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20 March 1998

Soya Scare

The UK supermarket chain Iceland has come out against genetically modified foods. Tony Gilland objects to its irresponsible campaign

On Wednesday 18 March Malcolm Walker, chairman and chief executive of the Iceland frozen food chain launched a campaign against genetically modified (GM) foods. He claimed that consumers were being conned into eating something they knew nothing about. The impetus for the campaign comes from the introduction of genetically modified soya beans into Britain's food chain. Soya is used in about 60 per cent of all processed foods and soya beans imported from the US now include a genetically modified variety mixed up with the 'ordinary' beans.

Walker described the introduction of genetically modified foods and ingredients as 'probably the most significant and potentially dangerous development in food production this century'. Therefore, from May 1 this year, Iceland is guaranteeing that its 'own label' products will be entirely free of any genetically modified ingredients. Iceland is also launching a campaign to persuade the American Soya Bean Association to introduce crop segregation so that GM-free products can be provided more easily: 'We urge other retailers, producers and farmers to join our campaign for crop segregation and a more cautionary approach to the introduction of this new technology.'

Iceland has promoted this campaign as an exercise in consumer choice. Its press material states that 'Iceland Group will be the only major food retailer in the UK offering consumers a choice as to whether they eat food containing genetically modified ingredients or not'. The result, however, will be to promote fears about GM foods in a one-sided and dangerous manner.

GM products are created by copying a gene from one organism and inserting it into another, in order to give it enhanced properties. For example, crops can be made resistant to herbicides (as with Monsanto's Roundup Ready Soya Bean) or to produce their own insecticide - thus improving yields and reducing the amount of chemicals used in their production.

As part of its initiative Iceland has said it will provide consumers with leaflets in all their stores and detailed information packs will be available from a 'Genetic Hotline'. Their leaflet 'Genetic modification of food and how it affects you' contains a letter from Malcolm Walker to Iceland's customers where he states that the 'health risks from genetically modified foods are real'. 'Of course', he continues, 'this is an issue about which you must make up your own mind'.

Far from providing information that will assist customers to make up their own minds, Iceland's information leaflet appears to be an attempt to make up the minds of its customers for them.

On the question of safety the leaflet states that opinion is divided but implies that it is only those involved in the biotechnology business who consider it to be safe, whereas 'many professional independent observers believe genetic engineering is unpredictable, unstable and dangerous'. The leaflet continues: 'Perhaps most worrying of all, there is no way of recalling a genetic modification. Once released into the environment, genetic pollution cannot be cleaned up, it will survive so long as there is life on Earth.' Iceland has clearly decided that genetic modification is an irreversible pollution of the planet and this is presented to customers as an irrefutable truth in a manner more akin to an environmentalist campaign group than a major food retailer.

However, if by the end of the leaflet Iceland's customers are still unsure about genetic modification and would like further information, the leaflet helpfully provides contact information for five other organisations: Food Labelling Agenda, Friends of the Earth, Genetic Forum, Greenpeace and the Soil Association - all organisations opposed to GM foods and who, no doubt, will be happy to reinforce Iceland's message.

If Malcolm Walker and Iceland were really interested in improving consumer awareness of GM foods and allowing them to make up their own minds why not provide customers with more balanced information? For example, all GM products on the market have been tested and approved by US, EU and UK regulatory authorities. The government's Advisory Committee on Novel Food Processes, largely made up of academic experts, have in fact argued that GM crops are safer than crops produced via conventional breeding both because we have a clearer picture of the genetic alterations underlying the changes in the crops and because GM crops receive much greater levels of testing than the conventional varieties.

On the point that genetic modification is risky because it has irreversible consequences the ACNFP point out that 'in practice most crop plants, whether they have been genetically modified or not, do not survive in the wild'.

In support of its initiative Iceland cite research commissioned from the opinion poll organisation Gallup which 'shows a high level of ignorance or misunderstanding of genetically modified foods and consumer resistance to them'. Sixty three per cent of respondents who were aware of genetically modified food had reservations, which increased to 77 per cent once a definition was provided. The definition includes the examples of transferring a gene from an Arctic fish to a tomato to make it frost resistant and of transferring genes from humans to pigs to make them grow faster and leaner.

Whilst it is valid to point out the lack of public awareness and understanding of genetic modification, it is not surprising that consumers register concerns about a process which they do not understand - involving the transfer of genes from animals to plants and from humans to animals. In a society gripped by food safety panics, and where many are sceptical about human intervention in nature, these concerns are even less surprising. However, the point is that consumer concerns in and of themselves are not an argument against new innovations but an argument for addressing those concerns.

Consumer concerns about new technologies need to be addressed through accurate explanations of the processes involved and of the competing arguments where differences of opinion exist - in short through rational debate. Not through the promotion of fear.

The problem with Iceland's initiative is that it is not an exercise in consumer choice: Malcolm Walker and Iceland are campaigning against GM foods. Whilst many companies have adopted environmentally friendly clothing, customers do not normally expect food retailers to be playing the role of an environmental campaign group, and therefore will not approach Iceland's literature in that light. For a food retailer like Iceland to promote fears about GM food in this alarmist, emotive and one-sided fashion is grossly irresponsible.

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