Published by the IEA in March 2000
Stories from the troubled beginning of the biological century
A note on funding.
This essay was mostly funded by a fee equivalent to about two months' work and by travel and meetings within Canada, sponsored by a group of Canadian bio-tech interests and co-ordinated by Performance Plants, a university-based bio-tech start-up (see Chapter Four). I am grateful for the money, time and energy invested by everyone I met and am happy to declare that I have felt no pressure whatever to conform to any party's views.
A note on notes
For ease of browsing and searching, most references are in square brackets after the quotes used. Some, numbered in square brackets in the text, relate to notes numbered in square brackets towards the end of the text.
A note on links
Several useful links are inserted in the text at the first mention of the organisation or site concerned. There is also a links page where they are listed amongst others not mentioned in the text.
Preface: My purposes and prejudices
Chapter One: GMOs and the New Dissidents: how GMOs got political
Chapter Two: Biotechnology in practice: the Western perspective
Chapter Three: Biotechnology and prejudice: the British media takes on GMOs
Chapter Four: Biotechnology, the facts. Professor David Dennis answers common questions
Notes (numbered in text)
Preface: My purposes and prejudices
This is a story about one important way in which late twentieth century people looked at the world as it transformed itself into the twenty-first. In Chapter One especially, it is an account of the way debate about GMOs - genetically modified organisms - transmuted into a debate about capitalism and quite a lot else.
This work is not a blow
by blow account of the science which underlies an assessment of the benefits
and risks of the agricultural and food revolution which are promised and
threatened by the genetic engineering technologies. But something like an
account of the science emerges in Chapter Three as we pitch the expert view
against the popular one in the
This essay is intended to be fair, but it is rooted, as most writing or speaking does, in a prejudice. I have what is becoming a long history of opposing the "green" and leftist thinking which despairs of man's role on the planet [see my Life On a Modern Planet: A manifesto for progress, Manchester University Press (UK) and St Martin's Press (USA), 1995] GMOs have all the enemies I have found myself viscerally to be opposed to, and I am disposed to defend most of their friends. I believe the great corporations which are trying to develop this technology are beleaguered and surprisingly powerless. So I am well-disposed towards, say, Monsanto, the arch-villain for so many. I believe the governments which are seeking to regulate but allow the introduction of GMOs are broadly right in their approach. I approve of the way they are quite deaf to the calls of "consumers", "greens", and the liberal establishment of the media, and are not overly enticed by the immediate electoral advantage of this or that case.
The Blairite modernisers
The Blair government in
With GMOs, the picture was clearer. This was a high-tech
business, underpinned by university work and cool start-up firms. It was
post-industrial. It was field in which
In our times, the respectable voices of expert committees were largely, cautiously but definitely in favour of GMOs. Only the public and the media were antagonistic. Well, so be it. Suddenly, the government ceased to be populist and spoke of its respect for expert advice. It stood by the elitism implicit in expertise, and warmed suddenly to the stodgy respectabilities of Parliament, where its ministers were happy to adopt the gravitas of old.
Naturally, as a reactionary and a conservative, I deeply oppose the government over fur [RDN's fur document] . I rail against the government's failure to appreciate the dynamic contemporary relevance of the hereditary element in the House of Lords [see richarddnorth.com]. I approve of the foot-dragging over foxhunting and hunting in general [see richarddnorth.com].
But I especially warmed to the government when it stuck
by GMOs. That picture has unfortunately worsened in recent months (see Mr
Blair's comments below [The Times,
I am disposed to like government of any stripe when it does the unpopular, right, thing. I am instinctively hostile to the approach of the media and the campaign groups which oppose the government, GMOs and the WTO.
I believe that the impulse which drives people who are variously well-informed, older, experienced or right of centre to support GMOs and the WTO is simply that they see scientific progress and the orderly development of free trade as lying firmly in the tradition of their culture. I assert, in company with others, that the 17th Century British Enlightenment is the core of that tradition. [The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, by David Landes, Little, Brown, 1998]
I am in thrall to the Enlightenment project, which I take to be the effort to celebrate the rational individual and his right to live his own life with as little interference from others as possible. The Enlightenment insists that we should try to place evidence and reason before impulse and superstition. It leads one into Euro-centrism above undue admiration of the "noble savage"; it supposes that scientific medicine is better than quackery; it supposes that the human person is similarly valuable, and probably rather similar, wherever he or she is found; it supposes that civilisation is finer than the primitive. It is elitist and not alarmist; it tries to discover what rules work, and discounts the impulsive as way of running societies. In politics, it celebrates the representative democracy which elects a parliament more liberal, thoughtful, stern and generous than the people who elect it. It is worried by the prospect of a more febrile, plebiscitic style of government because it would of course be crueller.
The Enlightenment project is a hard master: it imposes the obligation that we inform ourselves as well as possible. It requires that we build institutions we can trust on matters we cannot understand. It insists that we respect evidence. It calls on us to respect the competing rights of our fellows. Thus does the project embed the individual in two societies, a "virtual" society of agreed facts, insights and expertise (I shall call it the "Academy" for shorthand), and the actual society of his fellow man.
It is the growing gulf between unruly, populist individualism and its sponsors on the one hand, and the "Academy" and government, on the other, which makes the GMO and WTO issues so interesting. Oddly, only the discipline of the "Academy" and society really confer freedom on individuals. That is why the "new dissidents" are so dangerous. They figure deliberate irrationalism as representing freedom of thought, and they propose populism as representing society.
Any casually interested observers will be wondering about that gulf, especially if they look at the reports of the Royal Society (see the "science policy" section of its site), the House of Lords select committee on the European Communities, or the Nuffield Foundation's ethics council. The reports to be found there are valuable because they are measured as well as informed. The Nuffield report, especially, is the work of a group of people whose remit freed them from the need to consider commercial drivers, and which included people whose bias was "green". But all those documents are the result of scientifically-informed assessment of the benefits and risks the new technologies offer and pose. They are a cautious endorsement of the current progress of the technology, and call for a regulatory approach which is similarly permissive, and similarly cautious, to those regulating, say, the chemical and nuclear industries. I am inclined to trust their judgements. But the important thing to note is that they have made no dent whatever in the outpourings of the campaigners and the media. That is the peculiarity we shall be looking at, rather than second-guessing the science involved.
Science is not certain or monolithic
Scientists have their
biases, too. And they do not all agree on the interpretation - the status and
meaning - of any particular piece of evidence. Often, minority voices within
science are proved more right than the conventional wisdom. A layman cannot
believe everything science tells him, because it tells him contradictory
things. He must come to a judgement which cannot be deeply informed but can yet
be canny. It will be a judgement which steers its way around the rocks of dissension
on which live the competing sirens of, to port, excessive caution, and to
starboard, of excessive aggressiveness. The Precautionary Principle is supposed
by many to be a beacon leading to very great caution. As I argue elsewhere [see
my Life On a Modern Planet, Manchester University Press, 1995, and Risk: The
human adventure, forthcoming from
I have long experience and a certain expertise in the assessment of debates, and especially a debate of the kind raging round GMOs and the WTO. This gives one no monopoly on wisdom, and it does not infallibly lead to one's making the right decision on policy issues either. But it gives one the leverage with which to suggest to interested bystanders that the overwhelming consensus they hear in the popular media is deeply flawed.
It may seem odd that a self-proclaimed reactionary and
conservative is espousing the cause of progress and modernity. So be it. It
seems to me that there is a very old tradition of supporting science as it
explores the world, and of technology as it seeks to use knowledge to better
mankind. It was the tradition of mankind and civilisation before it was given
names such as the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. This confusion - this
nuanced understanding that life has its ineluctable dilemmas - is at the core of
the Enlightenment. It is why there is no dogma or orthodoxy to be wrung from
its values. [For a good discussion on this, see Henry F May, The Enlightenment
Further, there is an old tradition of appreciating government as it seeks to balance interests within a nation. This is where the second modern dissident misunderstanding is so important: government is not about pandering to the passing whim of ignorant voters. It has responsibilities to unpopular matters such as earning the nation's living, considering the long-term interests of the people, and to the evidence which serious people place before it. We ought to bolster and respect governments when we see and hear them being thoughtful and responsible, and though their being unpopular is not a sure sign that they are being these things, it is often a good beginning.
I plead guilty to not being a libertarian to the point of being much of an anarchist. And I am not a conservative to the point of being a Luddite. So this is an essay by a progressive, romantic, conservative, optimistic, reactionary, modernist traditionalist. That, with any luck, will add to its likelihood of being balanced, clear, rational, and emotionally rich. We shall see.
I shall tell the story of the GMO saga in a slightly
unconventional way. I shall start with a look at the arguments, the debates and
debaters, into which this issue stepped. The I shall look at the way it has
been seen in a very different culture, one that has lived with these
technologies for longer than
Chapter One: GMOs and the New Dissidents: how GMOs got political
GMOs and the debates they are part of
The argument about GMOs is the latest in a long line of debates in which there has been an extraordinary gap between the messages put out by most of the media and the "campaigners", and those put about by most of those who have knowledge of the science. To put the thing in a nutshell, it is, like many debates, a clear case of the polarisation of the "progressive" on one hand, and the "Luddite" on the other. Many people seem now to feel the need to construct a powerful "parallel universe" in which to shelter from the real world. Many of them adopt alternative therapies for every ailment of body, mind and spirit. Others figure the corporation, the Establishment, "politicians", the City, and "reductionism" as malign. They believe their world to be polluted and ecologically condemned. Some of such people go beyond mouthing these platitudes, manifestly falsified by their own vibrant, free and affluent lives, and take action in order to bear witness to what they take to be perennial and proven truths, or at least valued insights, in a world dominated, as they see it, by a footloose greed and empty scientificism.
The GMOs debate was manna from heaven for all these. It
is quite new and it is amazingly vigorous. Five years ago, it had barely
surfaced. It developed in the next few years, and especially during 1997 and
1998, to the point where in 1999 it became the hottest non-political issue in
the British media. It may assume something of that status in north America1.
After all, this sort of debate is good at travelling: its first really
passionate inspiration came to
Several extraordinary features combine to make the GMO debate the glorious beast it is. It is, first, being conducted in part by highly professional people. It is, second, a debate for which the public has a great appetite. It is, third, curiously familiar: the arguments used may be good, bad or indifferent, but they are being played out in an arena which has heard many similar arguments.
This is not to say that the outcome is at all predictable. Indeed, if it has elements of a morality tale, a soap opera, a mythological saga, it also has elements of a war game. The actors and the audience cannot predict the outcome of the play.
Most stories are about the past, and the myriad interpretations that can be put upon it. In the modern world, where the media is so important, the most exciting stories are about the unfolding of the present and the battle for the future. They are not so much a battle for the public mind, or for a majority view, but a battle for the media. The professionals gathered around this story must fashion accounts which are believed by the media because what the media believes will be crucial to how the politicians respond and how the next chapter of the future unfolds.
So this story is being scripted, like a soap opera, as the performance rolls on. It is a drama which at some points touches the real world and is touched by the real world. As in any soap opera, the writers know what the actors like saying and how they relate together. But, as Harold Macmillan is supposed to have said, "Events, dear boy, events" will intrude. It is even more like an improvisation than most soap operas: the actors and writers have to respond to sudden new inputs of evidence, fact and whimsical circumstance. The actors are pundits, experts, spokesmen, and politicians and how they react, in real-time, live on the media, determines how the script proceeds. Besides, this is a drama which is being put together by diverse hands, and by opposing hands. This is a propaganda war.
Of course, no debate is quite new: each newcomer tends to fit, or to stretch, a template which has evolved historically. It is fashionable nowadays to discuss issues in terms of the "narrative" they present, and it certainly makes sense in the case of GMOs to stress how this technology fitted rather well as the latest episode in an unfolding drama. The drama's main players were familiar to us, and its main themes were recognisable though they were appearing under new names and in different costumes.
GMOs seem likely to be a very bad thing to most British
people. Who needs a Frankenstein technology, introduced by American
corporations for the improvement of their profits, whatever the effect on
people? Who can feel safe, when they are safe-guarded by a ministry of food
which brought us BSE and a ruined countryside? Who can trust a Labour
government which is obsessed by its relations with
With these strands woven through the story, we see how it
snowballed so amazingly during 1999. More people, or at least more campaign
organisations, seemed able to combine, or at least share a hymn sheet, against
this technology than could agree on nearly anything else. Christians saw that
it was an offence against God and his nature. Consumer groups saw that they
were being denied the choice and the right to refuse to consume GMOs .
Greens of a political kind could see
this is a typical product of industrial capitalism. Wildlife bodies could see
GMOs threaten the inherited landscape and its denizens . Conservation and
environmental bodies could see it as an unacceptably risky threat to the public
and the wider world. Food writers could see it as threatening the cherished
"naturalness" they had always argued for. Early in January 1999, several
"foodies" teamed up to form a new campaign with Greeenpeace (one
which took that environmental and conservation organisation in to a new
consumerist and health field). The organic movement, already widely seen as
involved in a David and Goliath struggle with corporate farming, determined
this new contaminant as even more nasty than the chemicals they had already
been fighting. Third world development charities could see GMOs as technology
poor farmers could not afford, but which might help rich farming interests and
therefore was a typical modernist assault on the picturesque and slightly
enhanced poverty they had long considered proper to the developing world. 
Opposition parties agreed that the government's enthusiasm for GMOs represented
perhaps the first issue in which New Labour was out of sync with popular
opinion as it sought to remake
Of course, the professionalism of many of the more moderate of these groups demands a diplomatic language which is especially mealy-mouthed. They have populist constituencies and prejudices, which tends to make them absolutist, but they have a place at the negotiating table, and often a degree of wisdom, which requires an incrementalism.
Many of the groups - the consumer groups and development agencies amongst them - tended in various degrees to note briefly the potential advantages of the technology to their constituencies, and then to pronounce gloomily on bad likely outcomes.
Thus, Christian Aid pronounced
"In theory biotechnology could be of significant benefit to farmers, including to small and marginal farmers in the developing world. Apart from resistance to insect pests (thus reducing pesticide costs), it could create drought resistant crop varieties which would therefore not require the expense of irrigation, for example, or varieties which would grow in saline and other poor soils. However, in practice there are significant concerns about the risks involved in using GMOs in general and about its effects on small farmers in particular. There are also concerns about ownership and control of the technology." 
These groups need to keep their "stakeholder" places at the table in the forums of consultation by stressing the need for lots regulation. They are also free, of course, to develop the most popular of all modern arguments: that in favour of caution. For the Consumers' Association, for example, Sue Davies told a House of Lords inquiry, "I think it is very important to be far more cautious about what we are doing , particularly as we are likely to be growing these crops on a very wide scale across the world". This language often leans on the idea of the Precautionary Principle, whose dangerous superficiality is little understood. Campaigners routinely claim the Precautionary Principle as insisting that mere absence of certainty that a product or process poses a risk is sufficient to condone a ban on it. Regulators have only ever conceded that a ban may be justified if there is good suggestive evidence that a product or process may be a serious risk.
Some of the groups took an absolutist line. This is normally based on a strict interpretation of the Precautionary Principle. For Greenpeace, GMOs could never be proved safe and therefore direct action against tests and trials designed to find out where problems might lie could be assaulted and halted at will. Greenpeace's philosophy can be seen in the following exchange at the HoL inquiry:
"Chairman: Your opposition to the release of GMOs, that is an absolute and definite opposition?
