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close this bookThe Courier N 184 - Jan - Feb 2001 - Dossier: Press and Democracy - Country Reports: St Kitts and Nevis (EC Courier, 2001, 96 p.)
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GM foods - The answer or the enemy?

by Emma Young*

* New Scientist Magazine

Scientists think they know how to transform European attitudes to GM foods.

Maize resistant to herbicides, or tomatoes with a longer shelf-life, are good news for no-one but the company behind the genetic tinkering and the farmer. The public needs products that benefit them: vegetables genetically modified to contain more substances that reduce the risk of cancer, or peanuts with the allergen removed.

European consumers might not be persuaded by the promise of hardier plants to help feed the hungry in the developing world, or even fruits modified to act as cheap vaccines for diseases such as Hepatitis B. But give them potatoes that will turn into low fat chips and they'll rally to the GM cause.

Or so the thinking goes.

But some commentators believe claims of what can be achieved by genetic modification are often overhyped. Others think a series of GM setbacks and fiascos, from the recent acquittal of Greenpeace campaigners who destroyed trial GM crops in the UK, to the sale of tacos containing transgenic corn not approved for human consumption in the US, will be hard to overcome. There are even signs that the American public, which has largely turned a blind eye to the GM debate, is starting to come around to the European way of thinking. “Europeans are much more concerned about what they eat as a result of the BSE affair,” says Adrian Bebb of Friends of the Earth. But there is another reason for the difference in GM attitudes between European and American consumers, he says. “Americans haven't generally been told they're eating GM foods. There is no labelling and no choice. When they're informed, it may be that US consumers will feel the same way as Europeans.”

American attitudes do seem to be slowly changing. A poll last year fround that 68% of American adults wanted food that contains GM ingredients to be labelled. This surprised many in the food industry. Around 70% of items on American supermarket shelves currently contain some genetically modified material. Half of America's corn and one third of its soya is transgenic.

European hostility

American farmers and biotechnology companies have certainly been hit by European hostility to GM crops. Novartis, one of the world's leading producers of genetically-engineered seeds, announced in August that it will no longer use GM ingredients in its food products. And in February, a report by the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute predicted that farmers in the US, Canada and Argentina (where the vast majority of the world's GM crops are grown) will cut their GM plantings by 25%, in response to reduced demand from Europe.

If the future of GM crops in the US is looking less certain, in the UK, where GM crop planting is still in the trial stage, the future is “grim,” says Bebb.

“There is currently no market for GM foods, so farmers are unlikely to plant them despite the government's enthusiasm,” he says.

Many scientists working on transgenic plants agree. Early last year, British company Axis Genetics began clinical trials of the first plant-based vaccine for Hepatitis B. Last September, it went bankrupt, citing public hostility to GM crops as the reason it failed to receive the necessary funding.

Genetically modified sugarbeet

Leaf of a strawberry plant with a bar code sticker indicating that the plant has been genetically modified

An emotive issue which gives rise to active protest - but is it justified?

Public fears - true or false?

Webb points to several major public fears about GM foods.

The first is that eating GM food may be harmful. Most scientists think it isn't. But the results of major studies into health effects should help resolve the issue.

There are also fears that crops genetically modified to produce toxins that kill insect pests may poison other, beneficial, insects. The evidence that this will happen is mixed.

In 1997, a team at the Scottish Crop Research Institute found that the lifespan and egg production of ladybirds eating aphids reared on transgenic potatoes was reduced. However, they also found that the protein introduced into the potato was stunting the growth of the aphids, and this accounted for at least some of the negative effects on the ladybirds. Ladybird larvae that were fed more aphids to compensate developed normally.

Other, more controversial, studies have looked at Monarch butterflies. They feed on milkweed, which grows in and around cornfields. Some research has suggested that pollen from corn genetically modified to contain an insecticide may harm the butterfly larvae. However, the methodology of the studies has been called into question. And in September, the US Environmental Protection Agency concluded that insecticide-containing corn, cotton and potato crops offer “significant benefits” to farmers and few risks.

