be consuming GM organisms, whether we know it - or like it - or not.

It is odd, however, to call this a restriction on consumer choice. Nobody complained of a restriction on consumer choice when the light bulb replaced the gas lamp, or the car took over from the horse and carriage, because these products were seen as a good thing, a means of advancing the well-being of society. And why single out GM foods for special labelling with consumer information? Should we label all of our other foods as products of 8000 years of selective breeding?

If genetic modification produces cheaper and higher quality new food products, then it has to be good for consumers. But is it safe? The consensus view of scientists, supported by many years of trouble-free experience with genetically modified products, is that GM foods in general pose no special risks. The government's own Advisory Committee on Novel Food Processes goes further. Its recent report argues that GM foods are actually safer than conventional foods. With deliberate genetic modification, we have a clearer picture of the genetic alterations underlying changes in the crops than we do if the changes are brought about by other methods. Additionally, the regulatory regime for GM crops is tighter than that for other food products. The government's advisory committee is also clear that the environmentalists' favourite complaint - that once GM plants are released they pose a permanent threat because they cannot be recalled - is just a scare: in practice most crops, whether they have been genetically modified or not, do not survive in the wild. This is particularly true of most cereals.

Yet the government has chosen to ignore its own scientific advisors and instead give in to the unsubstantiated fears others have raised about genetic modification. In the language of the consumer groups, this climbdown is justified as an exercise in listening to public concern.

In their 1997 report 'Gene Cuisine', the Consumers' Association notes that 'consumers have many concerns about genetically modified foods that are currently not addressed by the regulations controlling their approval and marketing'. Consumers' Association research published in 1996 found that 44 per cent of people had concerns about GM foods. The two biggest concerns, which feature prominently in the CA's own statements were 'it is interfering with nature' and 'concern about long term consequences'.

Scientists and regulators quite reasonably argue that the public's views must be taken into account. Groups like the Consumers' Association, however, go further and argue that public perceptions should influence government decisions on licensing. But the fact that consumers express concerns about the safety of products or unnatural processes does not necessarily mean that they are dangerous. Given the preoccupation with safety in modern society, and with food safety in particular, coupled with a widespread lack of trust in politicians and scientists, many of the concerns raised by consumers are unsurprising. But that is not to say that concerns about GM food are well-founded. And the fact that they are not well-founded should surely lead to a campaign to change public opinion, rather than a demand to take account of it in the regulatory process.

Spineless obsession

The Consumers' Association and the Guardian should not be allowed to get away with posing as the high-minded defenders of the public interest in this debate. They have their own agenda, promoted by highlighting the views of environmentalists rather than majority scientific opinion. The fact that the Consumers' Association gives a high profile to the views of one group of consumers - the 44 per cent surveyed who expressed concerns about genetic mod-ification - further suggests bias. After all, what about the views of the other, unconcerned, 56 per cent, never mind those of us who are keen to see more GM foods in our shopping trolleys?

Unfortunately, the environmentally influenced message of caution is one which government is predisposed to listen to today. New Labour, in banning beef on the bone, has clearly demonstrated its readiness to go along with the most ridiculous scares. Applied to genetically modified foods, the effect of this spineless obsession with risk-aversion is to slow down the speed of innovation and the improvements to our welfare which would follow.

But the delay to the introduction of particular products is only part of the problem. In the end, it seems likely that, as the UN says, commercial pressures will make the genetic revolution unstoppable in agriculture as in other areas. The broader problem is that, in the name of listening to public opinion, an irrational, cautious and anti-innovation culture is being imported into the decision-making process.

Reproduced from LM issue 107, February 1998

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