Lord Melchett: It is a permanent and definite and complete opposition based on a view that there will always be major uncertainties. It is the nature of the technology, indeed it is the nature of science, that there will not be any absolute proof. No scientist would sit before your Lordships and claim that if they were a scientist at all." 
The difficult is of course that it is absolutely impossible ever to prove that anything at all is safe. But the reader need only look at Lord Melchett's remarks and see how totally prohibitive they would be if applied to any new technology whatever. He prescribes an end to everything new. He deploys an argument which might be called "luminous irrationalism": stating a nonsense which is so much on the side of the angels that it eludes serious discussion.
Going further than the Consumers' Association, which merely presses the case for consumer choice, some of the food writers asserted that freedom to choose to eat or not eat GMOs was not enough. Supermarkets must prove their trust-worthiness by refusing to stock them at all. Joanna Blythman, for instance, went beyond the common suggestion that labelling was necessary: "As food writers we intend to focus the debate by sending out a powerful message to food producers, the food industry and retailers: 'If you want us to trust your brand, to give you our business, don't stock gene food'. Thus, she wanted to deny other shoppers the choice to buy GMOs if they wanted. [Observer, 1999a]
Most of these groups could see how GMOs fitted in a line of argument they had been developing for years (some quoted BSE as its immediate precursor). Some might be suspected of seeing how GMOs represented an infusion of life into what had been a flagging enthusiasm for their causes. Others - and especially the political parties - simply had to get a handle on a debate which was hot.
The campaigners and politicians had the run of the media,
and those who opposed them were largely dismissed as merely self-interested.
Those broadsheets which were prepared to give a fair voice to the proponents of
GMOs had plenty of high profile and impressive voices to express the populist,
antagonistic view which they knew mattered and which they mostly found
attractive anyway . The majority of opinion formers in
But it is important to see that the real importance of the GMO debate is that it is only partly about GMOs, or about the impact of GMOs in themselves. We have been looking here at GMOs as a technological development in food and agriculture. They are much more than that. GMOs are an issue which fits beautifully a quite modern concern about capitalism. Just as socialism was finally declared dead, at least for now and in the boom times which were always bad for the corporatist view (as opposed to the corporate view), it is not the fact of capitalism which is now controversial, but the form in which it operates. The new campaign is very widespread, provided as it is by arguments from all over the political spectrum, and with physical support from people who have no politic at all
The new dissidents - scruffy and respectable
During the late 90s we had seen the development of a quite new sort of campaigner. It was bizarre. There were scruffy young middle class kids hanging on to the tatters of a charmed life and charming attitude who dug tunnels, squatted houses and lived in trees, in order to stop airport, road and housing developments which had been scrupulously discussed and re-discussed by every tier of democratically legitimate authority in the state, from top to bottom. These people had intermittently pleased the media and their new middle class neighbours as they bore witness to scrappy woodlands which had acquired heroic status because they stood in the way of a progress the temporarily scruffy scions of the affluent, and especially the nearby, NIMBY, affluent, disliked.
These rather amiable protestors were joined by dead-head grungy punks, the epitome of alienation, who looked a little like them, but were drunker, more drugged and sadder than the others.
All these agreed that GMOs were a natural new enemy alongside roads and runways and housing developments. These new campaigners had not cut their teeth, as previous protest generations had, on fighting The Bomb, chemical plants and nuclear power, or on saving the whale. They have a different agenda, to do with living a certain lifestyle on the fringes of society, yet reshaping its values from this vantage point. GMOs represented at once the addition of a "pollution" issue - an issue to do with industrial processes and products, and science and technology - to their previous areas of concern. But this new one also fitted their previous agenda, which was about power and culture much more than about anything more easily and physically identifiable.
.... And the wider arguments
This wider issue of the state's role, of materialism and progress, of the corporation and the provision of goods and services, has been discussed in new ways by many articulate and academic voices. The soft left developed the theme that the nation state and its accountability was being undermined by footloose corporations and amorphous enemies such as the speculator. Some successful speculators and entrepreneurs (Soros, Goldsmith, Perot) who had flourished on global markets started to speak about the social and environmental dangers of these tendencies. John Gray, in False Dawn: The delusions of global capitalism [Granta, 1998] put a subtler case. He argued, as many a pro-capitalist might, that the multinational might not be so multinational as was sometimes thought (its culture, headquarters, major market and legal frameworks were all likely to be firmly rooted in a nation state). He argued, as an old fashioned traditionalist might, that the nation state was not so weak as was supposed. Certainly, anyway, the multinationals and the nation states needed each other. But all the same, Gray argues, the mobility of capital and the tyranny of the free market ethos as espoused by the World Trade Organisation, for instance, would lead to inequity and instability around the world.
So the soft left and greens found themselves keen on these billionaires, who would previously have epitomised the forces they most abhorred. The nationalists, and union-based protectionists (Pat Buchanan, in the USA, for instance) found common cause with the same sort of view, so the far right and the far left rallied to the cause. The far right and the far left, the intellectual and the worker, the green and the billionaire, the academic and the squatter all had powerful points of agreement. Unwashed direct action campaigners were allied with mortgaged, mainstream campaigners. Tories and communists were of one accord. These all mostly agreed most about GMOs and that quite wide agenda, but shades of all these sections of opinion saw the link and the parity between GMOs and WTO, and so agreed about the widest possible agenda as well.
It was a pretty pickle.
GMOs and globalism
Actually, international trade and the relationship between farmers in one country and food consumers in another is a very old one indeed. Free Trade and protectionism have been amongst the fiercest of controversies in British politics for getting on for a couple of centuries.
In recent years, it has seemed to define economic life. As David Hale [in "Second Chance", published in Fortune, 22 November, 1999] says:
"While the multinational corporation has spearheaded global integration, portfolio investment has also grown deeper and broader. In the half-century before 1914, most capital flows traced back to a few thousand wealthy European families. Today they are driven by fund managers allocating the savings of hundreds of millions of people in pension funds and mutual funds. Currently most of the world's retirement assets are in the U.S., Britain, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and a few other, English-speaking countries. But countries as diverse as Chile and Thailand have been promoting pension savings, which also should encourage the growth of their domestic capital markets. When the Cold War ended ten years ago, there were probably about 100 million people on the planet who owned a share of stock or had a pension plan. By the year 2010, it is not difficult to imagine the number rising to one billion. China's stock market is only eight years old, but the country already has more than 60 million retail stockholders - that's more stockholders than Communist Party members. The processes bringing the world economy together seem all but irreversible."
Hale goes on to say that nothing is, in fact, inevitable, as witness the first world war's rude interruption of the Gold Age.
"The lesson from 1914 is that economic integration alone does not guarantee that nations will agree to co-operate or even avoid trying to destroy one another. The forces of nationalism, tribalism, and ethnic rivalry are still very much part of the human condition, especially in developing countries. Remember that two-thirds of the world's people still live in the countryside. Between now and the time they are integrated into an Internet-ready, supranational, total-quality-management economy lies great potential for conflict. The recent world-wide embrace of market economies and global free trade gives us a second chance to share the benefits of the Industrial Revolution with all the world. We should take care to do better this time."
Historically, however, Free Trade was an informal fact, and it was debated as an internal matter for a country or between countries: it was an argument between the competing need of farmers for protection and of citizens for cheap food. The danger of protectionist policies was tariff wars, and there was of course the contrary danger of exposing a nation's producers to the whims of the market. Countries conducted discussions about how to avoid such disputes.
After the Second World War, however, the Bretton Woods "family" of international institutions, including the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, sought to organise an international order which was overtly and systematically devoted to the free market and free trade. GATT developed into the World Trade Organisation in the 90s and the WTO found itself almost immediately extraordinarily, and unexpectedly, famous.
The governments of the world, who largely accept a free market doctrine, are edging toward a system in which the willing sellers of a product made according to the laws of one country should be allowed to take their chance on world markets as they seek willing buyers all over the world. Unawares, this presumption came under intense attack. The bland globalisation of world brands in every product from cars to coffee shops was part of it. The sense - quite wrong - that the nation state was being over run by free-booting capitalism was part of it. The very implacable certainty in most of the political classes that there was no other place to go than global markets, was part of it. Crucially, it was shift from the old view that the world was suffering from poverty and pollution, toward a newer sense that it was a psychological damage, a psychic and a spiritual deficit, that was now being incurred. Anyway, the new protest of the late 90s felt and looked and was quite different to the protest which previous trailblazing hotheads had known. It was incohate, unfunded, unscripted. But it was powerful and successful.
GMO, free trade and government
Those who seek to persuade a consumer government to throw up bans against goods in such trade are on easy street. They will usually point to an abundance of alternative, uncontroversial products; they can show that by definition the suspect import was produced without benefit to, say, British workers. It is the consuming society's government which is in a terrible bind: they face the domestic pressure for the ban and just as surely they face international pressure not to legislate for such a ban. Politicians such as Tony Blair seem genuinely seized of the merits of the idea of world free trade and are therefore predisposed to accept that from time to time other prejudices - for instance against GMOs - will have to be swept aside. They face the problem that large sections of the public are indifferent to economic policy debate, and especially so in a period of affluence when people are inclined to forget that economic policy underpins affluence.
The world's politicians may have embraced free trade on slender evidence that it will enrich their electorates. They may easily be deflected from their free trade mission when very major interests at home seem to dictate it. But for the time being, the last years of the 1990's seem to confirm that mature economies which embrace the free market doctrine seem to thrive. The top table, the major league, the major Western nations and those Asian and south American nations which matter most, have embraced this thinking. They do so ambivalently, and inconsistently, and they do so with an agenda which is importantly set by the USA. But they do so, and - other things being equal - they would much rather not pick a fight with the US about GMOs and the north Americans' right to put into trade crops produced by using the technology.
These progressive, populist, apparently left of centre governments (Britain's is actually a right of centre government in disguise) may have importantly underestimated the strength of feeling against GMOs. On the other hand they may believe, and be right, that the slope of history is with them and that opposition will fall away. Either way, the politicians and their opponents, whether on Free Trade or GMOs - seem to be on different planets. As the noisy forces which hate capitalism and corporations see that Free Trade and the World Trade Organisation give them a perfect platform on which to marshal their forces, GMOs give them a perfect banner around which to rally.
So GMOs not merely represent the unacceptable face of corporate progress, they also represent the unacceptable face of the drive toward free trade. The opponents of capitalism have decided that it is corporations, and the multi-nationalism of corporations, which they can best target. In GMOs, then, they have everything they could possibly desire. The have a frightening technology which is associated with an American multinational which stands to lose mightily if its lobbying on behalf of free trade were to fail. Hence the giddy trajectory which saw GMOs surface, like a submarine-launched intercontinental ballistic missile, unexpected but highly developed, and soar unstoppably into the heavens on target for the Seattle meeting of the WTO in late November 1999.
GMOs and other unnatural technologies
GMOs fitted into a pattern of previous issues. The obvious comparisons and contrasts are with previous large technological developments, and amongst several candidates, the nuclear industry stands out. Genetic engineering has close parallels with the nuclear industry. Both involve rather fundamental interference with invisible elements in the natural world. Both depend on uniquely Twentieth Century insights about the physical world. Both promise great benefits but carry risks which are harder to assess. Both threaten disasters whose reverberations might be very long-lasting. Both are espoused by clever scientists whose familiarity with arcane knowledge gives them insights denied the rest of us and about which many people feel increasingly sceptical.
There are big differences, too. The largest is that GMOs are being developed in a world in which protest is systemetised, professionalised and popular. The drama into which the nuclear scientists stepped was very different to the drama into which genetic engineers have stepped. The modern version is a drama watched by an audience which is both far more vocal and far more scientifically informed than greeted the rise of nuclear fission. And yet the debate has not acquired scientific literacy along with increased volume. We need to scrape away a little at this fact. When we do so, we see that many modern people are very sure that they have received many, perhaps too many, of the benefits of progress and believe that they imagine that they now prefer live in world which does not impose on them any more new technologies.
Peculiarly, it is not clear that the public is particularly convinced that nuclear power is safe, or safe enough. More likely, they realise that their own lives have not demonstrated any particular vulnerability to nuclear power and thus they are not inclined to get over-excited by it. But there is a quality of uneasy truce over the nuclear issue. The publics of the West seem more or less to accept that nuclear facilities exist and are not exciting. But the Governments of the west, and especially of the UK and the USA, have not dared to propose further developments of nuclear power and they have not dared either to press forward with long-term disposal options for nuclear waste. Sooner or later, they will have to address the waste issue. Arguably, they ought also to press ahead with explaining why the nuclear risk is worth taking. In somewhat similar terms, they will soon have to explain the merits of GMOs.
But GMOs already face far greater scepticism than nuclear power ever did. The opposition to GMOs is far more mainstream than the opposition to nuclear ever was. To be anti-nuclear in the 70s and 80s was to be vaguely hippy and "alternative". The core opposition to GMOs includes those tendencies, but transcends them too. At its core is dissidence, but it is a new widespread dissidence.
An important part of this matter is that it involves perceived government failures. Modern people believe that they have already suffered some of the disadvantages of ill-considered progress and that governments, indeed the official world in general, has let them down. The formal democratic processes of regulations most signally allowed the BSE crisis to develop. This simple failure inclines large numbers of people to support the campaigners whose main profession it is to second-guess the official world.
Biotechnology in practice: the Western perspective
The story of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) begins a long time ago. Its origins are in rural regions far from urbanite Europe or north America. It begins when man first worked with the woof and warp of the plant-life around him and "domesticated" the wilderness. In truth, rather like the so-called "domestication" of animals, the plants probably more than half domesticated themselves and they probably domesticated man at the same time. Just as many of our prized wild flowers are mostly weeds which have hitched a ride with agriculture and forestry, and now depend on them, man developed crops out of plants which thrived, for instance, in the circumstances of being freed from weedy competition. As they thrived, so he settled.
For most of history, people would have agreed with Jonathan Swift when he wrote: "And he gave it for his opinion, that whoever could make two ears of corn or two blades of grass to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country than the whole race of politicians put together [Gulliver's Travels, Voyage to Brobdingnag, ch 7].
Until very recently, this was a message which nearly anyone in the world could understand and accept. It was a vision of continuing progress which combined personal, tribal and national advantage with a sense of what was fitting, and worth taking risks for, in man's stewardship of the earth. It is, however, a vision which has been largely rejected by affluent modern urbanites and does not figure in their envisioning of the countryside.
To see GMOs halfway straight, we need to see that it is too early to abandon mankind's old, hopeful vision of stewardship. Man's domestication of the world's biology cannot ever be complete, nor would we want it to be. But its processes are not finished yet either. They have not failed us yet, and we risk failing the poor of the world - as well as ourselves - if we jettison it.
The old dream remains in rather good shape in many parts of the mid and western regions of north America. It is worth seeing why.
