Who's afraid of Frankenfood?
Tony Gilland wants a more balanced diet in the discussion of genetically modified food
Forget Frankenstein: today's fears about the future relationship of humanity and science focus on something far closer to our stomachs. If 1996-97 was the era of the BSE panic about beef, 1998 has been the year of the genetically modified (GM) food scares, promoted by an unusual alliance of super-markets, environmentalists, consumer groups and the future monarch.
Malcolm Walker, chief executive of the food chain Iceland, has declared that 'the introduction of genetically modified ingredients is probably the most significant and potentially dangerous development in food production this century'. Prince Charles thinks that 'this kind of genetic modification of crops is taking mankind into realms that belong to God, and to God alone'. He (Charles that is, not God) is worried about the 'unforeseen consequences' of such meddling in nature; that it might cause 'a kind of pollution which is self-perpetuating'.
The negative attitude to genetic modifi-cation has been building up among consumer and environmental groups since 1996, when the first GM soya beans, imported from the USA, found their way into a variety of processed foods. By late 1998 food chains have barred GM foods from their shelves, activists have wrecked test sites, and the government has wobbled by giving serious consideration to a moratorium on the planting of GM crops. A widespread view is that GM foods are unnecessary, dangerous and an offence against nature.
Yet none of the fears raised stands up to a rational assessment of the facts. As so often today there seems to be a widening gap between the hard evidence about an exciting area of science and technology, and a public discussion shaped by speculative fears about the impact of this technology on future generations. So great is this fear of the future that it could thwart the potential of GM food.
GM crops may be able to increase yields, while reducing chemical use and costs. Modifying crops to be herbicide-resistant, or to have their own 'in-built' resistance to insects, pests, disease or adverse weather conditions, means that herbicides, pesticides and insecticides can be used more efficiently, and that fewer crops will be lost to disease or bad weather. Commercially viable crops whose taste and nutritional content are improved - a strawberry modified to taste sweeter or a banana modified to contain more vitamins - are expected soon.
Where GM crops are already being grown farmers are talking up the benefits. In the USA the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications estimates that 70 per cent of insect-resistant cotton planted in 1996 required no insecticide to deal with target insects. An estimated $60 million was saved on 1.8 million acres of produce. Similarly borer-resistant corn resulted in a nine per cent increase in yield, saving an estimated $190 million on seven million acres of corn in 1997.
But what about the risks? Professor Jonathan Jones, based at the John Innes Institute in Norwich, has been working with transgenic plants for the past 15 years. The day after Prince Charles issued his statement in June, Jones took up the challenge and attacked the idea that the technology was unpredictable. 'Genetic engineering of plants involves adding two or three genes to this complement of 20 000, and the genes that are added are extremely well understood...When we eat tomatoes we are eating material that carries disease-resistance genes that have been bred in from wild relatives of tomato [by selective breeding, not genetic modification], and perhaps 2000 other genes unavoidably brought in at the same time...This is a much less well-controlled exercise.' (Independent, 9 June 1998)
As for the unknown impact of GM crops on wild plants, seeds, insects and birds, nobody has a blueprint mapping out precisely what will happen. But why would such a blueprint be necessary? Potatoes, tomatoes and sunflowers were brought to Europe from America and, as Jonathan Jones points out, 'doubtless they displaced many local varieties; so what?'. The argument that any mistakes made with GM crops will be irreversible is equally flawed. As the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes pointed out at the end of 1997, crops, GM or otherwise, do not survive very well in the wild. They have, after all, been bred to flourish in very particular conditions.
Many of the arguments against genetically modified crops and food are wrong. Unfortunately, scientists who have dared to make this point are in a minority. Those who have a direct interest in the development of GM food are often coy about taking a stand, including much of the biotech industry. Even when Monsanto ran a series of high-profile adverts about the benefits of GM food, it held back from attacking its critics, choosing instead to present the debate as 'matters of opinion' and advertising its opponents' views. This is not because Monsanto lacks a sense of the importance of the discussion; a senior representative went so far as to say, at a recent conference in Brussels, 'the debate over biotechnology has become the crucible upon which the value of progress itself is debated'.
Meanwhile, when it comes to genetic engineering, the government can only urge caution. Towards the end of October, in response to the call for a moratorium on the commercial release of GM crops, Michael Meacher announced the next best thing: 'a programme of managed development of GM crops whereby the first commercial plantings are strictly limited and monitored for ecological effects along with comparable plantings of conventional crops.' In the midst of the media mania about GM last summer, agriculture minister Nick Brown was busy winning favour with the critics of GM technology by announcing increases in the payments to be made to those English farmers who wished to convert from modern to organic farming.
For those scientists who would like to intervene robustly in the debate, working out where to begin is often as much of an obstacle as the prevailing sentiment of caution. As Professor Michael Wilson at the Scottish Crop Research Institute put it to me, 'the sort of propaganda nonsense which is being spouted usually has no scientific substance or veracity. It is very difficult to stand in front of a camera with a microphone in your face and make a plausible, intelligent and professional answer to complete gobbledegook without simply saying: "this is gobbledegook." Which, of course, lowers one to the level of those using scaremongering tactics against scientific research'.
Professor Wilson's frustration at having to argue against an unsubstantiated mantra about 'unforeseen and irreversible' consequences is understandable. Perhaps what is hardest for scientists who have put so many years' work into developing this new technology is the fact that the debate cannot be conducted merely at the level of scientific issues. The bigger issue in question is whether man, and his scientific endeavours, can be trusted to help improve our lives rather than unleash unknowable havoc on the future. The debate goes way beyond soya beans and tomato puree.
Reproduced from LM issue 116, December 1998/January 1999