GM Foods—A Wider Perspective
Recent London conference discusses pros and cons of genetically
By Susan Birks
1999 saw the future of GM foods brought from promising technology to crisis scenario, with sensationalizing headlines in the U.K. press reaching a peak during 10 days in February of that year. Many of us watched in wonder as a technology that had been researched around the globe for some 20 years suddenly came to an impasse as major retailers refused to stock GM products.
Why things had gone so drastically wrong was just one of the topics discussed at the GMO conference, organized by Access Conferences International and held at the Tower Thistle Hotel, London, U.K. And who better to review this titanic clash between industry and the consumer than Professor John Durant, assistant director, head of science communication at the U.K.’s Science Museum. His view was that over time, industrial and governmental policy had gotten “out of touch” with public concerns. “Whenever this happens—watch out!” he said, “as the U.K.’s ‘campaigning newspapers’ will feed on such an opportunity and, once started, such campaigns are often unstoppable.” With so many recent food scares, food production in the U.K. had become a very sensitive subject. With GMO’s, the public felt the technology had been introduced by the back door, without their knowing anything about it.
Although the technology first became an issue in the U.K., it soon struck a chord elsewhere in Europe but for different reasons. Dr. Lynn Frewer, head of consumer science at the U.K.’s Institute of Food Research, said, “Different regions have different preoccupations particularly in view of GM food—Northern Europeans are concerned about avoiding risk, whereas southern Europeans are more interested in the impact on food quality.” The question of trust in industry and government also comes into play. While surveys revealed that Germans have a large amount of trust in their industry, unfortunately the British, Italians and Danes do not, said Dr. Frewer.
So how is it that in America the technology has been so readily accepted? According to Professor Durant, Americans are more concerned about gene technology on humans than food and much of this has to do with geography. In the densely populated U.K., where most of the land is built upon and wilderness is scarce, farmers have become keepers of our countryside. Any practice farmers adopt has to be in keeping with the public’s view of maintaining and protecting the countryside. In contrast, the U.S. has vast areas set aside as national parks and agriculture is concentrated in other regions where it can develop with fewer constraints.
Living In A Risk-Free World
Accepting that these differences exist, what can be done to counter the opinion of the untrusting European? “Food biotechnology is socially sensitive in Europe. We need socially sustainable policies to deal with it. We need time for informed public debate to provide a solid foundation for public policy,” suggested Professor Durant. But how does one explain complex gene technology in layman’s terms? Too often complex scientific arguments get reduced to “junk science” by newspapers.
Professor Beda Stadler, from the Institute of Immunology at University of Bern, Switzerland, believes in fighting like with like. Did we know, he asked, that the same anti-public reaction was experienced back in the 16th century when King Frederick William ordered peasants to plant and eat the recently discovered potato? The King’s answer to anti-potato protesters was to cut off their noses!
“Do consumers realize,” he continued, “that organic food carries its own food safety risks? Diseases such as ergot, found in rye, can cause poisoning and organic products may contain mycotoxins, which can cause kidney damage. Did they realize,” he went on, “that the average American eats 10,000 times by weight as much ‘natural’ plant pesticides as he/she does contaminating residues from the agrochemical industry?” And most astonishing of all, “Did they know that a U.S. report on ‘The Hidden Dangers in Organic Food’ said that according to recent data compiled by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), people who eat organic and ‘natural’ foods are eight times as likely as the rest of the population to be attacked by a deadly strain of E. coli bacteria (O157: H7) of which, in 1996, there were 2471 confirmed cases in the U.S.?”
In view of this, he posed the question: “Should we apply the same risk evaluation to organic food as to gene food? Furthermore, as it is microbes, not chemicals, that cause most illness, should the same principles currently being debated to avoid cross contamination of pollen also apply to microbes?’
Safer Technology, Product Labeling
Many consumers are unaware how much genetic manipulation has already been carried out over the past century through plant hybridization and artificial crossing of plant species. Dr. Ray Mathias, head of the Science Communication and Education Department at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, U.K., pointed out that in many respects genetic modification is safer and more controllable than plant hybridization.
“Using genetic modification it is possible to transfer single genes from one plant to another,” he said, “while in conventional plant breeding programs, although breeders may not be interested in a characteristic controlled by one gene, the minimum number of genes that they are able to transfer is 1-2000. They may understand the behavior of the gene of interest but they will not understand what the other thousand or so genes do.”
Some consumers argue, why introduce a technology that we do not really need? There is no food shortage in Europe, after all. While this is true at the moment, there is likely to be a shortage in the future as the population continues to grow, said Harry Kershaw, business head, AgrEvo UK & Ireland. He spoke of the need to find new methods of producing food to feed the world’s increasing population. “If we stick to traditional farming methods, there will not be enough land to go around. Too much rain forest has already been cut down to make way for animal and crop production. The EU’s contribution to World Food Supply is already negative when it should be positive” he said. “How can we expect Third World countries to cover our deficit without agriculturalizing vast tracts of their land?”
Necessary technology or not, many food retailers believe the right to GM-free food carries the same weight as the right to GM-food and, consequently, the retailers have opted for clear labeling policies in hopes of keeping the two types of product separate. But as those growers, processors and suppliers who have attempted to supply GM-free products know, the costs involved in authentication and maintaining the purity of the product throughout the process chain make this a massive quest. Ignace Debruyne, market manager from the American Soybean Association, reviewed the concept of Identity Preservation (IP), which is already being offered by some ingredient suppliers. IP requires that the seed is authenticated as GM-free and is then audited through the long route of sowing, harvesting, transporting and processing to ensure that it remains uncontaminated. Clearly this requires a heavy price premium. Currently the consumer demands zero contamination tolerance, something that the industry finds almost impossible to guarantee as it would require dedicated handling and processing facilities at every stage.
Regulation does not provide the complete answer either. Andreas Klepsch, representative of the European Commission, reviewed the difficult regulatory position and said the regulatory authorities felt that with such a new and fast moving technology for GMO detection, it was too early to set the detection limit standards that were being demanded, as these would very quickly become outdated and require amending.