The prairie story
Jim MacPherson is a typical north American westerner. He comes from farming stock and is now in a high tech agricultural business. His background is part of a contemporary saga in which families within living memory escaped poverty and what they thought was a sort of social stultification in Europe, and exchanged it for risky innovation in the New World. Jim's grandparents arrived from Scotland in the Canadian prairies in the late 1920s, and were amongst hundreds of thousands who took on a "quarter section": about 256 acres of unbroken, wild land. The first year, his people lived in a hand-made "soddy": an earth and grass house made from the topsoil which with luck would yield a crop very soon. "People had a very hard time that first winter: they'd do anything to get a crop in and harvested, ready to help the next lot of arrivals", says Jim, and the point is that he is excited about the independence and the interdependence of that culture, and about the agriculturalism it involved. We will come back to Jim's current role soon, but for now let us pursue the western history and tradition which made and sustain him.
Grandfather MacPherson had arrived in one of the many parts of the continent's vast prairies in which spring comes late and autumn comes early, where summers produce a desert effect and where winters bring constant snow. So far as early man had been concerned, and so far as the "First Nation" peoples of the nineteenth century prairies were concerned, these lands had mostly produced grass, herbs, wood and buffalo. For a few centuries after European involvement, the fur-bearing animals of parts of the prairies had produced a fur trade. And then Europeans settled in larger numbers and decided that the prairie must succumb to the plough, and to cattle ranching where the plough could not succeed. The soils did not give in lightly to agriculture. Two things were inherently against the idea: it is best not to plough much of such land at all, and even when it's been ploughed it is hard to find productive grain-bearing and oil-bearing seeds which work well in so harsh a climate. The issue was the same as it had been throughout the advance northward of the agriculture of the temperate middle east: how to till shallow soils, and how to find species which would have high yields, but survive wet, cold and sun in turn? A version of the problems plagues the third world's tropical regions.
Canada is built on a large scale, and is thinly-peopled. Especially in the West, it is a society which is proud of self-sufficiency, innovation, survival, and it is proud of its own short but remarkable history. It admires and remembers those who made the nation's farms productive, whose histories are immortalised in books such as Grant MacEwan's Fifty Mighty Men [first published 1975, Greystone edition, 1995]. Amongst the first agricultural heroes was an English parson, John Brick, who established a mission and farm at Dunvegan (typically, it was named after a Scottish town), on the Peace River in northern mid-Alberta, in the 1880s. After extraordinary exertions, he and his family succeeded in raising wheat . In the spring of 1892, he introduced a wheat new to the area: Red Fife. The parson's son trekked a sample of the season's crop to the World's Fair in Chicago: it took ten days to reach Edmonton and temperatures dipped to 50 and 60 degrees below along the way. These ears of corn grown north of 56 degrees were the world champion that year.
Seager Wheeler was another such. In 1911, he had been struggling to farm around Saskatoon for twenty years when his farm at Rosthern on inhospitable terrain produced the winner in the wheat section at the New York land Show, in effect a world championship. The triumph was to have made one of the least likely growing areas produce the word's best example of the new variety, Marquis, which was superseding the previous variety of choice, Red Fife
Wheeler went on to produce varieties which deserved their own name, in wheat and in other crops. He did no engineering: he simply selected seed for traits he liked, and bred them on, generation after generation.
These heroes of western civilisation were delivering Swift's boon. The had taken a crop which originated as a weed near the equator and made a success of it near the arctic. How unnatural was that?
The Canola development - before GMO
Canada then and now was dangerously dependent on exporting wheat, whose price fluctuated wildly according to the vagaries of the world's crop. The First World war produced a boom-time for wheat; the Second, however, was a disaster. Canada's west needed alternative crops. It is typical of the story of most of the latter part of the century in Canada that the solution came from government scientists working with the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, an organisation which was then a farmers' co-operative (in the 90s it floated on the stock exchange). [see Forging the Prairie West by John Herd Thompson, OUP, Canada, 1998 and The Canadian Prairies: A history, Gerald Friesen, University of Toronto Press, 1987 and subsequent editions] Canada's culture is much more naturally corporatist than is now fashionable in the UK. Anyway, as retailed in "From Rapeseed to Canola: the billion dollar success story" [National Research Council Canada, Saskatoon, 1992] in the 50s, Saskatoon became the centre of research into oilseed rape, a crop which the prairies farmers knew they could grow because it had been a useful stand-in crop during the Second World War, when wheat sales declined and seed oil became a replacement for petroleum-based industrial oils. But oilseed rape had the disadvantage that its oil was thought to be dangerously high in a particular fatty acid and whose meal (a bi-product of producing the oil) was poorly regarded in its main role, animal feed.
The new crop varieties were developed by men like Keith Downey. Typically, he was a local "prairie boy" turned researcher, and many of his colleagues were the sons of farmers and parsons. Now they worked in government teams. New chemical techniques were deployed to discover how to assay potential varieties for traits which overcame the problems with oil seed rape. New techniques were deployed in the manipulation of the plants' seeds so that they could be assayed and bred with far greater precision and speed. One involved seed-slicing - a technique of surgical precision which presaged the work bio-technologists now do.
One development involved the use of radio-nuclides to trace the genetic pathway by which particular straits were passed from parent to progeny. The use of the products of nuclear reactions was to become very important, as we shall see.
Downey and others developed a new oilseed crop for Canada's farmers. It was eventually called Canola and came to be a staple of the prairies and later of Europe too. It was as much a product of government interference as were all the loans which were transforming the prairies, as labour was shed in favour of machinery, and capital took over much of the role of sweat. Quite late in the day, development was, in the 70s, bedevilled by food scares set off by further work - whose message was later largely discounted - that suggested that the new rape seed oil could damage rats. Chemical assessment and trials suggested that the damage was irrelevant to the human case, and that actually Canola had a great merit: it was low in saturated fat. It rode a food-fad to further success.
In Canada, it went from being a small time crop, grown for industrial oil uses in a wartime emergency, to become, by the 80s, the third most important crop, after wheat and barley. In Europe, oilseed rape (the British did not fall for the "Canola" renaming) became a familiar crop, its vivid yellow in summer time provoking those who liked their crops to look green and then to turn a gold buff. Its pollen was thought by some bee keepers to be a dangerous turn-off for bees, and by others to produce delicious honey.
Canola and GMOs
I have crept up on the issue of genetic modification in this crab-wise fashion because it helps show how the anger about GMOs is not well found. First of all, GMO technologies in themselves do not do something which is unusual. Before and alongside genetic modification as it is now labelled, modern technologies have been deployed to bend plant-life to our will but are called "conventional". These techniques abound in the Canola story. For thousands of years, ecological hazard of the kind now worrying campaigners have been imposed on the "natural" environment by plant breeders variously using very primitive and very sophisticated techniques, with or without the supposed taint of "genetic modification".
To begin with this latter point. All farm crops have been "introductions", and thus risk being weedily invasive, in the manner of the Japanese knotweed (introduced into Europe from Asia) or the purple loose strife (introduced into Canada from Europe). The crop introductions mostly come from the Middle East and have been developed to grow in new and very different environments. That means that any of them might, theoretically, become invasive in their new environments.
All are "unnatural". To take Canola. It became a huge success when a crop which originated in Asia and at first believed to be poisonous and unproductive was chemically tested to be as safe as anything can be proved to be and was agriculturally developed to be both high-yielding and resilient. The agricultural part of this was not Luddite or peasant. Varieties were chemically assayed to find a good "type": the millions of acres now grown are almost all descended from one batch from Poland, obtained by Canadians in 1967.
In the years since Canola first became a huge success a crop, strains have indeed been developed using genetic engineering, and those now compete side by side with "conventional" varieties. Some will quite readily "out cross" with other varieties of the crop, others won't. Some are "herbicide" tolerant, others are not. Those that are GMOs do indeed have a particular form of herbicide resistance, but in that they are not in principle different from other wild and conventionally bred plants which are also pesticide resistant. Some are insect resistant, others not. They vary in their oil content, in their resistance to vagaries in warmth and timing of spring time weather. There is competition between two main multinationals to sell those which are "genetically-modified", so we are not even presented with a potentially evil monopoly.
Let's crack this in a different way. There are very few plant traits which would produce environmental or health difficulties which one might achieve by genetic engineering which might not as easily be achieved by other, non-controversial, technologies in plant development. Indeed there are very few changes of any kind which might not be achieved by "conventional" means, if one was given enough time. We will come to the one class of property (true "transgenesis") which is achieved by genetic engineering which is not achievable by any other means and wonder how frightening it really is.
But for now the point is that Canola and the other crop developments which were "conventional" but highly sophisticated had achieved - like other plant breeding successes before them - changes which were very dramatic.
The most primitive man who brought one of nature's own seeds and put it into a new environment would have hoped that its natural insect-resistant properties were well developed. He might even hope that its potential for weedy invasiveness did not spoil his other crops or even his garden. He would not have known that it had properties which would in very different times prove to make it resistant to this or that chemical herbicide, but it might have had those properties anyway.
The dangerous ecological properties which GMOs are said to have do in fact attach to many other non-engineered crops. The traits which genetic engineering can uniquely bring have not yet been brought into the market and are not inherently any more worrying than properties which plant developers have brought to market already, by engineering them or not. Finally, the techniques which genetic engineering uses are not more weird than the techniques used by "conventional" agriculturalists.
Nature's "mutant" plants vs GMO "Frankenstein" plants
One of these, and it has been used to develop Canola's newer varieties, involves radio-nuclides and their ability to cause mutations. This is the kind of territory in which it would be usual to remind people that the kind of mutations radio-nuclides can produce include cancer-forming alterations to cells. Plant breeders can "force" plants to produce mutants, and then search amongst these for properties they fancy. This demonstrates how man at his cleverest is often merely mimicking nature.
One of the main engines of evolution was the mutagenic power of radiation. Plant-life on earth developed as fast and successfully as it did because billions of years ago, the planet was much more radioactive than it is now. In such circumstances, plant populations produced random mutations at a great rate. [see Gaia: A new look at life on Earth, J E Lovelock, OUP, 1979 and subsequent editions] Most of these were a change which failed. A few represented a change which produced benefits, as revealed in reproductive success, under the rules of natural selection. Plant breeders in the post-war period have been using radio-nuclides in just that way, but, like agriculturalists of any time, have been able to some extent to dictate the terms in which such new plants had to be successful. Usually, the benefit of a particular variety came packaged with a disadvantage. For instance, a new variety might be highly susceptible to such and such an insect, but that wouldn't matter provided there was a convenient pesticide to hand to eliminate that threat. Usually, a variety which can deliver, say, drought-resistance, will come within a genotype package which will confer some disbenefit, perhaps a relatively low yield.
Dr Peter Pauls, of the Department of Plant Agriculture at the University of Guelph, says that: "There is a good herbicide resistant Canola produced by mutagenesis as a result of work done in the same lab as produced another Canola by genetic engineering. They have the same trait. The mutagenic variety is tolerant of the herbicide Pursuit, and the genetic-transfer variety is resistant to Roundup. What's the difference?"
It is time to develop more directly the benefits and difficulties attaching to genetically modified organisms in agriculture. The fragility of Canada's soils - like many around the world - is such that it is really best not to plough them at all. Ploughing digs over the topsoil of a field, and does so in order to bury weeds, recycle plant-based fertility and produce a tilth (fine soil) for planting next year's seed. Dr Dwayne Hegedus, a research scientist in the Molecular Genetics Section of the Canadian government's Saskatoon Research Centre, says: "Traditionally, farmers cropped their land and then rested it as fallow, in order to build up moisture and keep weeds under control. But then it was ploughed, which puts the land at risk of drying. There isn't much topsoil in parts of the prairies, and some of that was lost in the 1930s anyway. As a result, north American farms have for a decade or so moved to 'tillage-free' agriculture, which is very herbicide intensive."
Herbicide resistance and zero-tillage
"Zero tillage" has become a commonplace. Indeed, the main merit of the GMOs in most common use on the north American prairies is that they allow a relatively benign herbicide to be used in the new, cost-effective and conservation-based system. They do this by giving the crop resistance to the "systemic" herbicides which are often used in "no tillage" farming. The herbicides - Roundup is Monsanto's, Liberty is AgrEvo's - are not without risk to the environment, but they are less risky than most. Dr Hegedus continues, "Farmers for years have used what are called broad spectrum herbicides, which have the advantage that there's no residue. But with the use of GMOs [engineered to provide herbicide resistance] the land can be treated in one "pass", instead of several. This means the farmers only use one chemical, not five or six, and they use it very early on. AgreEvo have developed a herbicide tolerant Canola with Agriculture Canada, and we're very proud of it. It means on relatively good US conditions, you can crop twice a year. And here in Canada it means you can crop every year. And it delivers soil conservation".
To return to Jim MacPherson. He works in the Saskatoon laboratory and offices of Performance Plants, a firm based for now in the Biological Sciences building of Queen's University, Ontario. He is helping to run the field trials which will demonstrate the efficacy and safety of one of the firm's GMOs. The trials come after two and a half years of work with the gene in question. They are designed to establish the seed's viability as a crop and its potential riskiness in the environment. The way testing works in Canada, at least eight generations of seed will have been grown before the plant can be released to farmers commercially, in a process which takes between five and 10 years. Since several of these crops have now be planted and harvested for four years, that means that north Americans now have growing experience of between 10 and 15 years of outdoor, real life experience with GMOs. About half of those crops was grown by a farmer who could see economic benefit from it, and every repeat crop was planted because that farmer had evidence that the seeds worked in practice.
Performance Plants has been developing two main traits from bio-technologies on which it has patents. One delivers drought-tolerance, and a development of that has proved to deliver cold tolerance. The work began by copying a gene from a mutant strain of a common Canadian weed. The rare strain actually over-reacted rather badly to water shortage, and yet survived. The upshot is that the gene can convey peculiar properties to crops - say alfalfa - which do not normally have them. The plant becomes able, for instance, to put a good deal of its activity on hold during short periods of water shortage, and thus it is able to leave untouched such water as is in the soil, rather than wasting it at the risk of undermining the soil's viability.
"Organisms spend most of their lives starving", says Peter McCourt, the University of Toronto biology professor whose work on the common weed Arabidopsis led to the patents underlying Performance Plants' work. "Starve a worm and it goes into a dormant mode. All our work begins with understanding how plants develop and make decisions about their environment".
For David Dennis, one of the co-founders of Performance Plants, this is the key to the firm's originality. He and his co-founders are specialists in plant development. They work on how plants grow and survive. Professor Dennis says: "The first wave of biotechnology conferred particular traits, say the ability to produce proteins which made them unattractive to insects. We are working on the next generation of progress: we work with the plants' means of responding to the world about it. We are working on the plant's metabolism, so it can switch on responses which are useful in different circumstances, or which get it to alter the timing of different parts of its growth cycle." Thus, a plant might be given valuable drought resistance in two ways, and Performance Plants is working on both. One route makes the plant flower earlier, so that it gets through that awkward stage before it is likely that a dry late spring or summer stunts its growth. Alternatively, there are genes which allow the plant to detect an untimely dry season and to put much of its growth on hold for a while.
There were plenty of surprises for McCourt and Performance Plants as their work unfolded. One was that one gene coded for drought resistance, and the second was that it coded for cold resistance as well.
The Canadian prairies chronically suffer dry and cold seasons, and this sort of technology might well help farmers in the west generally. Jim says: "We have had a long and bitter experience of bad farming practices - our forefathers had the Dust Bowl experience, when people tilled the soil and saw it blow away. They've had to keep innovating to keep farming. They knew you couldn't just go on doing the same thing for twenty, let alone two thousand years." So farmers are appreciative of the idea that genetic engineering can bring real benefit to the comparatively rich farming world of Canada's dry lands. "But all over the world, water is scarce", Jim continues. He believes it is important to have seeds which may one day benefit farmers much poorer than Canada's. It doesn't surprise him that the development should happen in the western world before it is exported south: that is the story of most development, from hybrid seeds to computers.