There is stronger evidence that farmland birds could suffer if GM crops become widespread. Earlier this year, a team at the University of East Anglia used a mathematical model to investigate the effects on skylarks if sugar beet modified to be herbicide-resistant was widely introduced on farms in the UK. Farmers who currently have difficulty in getting rid of weeds would use single massive doses of herbicide on the new crop, researchers reasoned. This would kill the weeds the skylarks feed on, and lead to mass bird starvation, they claim.

Critics of GM crops say that until the plants' effects on wildlife are properly understood, the crops should not be planted outside a greenhouse lab. Their opponents counter that unless naturalistic trials of GM crops are carried out, any adverse effects on wildlife cannot really be known. Environmental campaigners also protest that GM crops could contaminate wild plants, transferring genes for insecticide-production, or herbicide resistance, for example.

In July, a team at the University of Reading in the UK studied wild turnips growing close to fields of normal oilseed rape. They sampled 505 wild turnip plants and found one hybrid. This was created by cross-pollination between the oilseed rape and its close turnip cousin.

This raises the possibility that traits could pass from fields of GM crops into their wild relatives.

According to Adrian Bebb, the risk of contamination is one of the major stumbling blocks to public acceptance of GM crops. “The problem of contamination is a big issue that neither the UK government nor the industry has come close to solving,” he says. “To think you could grow GM and non-GM oilseed rape, for example, in Europe and not see any cross-contamination is laughable.”

He thinks the public is also concerned about the effectiveness of GM seed and control.

Earlier this year, governments of 166 countries voted against the US for the right to block imports of GM crops if there was “reasonable doubt” that they could cause harm to the public or to the environment.

The Biosafety Protocol

The Biosafety Protocol was welcomed by environmental campaigners. But in March, the US Association of Official Seed Certifying Agencies announced that it would not guarantee that seed exports to Europe were not contaminated with GM seed. And in May, Pioneer Hi-Bred, an Iowa-based supplier of seeds worldwide, accepted that claims that up to 15% of Europe's maize crop contains GM material may be true. This announcement came just days after Canadian firm Advanta admitted it had mistakenly supplied 600 farmers in Scotland with GM oil seed rape seeds. These seeds were sown on 11,000 acres of land.

There have been calls for an international advisory organisation to oversee developments in genetic engineering - focusing on genetically modified animals as well as crops.

John Krebs, chairman of Britain's Food Standards Agency, hopes that an intergovernmental panel of scientists could do the same for the GM debate as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is doing for the debate on global warming. He thinks the panel should offer governments independent scientific assessments of the risks associated with GM crops, and contribute to the wider public debate about the implications of GM foods. Representatives from developing countries should be on the panel, he says.

In the meantime campaigners want laws regulating the sale of genetically-modified organisms to be tightened. Some think the European Parliament's directive on GMOs should be changed so that companies that produce or disseminate GM seeds would be liable for potential damages.

“If these crops were as safe as companies claim them to be, they should have no problems in accepting full liability for them,” argues Ceri Lewis of Greenpeace.

Benefiting everyone

Some scientists think increased regulation will help draw public support for research on GM organisms to benefit humankind.

Many in the western and developing world think GM crops could be vital in helping to feed a growing human population.

“With the very considerable increase in world population over the next 25-30 years, from six to eight or nine billion, quite clearly there is going to be a very important need for new ways to produce food and secure food production throughout the world,” says Brian Heap of Cambridge University. Heap chaired a report entitled Transgenic Plants and World Agriculture, published in July. Nearly one in six people alive today do not have enough to eat, according to new UN figures. Heap thinks GM plants - modified to flourish in dry conditions, or to contain higher levels of essential minerals, for example - could help feed the world's 836 million hungry people. But his report concludes that governments must pay attention to concerns about the safety of GM foods, and carry out in-depth research into health effects. Without public backing, many scientists think the future of GM crops, whether beneficial to farmers, or to the sick and the hungry, is bleak.

Banana seeding biotech lab, Malaysia