It might not be an argument in their favour that GMOs are no worse than "conventional" crops, if those crops had now become problematic anyway. We need to unpick some of the problems posed by crops of any kind and then see what the GMOs dimension adds, if anything.
Frankenstein pollen and insect resistance
This is a good moment to introduce the idea of insect resistant crops and genetic engineering. We have seen that many weeds and crops have a degree of insect resistance. Some produce toxins which kill insects, others produce smells or tastes which deter insects from eating them. The first wave of bio technologies produced varieties of common crops which had been genetically modified to produce Bt, a bacterium which destroys the intestines of insects and kills them. This is by no means the only tool which breeders use to confer insect-resistance on plants. But leaving that aside, use of this particular bacterium in a spray is one of the few techniques open to organic farmers as they defend their fields, and it is common practice, so it is not the use of biocides of this kind which can be in principle what the "green" lobby dislikes. They say they fear the introduction of genetically-modified Bt for three main reasons. One: Bt is engineered into a crop so it is permanently available. Thus it might kill too many of the insects which prey on the crop, and this might further damage wildlife. Two: if there were too many fields using Bt insect resistance, the insect populations which prey on them might develop resistance. And third: the pollen of genetically-modified crops might damage non-target species.
These are all problems which we have to watch for with any modern chemical agricultural systems, or indeed any system of agriculture at all. We are not free to classify this sort of hazard as unacceptable, we are only free to manage it as well as possible. Success in regulating the use of Bt, typically of this sort of issue, will likely depend crucially on watching the scale and the duration of the use of the bacterium. This is to say that meeting the problems requires the same approach that being tolerably safe alongside chemical farming does.
The first problem would only be serious if a particular insect population was wholly dependent on the genetically-modified crop, and there haven't seemed to be any such in practice. The second might indeed arise, but can be overcome by retaining areas of crop which are free of Bt crops, so that insect populations are given "refuges" where a sub-population can remain sensitive to the Bt biocide.
The third problem is very similar to the effect of chemical sprays, and the way they can catch species which aren't intended targets. In one of the most famous incidents in the GMO propaganda war, the media were incensed to find that researchers at Cornell University demonstrated that the Monarch butterfly is damaged by pollen from a Bt-engineered plant. [Transgenic pollen harms monarch larvae, Losey, J E, Rayor, Linda S, and Carter, Maureen E, Nature, 20 May 1999]
Dr Wilf Keller, director of research at the Canadian National Research Council's Plant Biotechnology Institute in Saskatoon is unimpressed by the fuss. "This was a preliminary result from lab work, sent as a letter to Nature and released to the media.. If you sprinkle any corn pollen onto milkwood leaf, which is the butterfly's favoured food, anyone would know you're going to have an adverse effect on them. You can take pollen from an insect resistant plant and the butterflies can drown in it but not be poisoned by it."
His point was reinforced when two prominent entomologists (one of them from Cornell itself) published a paper in Nature Biotechnology [False reports and the ears of men] Anthony M Shelton, Professor of Entomology at Cornell's New York State College of Agriculture and Life Science and Richard T Roush of the University of Adelaide, Australia urged that the public should not be swayed "by laboratory reports that, when looked at with a critical eye, may not have reality in the field or even in the laboratory". They asserted that the scepticism should be applied to several cases which had gained a good deal of publicity. One such arose when researchers at Kansas State University reported in Science that they had discovered corn borer resistance to Bt toxins, but did so in work which would not, in the Nature in Biotechnology authors' view, cut the mustard with many entomologists. They cited another scare, the result of work published in Nature by workers at the University of Arizona, which might be taken to suggest that bollworms might become less resistant to the Bt toxin than had been thought, and which they thought largely irrelevant to the real world.
The authors, more positively, cited work by Laura Hansen and John Obrycki, an Iowa State University team, which suggested that the highest plausible dose of Bt pollen had produced only low mortality in Monarchs. [Cornell University Press Releases (1) and (2): ] More generally, these cases have been taken as signs that academic journals are nowadays succumbing to a vulgar desire for publicity. As we shall see, in both the insect-resistance stories and in that of the research Dr Pusztai, these fears are real.
It is important to see that current problems with GMOs - slight and theoretical as many of them are - shouldn't be allowed to blight the principle of the technology. Dr Keller says: "There are tests now on engineering Bt in such a way that it's only in the leaves, and not in the pollen. Actually, I don't really understand why this is supposed to be such a problem. Monarchs are not rare or threatened and are commonest where there is milkweed, which isn't on farmland since farmers loath and attack it as a weed".
We have seen that the campaigners against genetic engineering had a triumph with the supposedly Frankenstein pollen GMO plants would produce. They had an equal success with the idea that that GMO plants would be spectacularly successful as they escaped into the wild, many of them bearing resistant to the pesticides by which such a disaster might be controlled. Most knowledgeable researchers believe this scenario is also largely a chimera.
Superweeds, outcrossing and herbicide resistance
Bt crops are sometimes claimed to be capable of becoming superweeds. Dr Malcolm Devine, of AgrEvo's Biotechnology Research centre at Saskatoon, says: "Bt insect resistance has been conferred by genetic techniques into a potato variety. But that wouldn't make the potato a more viable weed in farmers field: tillage or herbicide would still kill it. Similarly, herbicide resistance doesn't make a superweed out of a crop."
Such a thing would not be easy to achieve, even if it were an ambition. Crops seeds of any kind do not commonly and successfully escape into the wild in north America, or - it can be argued in most cases - in Europe either. In principle, to do so, they would have to have weedy, invasive properties. If they did have these, they might cross breed with neighbouring crops of similar type or existing wild varieties and so in some way bastardise them. But as Dr Devine says: "We have an idea of whether that is likely to happen with any particular crop under development because we know if there are wild relatives of the crop." Canola, for example, has wild relatives, because it is a mustard. Dr Devine continues: "Many of our crops, say wheat, barely and rye - are from the Middle east, and have no close relatives in the wild here. Flax does have relatives but doesn't out-cross readily, even with itself. It's not attractive to bees and insects, so its pollen isn't spread. Now, Canola is attractive to bees, and lots of honey is produced from it. But Canola won't survive in woodlands, though it will self seed as a volunteer in fields where or near where it's grown".
So, Canola (genetically modified or not) is not a great threat to wild habitat. As Bob Coles, a professor of biology at the University of Saskatoon, says: "Wild mustard is already a insect resistant species, that's one of the reasons that it's useful to Canola breeders. But even if an insect resistance of a new kind were transferred from a crop to a weed, that wouldn't help the weed much. Insect resistance is useful to a mono-crop in a field because if an insect can attack one plant it can attack 300 acres of the stuff. Weeds don't occur like that. There are other properties in weeds which protect them. For instance, weeds are genetically variable, they don't tend to occur in such high densities.
Dr Devine says: "My background is weed research and I don't know whether to laugh or cry when people talk about super-weeds. If all it took to turn a normal weed into a super weed was the addition of a gene, then there'd be a lot more weeds out there. It isn't one gene but a whole lot of genes which make s a weed weedy. . One gene can't make a plant run amok. But ironically it wouldn't be herbicide resistance that did it anyway, because resistance to a particular herbicide confers an advantage on, say, a farmer's crop, which needs to be survive spraying with that herbicide. But any weed would not be sprayed, so its advantage couldn't come into play."
Now it is true that all agriculture depends on farmers obeying rules and having several options . Weeds and insects become resistant to any, single weapon used against them. Dr Devine again: "It's inevitable that some seed will cross-fertilise with neighbouring varieties if the conditions are right. Let's suppose this happens with a Canola grown by Farmer A which has herbicide resistance of a particular sort, and the resultant cross on farmer Bs field is a hybrid with some resistance. Even so the worst case is till not very bad. Let's say some of the new seed germinates: there are going to be some seeds which will be resistant, say, to Roundup. There probably wouldn't be very many. Normally, farmer B would spray them with Roundup, but now he'd just have to use another spray, say 2-4-D. The important thing is that farmers have to co-operate together anyway, and they have to share information." This may pose problems in poorly-regulated societies, or societies whose poor farmers might be driven by short-term interests might make even savvy farmers behave badly. We will look at this issue a little later.
This picture of an economically-valuable and ecologically sensible approach applies to other GMOs. Dr Hegedus cites a GM root vegetable as a typical case: "Turnips were traditionally literally drenched in pesticides because insects go right inside them. With GM technology we were able to make turnips produce a protein which was toxic to insects but not to people, it was a natural pesticide and chemical-free. That's the sort of reason why we can call GM technology organic. It uses techniques which are familiar to breeders who may not happen to use what are called biotechnological. Dr Hegedus again: "Ninety or ninety-five percent of the research which Agriculture Canada does not involve GMOs. In many cases, it simply isn't necessary. There may, for instance, be genes for virus and even insect resistance which we can access easily. Often these occur in varieties which haven't been cultivated: they contain genes which help their viability in the wild, and we can borrow those properties. For instance, the crop version of oil seed rape, Canola, has been made a useful food because the genetic elements of the original wild mustard plant which made it tasty as mustard have been bred out. Those were the elements which conferred some of its insect deterrence on the plant. We can put those qualities back in a different way without affronting nature. And we can do it without bringing back the taste which would make for useless oil. But by making the crop insect resistant, one isn't necessarily making the crop more likely to out-cross into the wild, or to become volunteers in the farmer's field."
Dr Hegedus says: "Along with other changes, in some varieties, we've bred out the requirement for vernalisation. In the wild, the plant set seeds and lies dormant until there is a cold shock in the spring to germinate them, and then the summer in which to grow. But now, these varieties of seed, when perhaps they are left in the field after harvest, will flower in the autumn cold, and then not survive the winter. Besides oil seed rape of any kind is not competitive in the wild. It takes all the farmer's effort to plant the seed right, and keep out weeds, for the crop to work."
Outcrossing and the "Terminator" trait
The reluctance or willingness of a variety to produce second-generation plants from the seeds in a farmer' crop is important. We feel safer with farmed crops which are relatively infertile, because they pose less risk to the next years' crops, or even to the wild. Many but not all modern hybrid varieties of the kind which have given the world the Green Revolution have slightly or very impaired fertility. Farmers around the world have grown used to buying seed which has many advantages, including, for instance, a relative reluctance to outcrop, but which (precisely because its progeny isn't fertile) cannot be saved for next year's planting. But the GMO technology which designs seeds so that they are deliberately infertile is excoriated by campaigners, and by some people who are keen on GMOs but worried about the commercial advantage this trick might confer.
The technology, dubbed "Terminator" by campaigners, has not been taken beyond the laboratory yet, but in the end Monsanto, which had pioneered it, announced that it would abandon it. We will be looking at this issue elsewhere.
For now it is important to stress that a "Terminator" trait is not exclusive to GM technology. Many plant varieties, GMO or not, have lost the ability to produce viable seed. That might play into the hands of the firms which produce them, but only in very particular circumstances. The firm would need to be in a monopoly situation of a very rare kind. It would need to own every type of seed for a particular crop and the crop would have to have peculiar importance. If a farmer wanted to store seed (not all do by any means), and could buy other varieties of the crop, GMO or not, or could switch to other crops where he could keep seeds for reuse, then the firm's monopoly would be very weak. None of these is conditions is the case with, say Monsanto, and Canola. If Monsanto, say, conferred "Terminator" traits on its Canola, farmers could switch to four or five other highly successful strains which Monsanto do not own. Most crops are like that.
GMOs and the farmer
It is a great mistake to believe that a technology that helps prairie farmers is "just" helping the rich. Rebecca Friend-Heath is a Performance Plants researcher in Saskatoon. Her parents, who are close to retirement, farm two "sections" - about 1280 acres - of prairie. "The banks own more prairie than farmers do", she says, and it is a refrain which has been true for most of the last fifty years. The prairies have had a long history of being too tough and economically too volatile for farmers who do not constantly scale up and increase investment. Now, a successful family farm might (as is one cited by Friend-Heath) be run by two brothers on 10 sections (about 6,000 acres) with one fulltime employee and up to a £1m of plant equipment. "A single couple might manage on three sections", says Friend-Heath - but that assumes that one could add some farm diversification into the equation.
This is a typical story throughout the north American west, and with much lower numbers it applies to most of Europe too. Farmers need every means possible to add value to their operations. The smaller family farm especially often needs to at least double its income to offer the prospect of keeping the next generation on the land. If that idea of the social fabric of the countryside matters - whether in Europe north America - then farm profitability also matters.
Farmers in north America have decided that GMOs are part of their survival. They bought GM seed in huge quantities because they believed that the various traits on offer were worth having. But even before there was European resistance to their crops, it was almost sure that they would continue also to use conventional seeds with the older pesticides that they were used to. Partly this is because it is a constant change in the mix of pesticide strategies which keeps each strategy effective. It would be no more use to farm on a large scale continuously with Roundup resistant seed than it would to use exclusively seed with Bt biocide built in, or to do so with only one "conventional" seed type and only one chemical pesticide. The whole merit of the GM option is that it is a successful addition to the palette of options a farmer has.
Amongst the next generation of GMO technologies there will be seeds which offer very much larger financial possibilities for farmers. SemBioSys, a GM startup based in Calgary and founded by Maurice Moloney, a biology professor at the University there, has developed a technology which engineers oilseed to produce very high value proteins for the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries. The new technology has the advantage that the firm has found ways of making the plant proteins much easier to separate and purify than has been achieved before. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that DowAgroSciences Canada, an arm of the US-based Dow Chemical, has a $17 million investment in this part university-owned firm, nor that the firm's projected annual revenues are 10 times that.
Less advertised is the fact that this sort of advance has great advantages to farmers: it brings a wholly new crop to their fields, and it brings crops which upwards of ten times more valuable than crops for animal or human feed. It might well have relevance in the third world, where small farms, or co-operatives of small farms, might be put into a league of profitability which will make growing mange tout or carnations for the rich world seem small beer. Of course, for these developments to flourish, there will need to be well-established systems for identifying which farms and which parts of farms are growing particular crops, and there will need to be systems which ensure that, for instance, high-value crop oilseeds don't get mixed up with low-value oilseeds. Imaginative farmers in Ontario are already forming co-operatives to discuss and invent such control-systems. They may need to be developed anyway, as consumers insist that they want the right to eat foods which have no GM material in them. We will come to whether there really ought to be labelling of GM material, as against non-GMO material. For the time being, though, it is interesting to note that it is likely that there will soon be GM pharmaceuticals in the medicine cabinets of the world. Supposes these prove popular. Won't it seem odd that a person keeps GM crops out of his larder but welcomes them into his bathroom?
Small wonder then, that Dr Harm Deckers, a biotechnology researcher who helped develop the SemBioSys technology, and who now drives their intellectual property protection work, is dismayed by European reaction to GM technology.
Dr Deckers says: "I am from the Netherlands and I come from a 'green' background. I ride a bike and I recycle. I came here to do biology. And yet there is this extraordinary backlash against this very "green" technology'. I don't understand it."
Dave Dennis is asking the same sort of questions. In 1996, he and a couple of partners started Performance Plants. They had been biology professors and wanted to commercialise the bio-technologies which flowed from their academic work. Dave is an Englishman in his late 50s. He lives out of town on poor land which someone had for a few decades tried to farm and which is now herb-rich grazing for the Dennis' horses. In streams of letters to newspaper editors and in his firm's website [the FAQ section from which is appended here], he puts the case for his industry. But he knows that there are signs that parts of the Canadian media are becoming more sympathetic to the campaigners' case, and - worse - he knows that the debate in Europe is heavily weighted against these developments.
We turn to that debate in another section.
By the end of 1999, there were strong signs that the north American debate and climate for GMOs was shifting. The Turning Point Project ( a coalition of north American campaigners) published a series of ads on genetic engineering. One listed common foods which might well contain GMOs, and excoriated the US government for refusing to label GMO products. [Unlabelled, untested... and you're eating it". [The New York Times, 18 October, 1999] The industry, so often characterised as powerful and assertive, was actually facing a good deal of stock market scepticism, no doubt in part and perhaps mostly brought on by anxiety that there might be a consumer and even a farmer revolt against these crops. The Wall Street Journal's Money and Investing section remarked of Monsanto' stock: "[It] is so cheap now that the market isn't putting any value on Monsanto's crop-biotechnology traits, a business some analysts figure is generating roughly $300 million annually in licensing fees". There was much talk of the Behemoth breaking up, if - that is - someone could be found with the confidence to carry on the bio-tech business on its own. [Wall Street Journal, 21 October 1999]
In late November and December, Seattle became the scene of anti-capitalism protests which focussed crucially on GM technologies. In December, what was described as a "massive class action" was begun against Monsanto. The suit, "filed by a coalition of farmers and environmental groups is vast in its ambition". [Financial Times, 15 December 1999]
In a word, the protest had migrated from Europe to North America, and along the way had matured. Now the suits were involved. In Canada, for instance, Monsanto are suing a Saskatchewan farmer for allegedly growing its patented GMO seed without paying royalty. The farmer is countering with the view that his ground has been "contaminated" by Monsanto's organisms. [Financial Times, The Business FT Weekend Magazine, 4 December 1999]. The courts will be hearing this case in June 2000.
After the fiasco of Seattle's abortive WTO meeting, the opening of 2000 saw the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (which first saw the light of day in Rio in 1992) spawn a protocol on international trade in seed and crops. It allowed countries to resist imports of GMOs using a version of the Precautionary Principle which requires at least some, but not necessarily final, evidence of environmental or health risk. Exporters would have to inform importing countries of the possibility of a shipment's containing GMOs. Poorer countries would be given international help in building regulatory systems. Now of course, the interpretation begins. It was generally believed the protocol would do little to reinforce the regulatory systems of rich countries, but might make a difference in poor ones. The consumers of European countries have become resistant to the foods produced from GM crops, and had sent that commercial message to N America's producers long before their regulators had tried or wanted to. The outcome in poor countries is anyone's guess. ["Greens and free-traders join to cheer GM crop deal", Financial Times, 31 January, 2000; "Against the grain", New Scientist, 15 January 2000; "Two cheers for Montreal" and "Let battle commence", New Scientist, 5 February, 2000]
Chapter Three: Biotechnology and prejudice: the British media takes on GMOs
There are of course several ways to judge the success or failure of GMOs. Let's list some of them.
Profit. GMOs may produce profit for firms. That's a general indicator of good, since it will provide returns for shareholders (that's nearly everyone, through pension funds, for instance), and tax revenues. (But see below.)
Environment. GMOs may produce environmental benefit: that will be a little harder to assess, but by no means impossible. One would need to see the outcomes in, say, wildlife enhancement of this form of agriculture over its likely alternatives.
Society. GMOs may be socially beneficial. This is a little harder still to assess, since one needs to judge whether this or that social outcome has been achieved.
Consumer satisfaction. GMOs may benefit consumers, say in the price or performance of foods. This is a little complicated by the fact that a Western consumer might well have different priorities than a Third World consumer. Consumer benefit may look very different in different countries.
Naturally, all these issues were pursued hard by the proponents and opponents of the new technology, and there were many attempts to promote and denigrate different bits of the argument. This chapter tries to look at those as they unfolded in the British media in the late 90s.
The GMOs story began as an issue about the safety of consumers now that they were confronted with GMOs in their food. Genetically-engineered medicines such as human insulin, with which some were familiar, had seemed to raise no comparable issues. As the teenage dope-peddler in the hit film American Beauty remarks, genetically modified cannabis had positive cachet. The fact of cloning animals or the possibility of cloning humans, using genetic engineering techniques, had seemed to raise moral issues, but not the peculiar spectre of risk and hazard that quickly came to be attached to GMOs sold as food.
During 1998, it became clear that regulating the advance of GMO technology in food crops would be a nightmare. The EU's central bureaucracy had always seemed largely in favour of the developments, and was concerned to produce a regulatory framework which could minimise risks without killing this piece of progress. Consumer groups were making hay with the idea that these crops produced foods which were inherently more dangerous than their predecessors. Uninformed people had a feeling that to eat GMO crops was to consume new and dangerous engineered DNA. Actually, as a Nestle spokesman told the Guardian [Guardian, 4 June 1998, in the "Consumer" section]
"Like many food manufacturers we do use a number of ingredients derived from soya. Because of delays in from Europe in deciding detailed rules for labelling of such products, we have agreed voluntarily to label products containing soya protein on the basis that it is likely to contain genetically modified material."
The likelihood arose from the fact that soya from north America was part of a commodity crop of which a growing and substantial minority was already GM. But the firm drew an important distinction which was lost on most consumers: "Products which do not contain protein, such as soya oil for example, would not need special labelling".  This was because the oil, though it came from the plant's seed, did not contain any of the protein which had been produced as a result of genetic modification. A GM proponent would say that there was nothing peculiar in the proteins which contained DNA which had been introduced by GM, even if it was then eaten. A GM opponent would say that a food which had been produced from a plant which had been produced by GM was "contaminated" even if the consumer wasn't eating any of the products which had been so introduced. The technology was tainting by association because it was morally tainted.
In 1998, Monsanto ran a series of advertisements which rather mildly promoted the idea of GMOs in agriculture. One of the responses was from the Prince of Wales, who complained that ethical consideration should be as powerful a factor as scientific concern (Daily Telegraph, 9 June 1998). Scientists could claim, but too seldom did, that a scientific understanding can powerfully inform an ethical concern.
Roger Highfield, the paper's science editor, under the headline, "Clinical look at the men who play God", wrote:
"The Prince implores scientists to examine the overall impact of modified crops but fails to take a similar "holistic" view of DNA, the vehicle of inheritance. Princes, cabbages and other organisms share so many genes that that it is meaningless to label as 'human' any of the 70,000 genes that nature requires to make a person. Genes that control cell division in our bodies, for instance, are almost identical to those used by yeast.' [Daily Telegraph, 6 June 1998.]
The proponents stressed rather that we are not what we eat. Humans always eat DNA which is "alien", whether engineered or not. Hannibal Lecter and a few primitives aside, our food is exclusively non-human in origin, by law. Our guts are thus full of animal and plant DNA and we don't become pig-like or corn-like as a result. We are not "infected" by the DNA in our food.
Opponents and proponents of GMOs alike knew that if these new products were labelled as such, it was likely that the stigma attached to them would lead to consumer rejection. At least, it would in the climate which had quite recently developed. The new climate represented a change. By 1998 many consumers had had two years' of experience with tomatoes genetically designed for convenience of processing. These had been clearly labelled as appearing in some brands of cheap tomato ketchup, and thus their engineering had either not been a bar to their undoubted market success or may even have contributed to it.
It seemed clearly and intuitively sound to give consumers the choice. The Guardian [4 June 1998] found that a half of consumers were "not very/not all happy" about the introduction of GMO foods (14 per cent were "very/quite happy" and 36 per cent were neither of these or don't knows). But 85 per cent thought GMOs should be kept separate; 96 per cent wanted them clearly labelled and 89 wanted the product labelled as GMO if there was any doubt that it might not be.
Indeed, the common perception was that it was only American giants such as Monsanto whose interests went in a different direction. But then, it was Monsanto and other north Americans who were producing GM oilseeds, corn, soya and wheat, and it is these crops whose commodity stauts the farming industry would have liked to maintain. To proponents, commodity status, in which GMO and "conventional " crops were undifferentiated, reflected the close similarity to "conventional food" of the foods produced by the new technologies, and contributed to their cheapness. To opponents, this was a cynical ploy to hide GMOs in the mainstream flow of food.
In particular, there was intense debate within the ministries of EU countries as to whether Europe could or should accept the US and Canadian position that from a food point of view one could describe foods produced from GMOs as "substantially equivalent" (ie, the same for working purposes) as "conventional" foods. The merit for the industry and its supporters in deciding that they were substantially equivalent was that the "new" foods could then be treated under the same regulatory framework as "old" foods. Moreover, and this was crucial, emerging WTO rules required a substantial risk derived from a substantial scientific difference if GMOs were to be discriminated against by importing countries.
One of the early controversies pitched purists attitudes head on against regulators. In July 1998 [The Times 22 July 1998] an organic farmer, Guy Watson, lost a case which sought to stop trials of genetic crops near his farm in Devon. He reportedly had argued "that the altered crop could cross pollinate with his and jeopardise accreditation from the Soil Association". The case had the effect of sharpening the perception that the government was steamrollering trials, and occasionally overlooking some of the legal niceties which should have been involved. The case had the important effect of highlighting the fact that GMO growing techniques were in the process of being tested prior to possible introduction to Britain, and thus that it was no longer merely food safety, or the safety of foreign environments, which were at stake. The British environment was also in issue. It was typical that the purity of organic farms should be taken as representing the purity of the British countryside. It was largely forgotten that all crops cross pollinate, and that to worry legitimately about GMO cross-pollination one would first have to demonstrate that the resulting hybrids were somehow different, and then, second, that they were worryingly different. To understand whether this was so was of course the precise purpose of the trials which were so disliked by opponents of GMOs. We have seen that Greenpeace's position was that the question was not worth asking or answering.
In August 1998, the GMO debate intensified dramatically with the transmission of a World In Action TV documentary which revealed that Arpad Pusztai, a government researcher at the Rowett Institute, Aberdeen, had research which seemed to show that rats could be made ill by consuming genetically modified potatoes. ["Gene potatoes damage rat's immune systems", The Times, 10 August 1998]
Compared with the huge fuss which attended these findings, which turned out to mean very much less than the media and the campaigners liked to think, there was scant public attention for the kind of message which Monsanto was castigated for promoting in their notorious advertisements. "Modified crop 'helps man and wildlife', ran the headline over a piece by Michael Hornsby in the Times. [The Times 25 August 98] The research was on GMO seed patented by Monsanto for herbicide-resistance.
Alan Dewar of the Institute of Arable Crop research, said, 'the thing that struck me was that with the new technology, it was possible to allow a degree of weed growth that farmers would not tolerate in a conventional crop. I have never seen so many insects in a sugar-beet crop before". This work was the result of trials in a field which had been attacked by environment campaigners.
As summer turned to autumn, there was increasing evidence that Dr Pusztai's work did not show what he though it had. But the furore had contributed mightily to hasty and anxious Government deliberations which led to what was trumpeted as "a year long ban on the introduction of all genetically modified crops". [Daily Telegraph, 22 October 1998] In reality, trials would continue, and the ban was largely meaningless since the crops would not have gone through the full testing cycle within a year anyway, with or without the new "ban".
Little noticed in 1998 was a report from the Royal Society, one of Britain's oldest forums for scientific debate and scrutiny, which cautiously supposed that European and British regulation was sufficiently alert and cautious to be trustworthy as biotechnological techniques were tested for commercial use. (We will come to the Nuffield Foundation's more recent and serious report whose message was broadly the same, but which brings the story more up date.)
The new year, 1999, opened with a report from the House of Lords European Communities select committee which followed very much the same tack. One signatory to this report is of particular interest; Baroness Young of Scone is a New Labour life peer and a former director of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Now, as director of English Nature, the government's statutory conservation watchdog, her acceptance of the committee's consensus was interesting, granted that some English Nature pronouncements had been markedly more cautious than the government's more usually positive line.14 ["Go slow for GMOs", by Brain Johnson, UK advisor for GMOs for the Statutory Conservation Agencies, in "Plantlife", Spring 1999] Now, she said that public concern required "adequate safeguards, properly enforced, for both human health and the wider environment": the kind of view which said nothing or a lot, according to taste.
Some politicians went much further. Paul Tyler, a Liberal Democrat frontbencher, said
"We still do not know the risks involved with this new technology and therefore the Government must apply the Precautionary Principle. This technology has enormous implications for the environment and public health and for consumer confidence. Regulations and controls must be rigorously updated and monitored at all stages. I fear that agriculture will be radically transformed overnight - and there will be no going back [Western Morning News, 21 January 1999]
This was the kind of opinion which that fitted rather well the mood of the media as it harried one Government life peer (Lord Sainsbury) for being at once a grocer, a science minister, and (through an arm's length trust) an investor in GMO research.
What really caught the public imagination at the opening of the year was the formation under Greenpeace auspices of a campaign by chefs and food writers "pledged to secure a ban on the release of genetically modified organisms in to the food chain" ["Chefs call for ban on 'freakish' GM foods", The Independent, 27 January 1999]
By February, when coverage reached fever pitch, the press reported a huge range of sources, mostly against the new technologies. Overwhelmingly, every opinion, including scientific opinion, was characterised as "vested", or partisan. In mid Month, 21 "top international scientists" came together to support Dr Pusztai. Within a couple of days there were reports that these were divided about equally into people who had worked with Dr Pusztai over many years and an assortment of scientists of various sorts who were well-known for their environmentalist views, often on matters removed from their specialism. The press had only been told at the last moment that their support had been corralled by Friends of the Earth. Within a fortnight, 19 fellows of the Royal Society wrote a letter in the Telegraph [Daily Telegraph, 23 February 1999] defending the need for science to be at the core of decision-making and standing up for the idea of "good science" - that which had stood up to "detailed scrutiny by independent workers in the field".
Perhaps the most interesting single voice was that of Sir Robert May, the Government's chief scientific adviser. An ecologist (actually, a "mathematical biologist") Sir Robert is in the interesting position of publicly stating deep concerns about the rate of extinctions in the natural world, and the wider issue of biodiversity, and also doing front-line speculative work which suggests that habitats and species are surprisingly robust in the face of damage. On GMOs, he was quoted as saying that modified crops:
"... accelerate existing trends towards realising the millennial-old dream of growing crops that no-one eats but us. It's the aim of agriculture. And the more successful we get at that, the worse the news for the wild flowers, the insects the birds and the countryside.... We need to think carefully, not about turning the world back to some imagined Arcadian past, but how we reconcile being players in tomorrow's agriculture, with protected hedgerows, protected areas and so on." [Countryside "is being put at risk'", The |Times, 17 February 1999]
Robert May was blunt in criticising the way Dr Pusztai and his supporters had presented their science: in a blaze of publicity but before peer review.
There had been a long-running row about the Government's independent committee of experts on GMOs and the environment, ACRE (Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, find it through the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions [DETR, in the environmental protection section of its site]), and in this most frenetic of months it led to announcements by the Government which seemed rather more conciliatory to the technologies' opponents than they actually were. ACRE's remit had always been to assess the risks of taking GMOs outdoors into the British environment. Because such releases were in their infancy, these releases, and ACRE's remit at the time, were confined to proposed field tests of GMOs and their likely risks. For that purpose, professional biologists and a representative from a middle of the road but conscientious environmental organisation, the Green Alliance, comprised the bulk of the membership. Critics of the committee said that its oversight was too limited.
The problem was not, as had often been stated, that the committee was indifferent to the long term effects of these crops, or effects a long way from the crops. There was indeed an issue, as Professor Beringer the committee's then chairman, explained to the House of Lords inquiry, that (rather as Robert May had said), GMOs might be part of an increasingly sterilised agricultural environment, free, for instance, of weeds and insects. Herbicide tolerance, for instance, in arable fields might produce an even more weed-free field than is presently the case. Prof Beringer agreed he was worried about these possible effects, but did not see them as concerns for his committee.
ACRE could not possibly refuse a licence to a field trial on the grounds that scaled up enormously it might cause a widespread, nationwide, decline in weeds and insects. Field trials might demonstrate that such a possibility was real, probable or unlikely. That is what they are for. Their purpose is to flag up issues which would be a concern if commercial planting was widespread. The purpose of ACRE was to judge if the tests were fit for this purpose, and that the results would be justified by the risk posed by the trials The whole point of field trials is to discover in small instances occurrences which might matter very differently - much worse, for instance - in large instances. The wider issue is that "conventional" and GMO crops both pose these issues, and it is the way the technologies are used - the agricultural practices under which they are used - which matter.
Actually, these wider concerns were being addressed by research at the Institute for |Crop Research and the Environment Agency, under the oversight of the Department of the Environment, and papers had already been published on these subjects. Some had been commissioned and written but remained unpublished, which was variously presented as typically secretive, or merely - as the Government had it - the result of "small delay". [The Times, Wildlife risk to be investigated, 18 February 1999].
Anyway, the Government, anxious to find what class of statement might pacify the critics, said it would put more obvious conservation representation on to ACRE, and widen its remit. One could, in those months, detect a sort of bargaining process around the idea of a moratorium for commercial planting of GMOs. Some groups said there should be a moratorium until the science was much clearer; the Conservative front bench wanted a three year ban; Friends of the Earth demanded a five year ban.
Actually, granted the cycle of tests which legislation required, a two or three year "moratorium" could be announced and adhered to but was nugatory in its effect.
By April 1999, the enormous distance between serious opinion and public opinion was clear. Robert May told the House of Commons select committee environmental audit select committee:
"We need to bio-engineer crops that work with nature to reduce the need for intensive use of chemical fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. Properly handled, GM crops have the potential to be more wildlife-friendly than the ones we have now". ["GM food essential, says Blair guru", Daily Telegraph, 21 April 1999]
Public opinion, or at least a media storm, had been listening to other voices altogether. Supermarkets such as Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury and Waitrose joined Iceland, the long-standing opponent of GM, in going GM free, as had many of their suppliers, including Unilever, which owns Bird's Eye, and Cadbury). [The Times, 28 April 1999 and The Times, 30 April 30 1999]
Opponents of the GM drew comfort in April from a report from the Scottish Crop Research Institute in Dundee which found that bees could cross-pollinate plants from GMO crops with plants four kilometres a way. This was, it was reported, a much larger range than was expected. Adrian Beeb of Friends of the earth said: "This research throws current thinking out of the window. It confirms that pollen from these mutant crops will be a problem for most farmers." ["Bees 'spread genes from GM crops'", The Times 15 April, 1999]
Actually, it did not do that: cross pollination of five percent of one type of, say, oil seed rape, by another probably would not matter at all. It happens all the time with conventional crops. It might, in the case of a herbicide resistant engineered crop, require the use of a particular pesticide by the farmer with the cross-pollinated crop, to kill off the "volunteers". But the new crop would only be resistant to whichever herbicide it had particularly been programmed for, and that would be one which an organic farmer, for instance, would not be allowed to use anyway. There might indeed be an issue as to the "purity" of the new hybrid, since it might be on an organic farm whose fields would contain a percentage of crops which were "mutant". It would be a low percentage, and not likely to be any higher than might occur within an organic field which had been "contaminated" by pollen from a "conventional" non-organic "chemical" crop. Organic farmers have always faced "contamination" from agricultural systems they don't like. Their special "offer" to consumers is not, if it is honest, a promise of purity but of an agricultural system which does not rely on, and does not approve of, the "conventional" (or, indeed, the "mutant").
In late May, some of the most authoritative sources on science pronounced, in rather different terms, on GMO. Dr Pusztai's work, so famous on television and the popular press, but unreported in the science journals, was systematically rubbished by a team of Royal Society specialists working in traditional peer review secrecy, but overseen by Royal Society fellows who did speak publicly about the findings. Pusztai's motives were not in question, the report found, but the neither the experiments nor the approach to publishing their results were sound. [Daily Telegraph, 19 May 1999].
The next day, the most respected science journal in the country published apparently important work which was accepted doubly as such granted the powerful imprimatur under which it now appeared. "Transgenic pollen harms monarch larvae", was the article in the paper's "scientific correspondence". [Nature, 20.5.99] The media went wild. Nature's website crashed under the pressure of Internet inquirers. Even Professor Beringer, chairman of ACRE, said it was "a real story":
"On the assumption that the study is proved correct I feel there is a real need to make sure that it isn't causing harm to the butterflies and if t is, to reconsider the licensing". [Daily Telegraph, 21 May 1999]
Actually, as we have seen, few entomologists believed that the Cornell work in question had raised concerns of the seriousness its authors supposed, namely that "these results have potentially profound implications for the conservation of monarch butterflies". Its call for the need for further research was both obvious and wholly routine.
The technology now faced what appeared to be a crushing blow from one of the most trusted groups in the country. The British Medical Association's Board of Science called for a "indefinite moratorium" on commercial planting of GMOs because of public concern and the lack of scientific evidence on their long-term safety". The chairman of the group, Sir William Asscher, said:
"Our first anxiety is that is there is no turning back once you have allowed something into the environment. If there is an adverse effect, that is it: it is out there."
The group called for labelling and great deal of caution in regulation. ["Doctors call for GM food ban to ease public fears", The Daily Telegraph, 18 May 1999]. Quite why we should listen to medical doctors on environmental or farming matters was not made clear. There was hardly unanimity amongst informed doctors on the risk to human health either. The next day, Liam Donaldson, the government's chief medical officer, teamed up with Robert May to produce a report which stressed, in contradistinction to the BMA report, that there was no evidence of food danger from existing GM crops. The House of Commons Commons science and technology committee was also reported to be robust in defence of the technology and irritated by the food industry's weakness in the face of ill-informed hostility from its critics. [Times, 19 May 1999]
In June, the Prince of Wales, by now riding a wave of popular excitement on this issue, returned to the fray. He wrote a piece for the Daily Mail which posed ten questions. [Daily Mail, 1 June 1999 and Daily Telegraph, 2 June 1999] They were apparently largely innocuous and inoffensive. They seemed eminently reasonable. But the answers he posited, if accepted, represented a killer blow for the technology. That is why they mattered. The Prince asked if food had been proved safe and answered that of course it had not (he might have added that nothing can be proved safe). He then said only prolonged tests could begin to answer the safety question. Thus posed, endless delay seems reasonable. He asked whether the technology was necessary to feed the world? The prince adduced evidence from Christian Aid that "African countries which might be expected to benefit take a different view" to the technologies' proponents. But surely, a proponent might wonder, the "countries" as a whole had hardly spoken: some NGOs within them may have, but in what sense did that represent the settled view of whole nations? Anyway, the prince said, it was "suspiciously like emotional blackmail" to raise third world issues in connection with GM.
These are all issues which people more moderate and more extreme than the prince might agree on. The real difficulty that he raised was much more difficult. At Question 6 he asked: "How will consumers be able to exercise genuine choice?". He answered it in this way: "If crops can be contaminated by GM crops grown nearby, people who wish to be sure they are eating or growing absolutely natural, non-industrialised real food will be denied that choice. That seems to be me wrong".
This is unanswerable by logic. It very gently poses an absolutist stance. It is one of those issues which arise when people want purity. Suppose that someone posited their desire for silence. Silence is a desirable thing, when one wants it. But it cannot be guaranteed. One can live so that noise is kept to a minimum. One's neighbours can be made to desist from excessive noise, but they cannot be required to make no noise. Actually, they have a right occasionally to make a lot of noise. Living happily depends on learning to live in a society which understand your right to want silence and everyone else's right occasionally to have an all-night party. To be purist is inconsistent with happiness.
We may like the idea of an environment free of chemicals: but it cannot be had, not entirely. The essence of the GM debate is that GMs have falsely introduced into people's minds a new "contaminant" from which some of them would like to be totally free. The first priority of governments should be to determined whether it is right that the presence of GMOs is in fact an undesirable whose presence deserves to be flagged up whether it occurs and then to establish what degree of "purity" can be guaranteed to those who prefer to live without contact with these things. They are not the same question.
At present, the governments of the Western world are hoping that crops grown using GMO will one day take their place amongst "conventional" foods as unexceptionable: that is the way, they feel, of cheapness, convenience and environmental and economic good sense. They would naturally prefer that only foods which are not GMO will bear that label. It is quite easy to imagine providing and labelling a source of food consciously designed to be free of GM influence. But either way, if GMOs are used in agriculture, purists can no more be guaranteed a food free of GM than free of chemicals. People who set their heart on purity always face these risks when they live in normal society: there are condemned to live in a world where they are exposed to things they don't like. One can minimise that exposure. One can try to ensure it is not dangerous. But we live in a tainted world and people who cannot face that, face misery.
The Prince of Wales position is about removing all chance of taint. It is not really about delaying or gathering convincing evidence or balancing risk in the introduction of GMOs. It goes further even than the Women's Institutes the day after the Prince's intervention was reported: the annual meeting of WI voted 7055 to 368 in favour of a five year moratorium. [Daily Telegraph, 3 June 1999] This was meaningless of course: we might know enough to press ahead with commercial growing inside five years, or not know enough by then.
Lord Hoskins, a Labour life peer and food manufacturer gave into the pressure to declare his Northern Food products GM free, but at least had the courage to says: "I am ashamed at the way retailers have wobbled", and stressed that he believed price advantage alone would soon attract consumers back to GM food. [The Times 10 June 1999] [See below for a firm, Lumen Foods, which would not be bullied.]
These developments were widely reported. Much less advertised was a crucial report produced by the Nuffield Foundation Council on Bioethics. The Foundation had decided some years previously to invest in a process to put the new biology-based science and technology on trial. A team of nine people, at least two of whom had strongly environmentalist credentials and others of whom had backgrounds in philosophy, biology, poverty studies and GM technology, examined all the familiar arguments and produced a report, "Genetically Modified Crops: the ethical and social issues" in late May 1999. The report's conclusions were that the technologies carried with them large, positive possibilities but that intelligent and forceful regulation might be needed to ensure that environmental gains rather than looses were delivered, and to ensure that the world's poor, and its poorer farmers, gained from their introduction. The report was so important because it presented what was known and what was uncertain about the science of the issue, and because its scope of concern was very wide ranging: from food health to the environmental issues of crop-growing, from corporate ownership to poverty reduction.
Very little fuss greeted this essentially cool, civilised, informed but humane piece of work. Roger Highfield, The Daily Telegraph's science editor, dealt with the report in a piece which captured its spirit of cautious optimism. It had, he noted,
"said there was a "compelling moral imperative" to develop the GM crops to help developing countries, if they wanted them, "provided that proper safeguards are maintained or introduced". [Daily Telegraph, 28 May 1999] Predictably, George Monbiot, the green campaigner and a Professor of Environmental Sciences, wrote in his Guardian column, "This is perhaps the most asinine report on biotechnology ever written". He disputed that this technology could ever do good: "Genetic engineering is inseparable from its ownership" and went on to say that the report was wrong to believe that this was technology that was necessary to feed the world, or provide employment. Rather, Professor Monbiot asserted, organic farming was the way forward, since it was not owned by multinationals, and employed more people. This was, he said, the real revolution in agriculture. [Guardian, 3 June 1999]
George Monbiot's argument is very attractive to many people and it grows in part from an older argument that the Green Revolution of hybridised seeds had already failed the world's poor, and so would this later version of corrupt technology. There had been an argument for many years as to what version of peasant, organic - or at any rate low input - agriculture might serve a world of rising populations and expectations. A pragmatic argument might have been to suggest that helping peasants raise their self-sufficiency or subsistence through improved peasant systems was one way forward, but that it was not at all incompatible with also seeing advances on a bigger scale from larger plantation-style agriculture.
Gordon Conway and Gary Toenniessen of the Rockefeller Foundation addressed these issues head-on in a paper, "Feeding the world in the twenty-first century, in Nature. [Nature, 2 December 1999] It argued that the Green revolution had delivered big quantities of food, and it had reduced the prices of food to the many poor people who much buy rather than grow food. It had, they argued, shown the need for a further revolution ("the doubly Green revolution"). This needed to be
"an agricultural revolution that is both more productive and more 'green' in terms of conserving natural resources and the environment than the first. We believe that this can be achieved by a combination of ecological approaches to sustainable agriculture; greater participation by farmers in agricultural analysis, design and research; and the application of modern biotechnology directed towards the needs of the poor in developing countries...."
The authors posited a combination of public and private initiatives to develop and direct biotechnologies towards the problems of poor farmers. This was analysis which accepted many of the arguments by the milder critics of the GM technology - issues to do with ownership, patenting and so on - but believed that good sense and good government could overcome them. Part of this good sense, in their view, was to campaign against the Terminator technology. In this if in nothing else we can see that even the "moderate" line is not without controversy. There is a good case to be made that terminator is commercially necessary (and therefore arguably a good thing in itself) and ecologically sound too. Anyway, this was, as it were, a centrist analysis: not as gung-ho for capitalism and technology as some, but not as fundamentalist in its rejection of the new technologies either.
In July, the fundamentalist Greenpeace undertook a typical "action" (newsworthy, direct, non-violent, illegal), and it met a response which was also typical. In what was the third such action by protestors of one stamp or another in as many months, 30 Greenpeace supporters forced their way onto a farmer's fields and destroyed about a third of a Government-sanctioned field trail of GMO maize. They were led, as the papers reported with glee, by an old-Etonian, ex-Labour minister who was a hereditary peer: the group's director, Peter - or Lord - Melchett. The outraged farmer reportedly said that this issue was nothing to with GM, but "whether we want democratic government in this country, or anarchy". [The Times, 27 July 1999] Peter Melchett was taken off for a brief spell in gaol.
The good news was that the press was suddenly much more clear on the issue. Simon Jenkins, in the Times, highlighted the unrepresentative nature of Greenpeace.
"It speaks for its staff and their financial backers. Money is raised chiefly by publicising highly exploitable incidents, often by law breaking.... In the matter of GM crops, Greenpeace may purport to espouse the organic cause but it is merely protecting the existence of makers of pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilisers against the advance of biological science...
Jenkins went on to make the case for further trials and research to further our understanding of GMOs. His last paragraph bears repeating here:
"Reject democratic oversight of science, and progress will be stifled by the burglar, the scaremonger and the mob. Scientists are paid to ask what happens next. Only idiots reply, we don't care. [The Times, 28 July 1999]
More surprising was that conventionally liberal and populist papers such as the Independent also now came out in favour of the field trials and against Greenpeace. The paper's leader writer made a rather dubious case that Greenpeace usually worked with the grain of science, and implied that illegal direct actions by Greenpeace might sometimes be justified in other cases when democratic process was failing. But the writer said of this case
".. [Greenpeace] has chosen the wrong means to reach the wrong objectives... The problem comes when Greenpeace and other eco-activists ignore both science and democratic process.
Never mind, a sceptic might have added, that this is quite normal for Greenpeace, the leader writer was surely right to add that the attacks on trials might lead to more secrecy, which would be bad, and to difficulty in finding out whether GMOs were dangerous or not, which was bad as well. [The Independent, 28 July 1999]
August 1999 saw one of the few sustained accounts of Greenpeace thinking available to the public. Nature published an article, "How to restore public trust in science", by two campaigners, Benny Haerlin, of Greenpeace International, and Doug Parr of Greenpeace UK.
This was an important and classic account which stressed that the public was sceptical of corporate scientists, and of privatised science in general. Science, they said,
"is about the best possible way to answer a given question; to present with rigour the certainties and uncertainties of knowledge, and the assumptions underlying certain conclusions. But, crucially, it is not a method for deciding which questions should be posed, or for determining the acceptable risks and desirable benefits of technologies.
This, so far, is unexceptionable. Honest scientists, answering big questions about ecological impact, would, as the authors said, often merely have to say, "We don't know". Only vested interests, it was implied, forced scientists into over stressing their optimistic certainties about the impacts of technologies and thus contributed to the "illusory picture of authoritative scientific arbitrators".
Well, yes there is a something in that. Politicians indeed tend to stress the safety of their citizens in the face of this or that threat, and on the basis of scientific evidence which rather asserts various shades of risk. But the authors then launch into an attack on the scientific method:
"Failures of science to predict negative outcomes seem to arise when a reductionist method encounters situations of high complexity.
Interdisciplinary and holistic understanding about highly complex issues will not come from individual scientists, but will require entirely new and innovative approaches.
We can assume that such processes, in the authors' view, would involve lots of consultations with Greenpeace, which either deliberately or ignorantly seems to get the wrong end of the stick in most scientific matters it deals with. More generally, the greens have for years mounted an attack on Enlightenment science, on the grounds of its reductionism. And yet, what was the authors' earlier statement about the valuable smallness of the scientific insight, than an account of the necessary reductionism of a science which attempts to find real facts, or workable theories about less certain matters? And what would this larger enterprise be which Greenpeace wants? The rest of the article is a plea for public consultation. The difficulty here is that, as the authors rightly state, informing people about new technology often has the effect of entrenching their hostility. The truth is more likely that long experience with what were once new technologies blunts people's anxiety about them and leads them to accept the benefits as having been worthwhile. That is what has happened with cars, computers, medicines of every kind, and even nuclear power.
In truth, a government's problem is to work out what is useful, whether or not its publics immediately see the point. Unfashionable as it may be to say so, the public may indeed be luckiest, happiest and best served when it is has a government which is wise but not overly responsive to public opinion. In any case, the Greenpeace authors argued that the public ought to know more, whatever the outcome, and that a more open and responsive science will be a better science. Crucially, they suppose that an interdisciplinary approach will make fewer mistakes. That is not nearly as obvious a proposition as the Greenpeace authors suppose. Contrary to what Greenpeace's authors suppose, actually the regulators whom Greenpeace so distrust actually have exactly the "joined-up science" credo that Greenpeace calls for. What they do not have, of course, is Greenpeace's fundamentalism.
Greenpeace believe in avoiding the risks which arise from many modern technologies; many of the rest of us believe that the risks are worthwhile. Naturally, it is important to see that scientists who propose new technologies are not by any means the only people who we should listen to when we assess whether we want to take the gambles they invite. "Science" alone cannot legislate on such matters, never mind whose science we are listening to. But discarding all the science we don't like (as Greenpeace do) is as bad as blindly believing that anyone in a white coat understands whether risks are worth taking.
In September the new chairman of the revamped Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE) spoke to the Daily Telegraph. Professor Alan Gray repeated the general argument that conventional intensive agriculture was a substantial threat in its own right and that GMOs mostly posed problems which were recognisably of the same sort rather than profoundly different. According to the paper, his view was that
dozens of superweeds had emerged from the use of herbicides over the past three decades. As susceptible weeds were wiped out by chemicals, only strains with natural herbicide resistance genes remained to multiply, Yet the impact of these weeds on the environment was unknown because conventional agriculture was under nothing like the same scrutiny as GM crops. "We are treating GM crops in a way we have never treated any other", said Professor Gray. "We are looking at the safety of them of them in a way that we have never looked at other types of agriculture."....
The committee agreed that that there were weeds, notably wild turnip, capable of crossing with GM oilseed rape to spread the pesticide resistant gene. Studies suggested that it happened infrequently.
But Prof Gray's committee believed that the theoretical risk could be dealt with by farmers because they had to deal with "superweeds" resulting from conventional agriculture.
Traditional methods had drastic effects on bird diversity, notably the declining populations of turtle dove, reed bunting, sparrows and skylarks. Reasons were likely to be different for different birds, but one factor was the planting of winter crops, instead of spring crops, that removed weeds and insects from the food chain of some birds
"No-one sat down in a committee and said, "What would be the impact of winter crops", he said. "Maybe we should have".
The Professor was similarly robust about "gene flow" from GMO crops: it was matched by difficulties posed by conventional agriculture. Defending what he believed was a uniquely tough regulatory environment, he said that the new committee had an ecological emphasis and that a sub committee would be discussing wider issues of biodiversity. ["The seeds of trouble were sown before GMOs", by Roger Highfield, Daily Telegraph, 16 September 1999]
Towards the end of 1999, the debate took an unexpected turn and one which hinged on an issue at the very core of discussion about GMO safety.
We have seen that papers on GMOs had been published in scientific journals and had received a good deal of attention. In truth, one of them - on monarch butterflies and pollen - had "merely" been what is called "Correspondence" in Nature, which is to say that it was not a full-on report of final research. All the same, disgruntled scientists in the pro-GMO camp muttered long and loud that Nature was being sensationalist in publishing such relatively slight and contestable work.
Now, Nature ran a piece from three writers, one of whom was billed as an epidemiologist, one a campaigner, and another a science policy specialist. This piece claimed to demonstrate that GMO foods should undergo much more stringent testing than was currently the case. The piece especially claimed that "substantial equivalence" was a flawed idea because the apparent similarities between GMO food and conventional food disguised at least the possibility of more profound and dangerous dissimilarities. Under "substantial equivalence", foods were allowed to come to market without the kind of testing which would have applied, say, to pharmaceuticals and which would have stood a far higher chance of picking up dangerous new properties in GMOs. ["Beyond 'substantial equivalence': showing that a genetically modified food is chemically similar to its natural counterpart is inadequate evidence that it is safe for human consumption", by Erik Millstone, Eric Brunner and Sue Mayer, Nature, 7 October, 1999]
This was a strong and coherent piece, though its provenance might have given some pause for thought, granted that at least one of the authors was from a "fundamentalist" anti-GM group. Never mind, fundamentalists can sometimes be right.
The next week, Nature's correspondence columns were awash with outraged comments from scientists and regulators, one of whom had been a previous chairman of the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes. They raised several points of importance. One was that they did not recognise that commercial and political pressure had led to the use of "substantial equivalence" as a notion. The second was that the scientific analogies and cases which the previous week's authors had used a) did not stand up on factual grounds and b) would not have made a case against GM any more than against conventional crops. So the counter charge was that the level of discussion was historically and scientifically low. The implication was that the level of discussion was too low for it to look well in Nature.
The Telegraph, always willing to publicise the views of pro-GM scientists now ran a piece headlined "Why GM safety is such a hot potato", and straplined: "Two leading Journals have come under fire for sloppy contributions to the GM food debate, say Roger Highfield and Aisling Irwin". It was an account of the controversy which pitted the Nature article of the previous week against the Nature correspondence of the current week. In the words of the Telegraph authors, Professor Derek Burke, the former chairman of the Novel Foods committee, believed, "The Nature paper is over the top, out of date and wrong on specific points".
The usefulness of scientific journals in only carrying material which is capable of surviving scrutiny by authors' peers was further dented that week by news that the Lancet was carrying a piece by Dr Pusztai and a colleague, which sought to explain the infamous lectins and potato work which had had so huge an impact two years' earlier. The Guardian trumpeted the news:
The research that did most to raise public alarm over potential health hazards from genetically modified foods is finally to be published, vindicating work that the scientific establishment and government tried to discredit and reigniting the row over the safety of GM technology.
This was to be an extraordinarily controversial moment for the "influential international medical research journal". Dr Pusztai told the Guardian: "If they consider it important to publish, it must be an important piece of information." [GM warnings to be published: Researcher hails victory over attempts by scientific establishment and government to discredit his work", Guardian 5 October 1999] The pressure groups, and especially Friends of the Earth, were reported to be delighted that the man they had championed all along would have this glorious day.
Actually, it was odd to describe the situation as a triumph for Dr Pusztai. The Lancet was publishing this material in spite of advice from at least some of the many academic reviewers to whom the paper was sent. They said that it didn't meet the necessary standards. The best that could be said in favour of publication was that the work good or bad, could now be judged fully by everyone. The worst that could be said is that here was further evidence that even science journals had fallen prey to market pressure for publicity, whether good or bad, scientific or not. Even Nature mused in public about the controversy embroiling its medical cousin, which was case of the pot calling the kettle black. Peter Collins, the RS's director for science policy told the Telegraph "I think is useful that the experiments have been widely discussed; the results have not been easily accessible and it is helpful to have them so that everyone can make up their own minds". [Daily Telegraph: "Study is published and damned", Daily Telegraph, 13 October 1999]
There was one further peculiar piece of media discussion that month. As we shall see, The Rockefeller Foundation had been vociferous in its opposition to the "Terminator" gene, and this was the kind of opposition that is hard to beat. As we have seen this is a technology which made GM crops seeds infertile and thus farmers would have to buy fresh seeds every year. Actually, that is true of many conventional modern crops, too, and to many of those which made the Green Revolution a success. But no-one seems to have much noticed this fact. "Terminator" certainly might contribute to patent and royalty income protection for corporations and thus was hated by the people who hate the supposed corporate takeover of agriculture. But it also might contribute to halting "gene flow" between GM crops and other crops and wildlife habitat: it was potentially rather a good thing environmentally. The Rockefeller Foundation believed that the balance between the interests of corporations and those of poorer farmers would be adversely affected by "Terminator". [Gordon Conway and Gary Toenniessen, "Feeding the world in the twenty-first century, Nature, 2 December 1999 - this is the paper's second citation in thee pages] Anyway, "Terminator" had important as well as noisy critics and in October, 1999, Monsanto said that it would no longer pursue its commercial introduction.
This was a victory for the antis, and it was hailed as such by The Guardian: "GM Giant Climbs Down" was its headline. Monsanto was in a mode familiar to modern corporations. It might be dubbed the Ritual Humiliation Strategy, or the Confess and Renounce Mode. In this mode, corporations apologise for their faith in capitalism, technology and progress and instead bow to the superior insights of their many campaigning critics. Monsanto's witty and laconic chief executive officer, Robert B Shapiro, had joined several other corporate chiefs in this strategy, and made suitably contrite speeches in high profile venues. It is of course a pose, but it is the only known way to build bridges between a uniquely hostile coalition of populist politicians, vociferous campaign groups, and scare-hungry media. Of course, as Friends of the Earth noted, "Terminator" was alive and well in other companies' portfolios, and Monsanto had not renounced further research into it. [Guardian, 5 October 1999]
Why should they? Two authors with specialist knowledge of the problem of the "containment" of genetically engineered organisms, wrote to Nature to stress that "replication incompetent vectors" were amongst technologies which had given reassurance about the safety of these new organisms. "Although there are moral and social dilemmas surrounding "terminator" technology, these techniques should not be discarded without further reflection". [Andrew Jackson and Chris Inglehearn (Molecular Medicine Unit, University of Leeds, St James's University Hospital, Leeds, UK), Nature, 2 December 1999].
The end of the year was a depressing time. There were riots in Seattle during the WTO's meeting to prepare for a round of discussion, including - ironically, it might be thought - labour standards. The Guardian reported that British veterans of roads and GM protest were there. [The Guardian, 1 December 1999] Many more of that sort stayed at home and had a mini-riot in London. The bad effect was that the WTO did less work than it might. The good effect may be that politicians realise how hard they have to work to get a fuller democratic mandate for the processes of wealth creation. Naturally enough, GMOs took their place as the youngest but most modern tokens of environmental protest.
In January 2000, in Montreal this time, as we saw in Chapter Two, a United Nations meeting seemed to endorse the idea that any country could, on rather flimsy evidence, ban the import of GMO foodstuffs.
There was one rather cheering sign for proponents of GM: a big soya-based health food company, Lumen Foods, asserted the propriety of sticking by the new technology. Its website is model of lively, informed assertiveness. But what use will that prove to be? The firm's gesture may cost it dear and little dent European perceptions. The pro's and anti's proved themselves deeply opposed at an OECD conference convened in Edinburgh in late February. Greenpeace activists were successful in turning back a cargo of mixed "conventional" and GM soya bound from the US to Britain. [The Times, 26 February 2000]
Chapter Four: Biotechnology, the facts. Professor David Dennis answers common questions
Numerous questions have been asked about agricultural biotechnology and they deserve to be answered accurately and honestly. I will attempt to do this. For the purposes of this discussion, plant biotechnology is defined as the use of the techniques of molecular biology to modify the genetic make up of plants. It may involve the genetic modification within a single plant species, the transfer of genes between different plants or the transfer of genes from non-plants to plants. Transgenic should only refer to the transfer of genes between different species, however, it is also often used when genes are modified within a species, because the technology is the same.
It is often suggested that plant biotechnology is so very new that we cannot as yet be aware of all the problems that might be associated with it. This is hardly accurate. The transfer of genes to plants (plant transformation) became routine almost twenty years ago and since that time thousands of independent transgenic plants have been made using numerous genes and different species of plant. Problems should have shown up by now.
Field trials of transgenic crops started in Canada in 1988 and to date over 3,000 trials have occurred. A large percentage of the canola, soybean and corn crops are transgenic. So far, there have been no unpleasant surprises.
Agriculture has changed dramatically over the last twenty to thirty years and will change even more as the new technologies take effect. It is moving from a low-tech commodity based economy to a high-tech speciality-based resource. New management strategies are being introduced, as are new monitoring procedures. In this new agriculture, an essential role for government agencies such as Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency will be to supervise and implement new procedures, as they are required.
All crops have been intensely genetically modified over the years by breeding in both its conventional and modern forms. The term, "genetically modified" or "GM" is, therefore, meaningless. In this discussion I will refer to transgenic plants or crops developed through biotechnology
Question 1: Shouldn't GM food be labelled?
Answer: It is a fundamental right that people should know what they are eating. However, there are many aspects of the labelling of ag-biotech generated foods that must be considered, if labels are to serve a useful function for consumers.
1) If labelling is to be useful, it must provide the majority of consumers with accurate information that will be of use to them. There are numerous items that could be included to accommodate all the different activist groups, but to attempt to satisfy them all would be counter-productive. For example, should labels indicate what fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides have been used on the crop even though no residue of these may be found in the plant.
2) It is the aim of a number of technologies to make significant changes to the composition of the food to improve its nutritional value. For example, we eat the storage organs of plants such as the seeds and tubers. These contain specialized storage proteins that have a restricted range of amino acids and cannot give us all the amino acids we require in our diet. For many years, first through breeding and now by biotechnology, attempts have been made to produce plants with a full range of amino acids in their storage proteins. This is why a Brazil nut protein was added to soybeans. The Brazil nut protein contained the amino acids the soybean lacked. Foods such as this must clearly be tested and labelled to avoid any allergic problems. In the case of the Brazil nut protein added to soybeans, it was found that people who were allergic to Brazil nuts now found themselves also allergic to the transgenic soybeans. These soybeans were then withdrawn and destroyed by the company that developed them.
3) Oil made from transgenic canola plants that have been modified to be resistant to herbicides contains no residue of the transgene or its products. The oil is identical with the oil from non-transgenic plants. Labelling would indicate a difference that is not present. It might be suggested that people should have a chance to protest biotechnology by avoiding such foods. But do we have to cater to all special interest groups? And where does this stop, especially with prepared food that may contain components from multiple sources?
4) The level of the product of the transgene may be very small and have no effect on the properties of the food that contains it. An example of this would be herbicide resistance in plants where the amount of the product of the bacterial gene is small. Should these products be labelled, even though they are almost completely identical with the non-transgenic plants? In most cases, this would seem not to be needed.
The simplest and cheapest way to satisfy customers, who wish, for whatever reason, to avoid these products is to label foods that have not been developed by these technologies. However, consumers choosing these products should be aware that they would have to pay a premium for them.
Question 2: Aren't genetically modified foods placed on the market without proper testing?
1) It is not a simple procedure to have a product accepted for the marketplace by the regulatory bodies in Canada. . Initially, all new transgenic plants have to be confined in either a greenhouse or a growth chamber. One has to receive permission from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to have even a limited field trial, and all aspects of the safety of the new varieties have to be assessed before it is allowed in the field.
2) Even when a new variety has been assessed in limited field trials, it takes five to six years of further trials before the variety can be sold. During this time, the company must demonstrate to the satisfaction of the regulatory bodies, that the variety will not cause environmental problems in the field , and that the product is nutritionally safe for consumers. It has been estimated that the cost of moving a new product through the regulatory procedure can be as high as $10 million. This is a long-term process to ensure consumer and environmental safety.
3) Initially, transgenic products have to be shown to be "substantially equivalent" to existing foods. This is just the beginning. If there are concerns about the components making up the food, they have to undergo tests for toxicity and antigenicity. Although the company that developed the new product is responsible for these tests, they are usually conducted under contract by independent agencies, often government or university labs. I have seen the reports submitted for the approval of one product and together they formed a pile about eighteen inches in height. Each report was a thorough evaluation of the safety of various aspects of the product.
4) It has been suggested in various press reports that a large multinational might try to bypass some of the regulatory procedures or not perform them adequately. However, it would be considered a bad business strategy to knowingly poison or in any way damage one's customers. A company such as Monsanto has invested $12 billion in developing ag-biotech. It would be foolish to jeopardise this investment by inadequate regulatory trials that resulted in health problems for the consumer.
Question 3: Mightn't there be some unknown, dangerous aspects about transgenic plants that have not been considered?
1) There is no conclusive answer to this. All technologies present us with possible risks that must be assessed as implementation proceeds. The critics of foods developed through biotechnology never suggest what the so-called unknown aspects are that require a moritorium before they are introduced. There is also no end to it. After a moratorium of five years for more testing, critics would call for more tests since there may still be something that they perceive to have been missed. All we can do in the business is to try to consider all the problems and attempt to determine if there might be an unknown risk, and how much of a problem that risk might pose.
2) It must be emphasised that we know the genetic capacity of most crop plants and we know the function of the gene that is being transferred to the plant. Any difference in the plant must be a result of these capacities and they can be measured. One would not expect anything entirely new to emerge.
3) It must be realised that crops at present on the market have been extensively tested and no negative effect has been found for any of them. I have no doubt that this will also apply to new products. No evidence of any major problems has been identified even though we are now dealing with a large amount number of new transgenic plants.
4) It has been suggested that, since the information on new products is from industry, the data presented to the government will be biased. However, this is the means by which all testing is dealt with by government bodies. The government dictates the information it requires and there is no evidence that it is ineffective. Most data provided by industry consists of reports from independent agencies contracted by the industry. The cost to the taxpayer would be enormous if the government attempted to perform all the testing themselves, and there is no evidence that the products would be safer. It is in the best interest of the manufacturer to be honest with the government and to provide accurate and complete information.
5) Everyone in the biotechnology industry obeys what is known as "good laboratory practice" (GLP). GLP has very strict guidelines, which requires the company to keep accurate records, has laboratory books that are signed daily by the researcher and supervisor and prohibits the use of pencils and such accessories as correction fluid. Companies follow these guidelines, not just to ensure consumer safety, but also to protect their patents that are their most valuable resource. Under these conditions, it is very difficult to cheat.
6) Essentially, the agricultural biotechnology industry follows procedures that have been established in the pharmacology industry.
Question 4: Won't biotechnology allow the large corporations to control food supply?
1) The patenting of plant varieties and technologies associated with the production of new varieties has made agriculture and food production attractive to multinational corporations since they can now protect their investments. They are indeed likely to dominate agriculture and food production.
2) Although it might be a cause of concern, agriculture is not unique in this regard. There are now only two N. American owned automobile manufacturers. Earlier this century there were several hundred. Internationally, there are now about ten in all. The same is true for other industries such as pharmaceuticals and even the media. The classiccase of this is Microsoft and software. Whether such developments are good or bad is a matter for debate but it is clearly the way global commerce has developed in the 1990's and agricultural biotechnology is no exception.
3) There must obviously be a means of ensuring a fair and equitable food supply for all nations and there must be international agreements to ensure this. Past government control of agriculture and food supplies has not proved an effective means of providing food, and the experience of farms in Russia, Eastern Europe and China leaves little faith in the ability of government controlled agriculture to supply even the needs of their own citizens.
4) It should be noted that some companies have dominated some areas of agriculture long before the advent of biotechnology, apparently without any major problems. Pioneer Hi-Bred has had almost 50% of the corn seed market for many years because of the production of superior hybrid varieties. This seems not to have caused any major concerns, and improvements in the corn crop have not been hindered.
Question 5: Won't transgenic plants cross with wild relatives and cause environmental damage?
1) It should be remembered that plants will only cross with the same species or very closely related species so that there must be a wild plant closely related to the crop plant with which the crop plant can breed. The concept that the gene in the closely related wild species can subsequently be transferred to a range of other wild species, as has sometimes been implied, will not occur. In Canada, no native plants have been used for crops, with the exception of alfalfa. All have been introduced from various parts of the world. For example, canola is from China, wheat from the far East, potatoes and corn from S. America. The problem with gene transfer is therefore minimal. As in most cases with transgenic plants, each case must be treated separately, considering the crop in question and the wild relative that could be a recipient of the gene that has been introduced.
2) In Canada, the crop of most concern for breeding with a wild relative is canola (oilseed rape in Europe). Canola is a strange plant in that it contains two genomes, one from the cabbage family and one from the mustard family. The cabbage family genome poses no problems because of the absence of wild relatives, and if the gene is inserted in this genome it will not be transferred. However, the presence of the mustard genome might allow the plant to cross with wild mustard, though in the process, the cabbage genome is lost. This cross has been shown in the laboratory and may occur naturally in the field. Other crops in which outcrossing could be a possibility are oats and alfalfa. The rest of the major crops grown in Canada should not be a problem because of the absence of wild relatives. An analysis of possible wild relatives to crop plants is specific for each region of the world, and a crop that has no wild relatives in Canada may have such relatives in a tropical climate, for example.
3) The transfer of a gene from canola to wild mustard growing at the edge of a canola field was measured in experiments described in Nature in 1998. It showed that, although gene transfer can occur, the frequency is low and the authors conclude that there is little risk of transfer of canola genes to wild populations.
4) It is proposed that the presence of a transgene in a wild variety could cause the development of a super weed. However, crop plants are not usually effective competitors in a natural environment and hybrids would also probably not be effective. This is being tested in canola. In addition, the pernicious weedy nature of a plant is not a single genetic trait but a complex series of attributes requiring multiple genes. The concept that a single gene could confer these properties is unlikely. Again, it is important to look at the gene involved and attempt to predict its impact on a possible weed plant.
Question 6: Surely the "Terminator" gene is unfair to the farmer
1) The "Terminator" gene (a name coined by the media for a technology as yet not in use and still in the research phase), is a technology designed to allow normal development of a seed but prevents the germination of the seed. It has two functions. First, it can be used to prevent the spread of transgenic plants. This is especially important for transgenic plants that have a transgene that should be contained, e.g., a plant containing a gene for a potent medicinal agent. Secondly, it can be used to protect intellectual property by preventing unauthorized use of the technology.
2) The concept that seeds saved by a farmer may not be viable is not new. All the corn grown in N. America is hybrid and many crops will be hybrids in the future. Although the seeds of hybrid plants will germinate, they will not breed true and will produce inferior offspring. Farmers choose to buy new seeds each year because the increased value of the crop makes this worthwhile. In fact, many farmers choose to buy certified, non-hybrid seeds each year to ensure the seeds they use are of consistent high quality.
3) There should be a requirement that open pollinated varieties, i.e., those in which the seed can be saved, will always be available so that farmers will always be able to grow crops and save the seeds for a subsequent planting. This is particularly important in developing countries where farms are often small and provide for the needs of the immediate community. However, the advantages of a transgenic or hybrid crop may be too great and will make in some cases open pollinated varieties obsolete even here.
Question 7: Isn't it wrong for biotechnology companies to be able to patent new varieties of crop plants, charge a premium for the seeds and then prosecute farmers who save seeds?
1) The development of new crop varieties by any means, but especially by biotechnology, is a costly exercise to the tune of tens to hundreds of millions of dollars.
2) The premium on prices for seeds is to defray this cost and ultimately make a profit for the company involved. The cost of developing a new plant variety is large so the premium for seeds of transgenic seeds has to be spread over a number of years. Farmers could not afford to buy the seeds if the costs were to be recovered in a single season. This does, however, raise the problem of monitoring the use of seeds to prevent illegal storage of seeds by farmers for planting the following year. This can be the source of problems for the company involved as well as for the farming community.
3) When a farmer buys patented seeds, there is an agreement not to save the seeds and use them for a subsequent crop, since it will take many years for a company to recoup development costs. The breaking of such a legal agreement, as with any other legal agreement, could lead to court action. A farmer who saves seeds is, in effect, stealing the technology.
4) The only alternative to this is government development of new crops, and this was the situation not too long ago. The "green revolution in the 1960's is an example of government development of new varieties. However, it is very expensive and probably less efficient than using the private sector. Government labs should now concentrate on monitoring the industry and ensuring safety.
5) The aims of a biotechnology company are not unique in that their objective is to make a profit for their shareholders and to develop new products to maintain their position in the marketplace.
Question 8: Isn't it the case that there is plenty of food, the main problem is the distribution?
1) This may be true now but projections suggest that it will probably not be the case as we move into the twenty-first century. During the twentieth century, world population grew from less than two billion to six billion and is likely to reach eight to ten billion before it stabilizes. In the past, increases in agricultural production kept pace with increases in population and efforts must continue to maintain this. If we are to avoida scenario of serious food shortages, it is time to start developing new crops now, as this takes many years to accomplish.
2) The concept of abundant food also depends upon the status of the viewer. The developed countries have more than adequate food, whereas there are many areas in the world where the food available does not meet minimal nutritional levels and other areas where it is totally inadequate. I have no idea how one could go about equally distributing the available food throughout the world and one can only forecast major disruption if it were tried. It should also be noted that as less developed nations improve their living standards, they tend to change their eating habits towards those of developed countries. If all countries lived at the nutritional level of N. Americans, we would have to greatly increase food production right now.
3) It has been estimated that about 42% of crop productivity is lost each year to competition with weeds and to pests and pathogens. It is believed that crop varieties are nearing their natural limits of productivity. Biotechnology is one means by which these problems can be alleviated.
4) The technologies being developed, especially those such as drought and salt tolerance for improved nutritional quality and quantity, have the potential to have the most impact on under-developed countries. In addition, a large percentage of the crops in less developed nations are lost through diseases and pests which biotechnology will be able to substantially reduce.
5) Over the last 35 years, global population has doubled. World food production, through the green revolution, has kept pace with this increase. It has however, been at a cost since the use of irrigated land has also doubled and we are now facing salinization of soil and inadequate water supply. In addition, the use of synthetic fertilizers, especially those containing nitrogen and phosphorous, has increased several fold. There has also been a marked increase in the use of pesticides, all of which have been necessary to allow this increase in food production to occur. It has been estimated that global population will continue to rise to eight to ten billion even though there has been a slowing trend. Whatever the final number, there will have to be a major increase in food production if we are to feed everyone adequately. Biotechnology is one means by which these problems can be addressed.
6) The supply of fertiliser and its impact on the environment is another problem of traditional agriculture. Most of the pollution of rivers and lakes results from agricultural use of fertiliser. This is particularly the case for phosphate fertiliser. Conversely, there are estimates that the world supply of rock phosphate to make fertiliser is limited and may only last for 30 to 50 years. Lack of phosphate would have a catastrophic effect on world food production.
7) At the moment, we can just about feed the world population using most of the land suitable for cultivation. There is little unused land that could be brought into cultivation. It would, however, be preferable if marginal land could be left as a wild refuge rather than be for substandard crop production. The intensive use of smaller amounts of land to produce the world food supply would have a marked positive environmental impact.
Question 9: Why cannot "normal breeding" and organic farming supply the world needs for food?
1) Although organic farming may have many admirable attributes, there is no evidence that it can be used on the immense scale and intensity that would be required to produce the quantity of food to sustain a global population. We would have to double or triple land use to achieve the same productivity as conventional agriculture with a catastrophic impact on the environment.
2) Plant breeders using modern techniques have managed to annually increase world food production by about the 1.5 per cent per year required to match population growth. Recently, the annual increase has been smaller and there are now doubts that an increase of this magnitude can be maintained with the narrow genetic variability available in modern crop plants. Breeders now use mutagens to modify genes and crossings with wild species to try to increase variability, but this appears to be also reaching its limits. An alternative is to introduce genes from other species to confer the needed diversity required by breeders. This is the role of agricultural biotechnology.
3) Organic farming cannot control loss of crops through insects or other pests when crops are grown on the large scale found on modern farms. Nor can organic farming effectively deal with adverse environment conditions such as drought, a major factor in limiting crop productivity. The production of crops resistant to various environment stresses, such as drought and cold, is one of the aims of biotechnology.
4) In the past, traditional methods of agriculture required large numbers of workers. Modern agriculture has allowed food to be produced by a very small percentage of the population (2% in Canada) allowing people to have a much wider spectrum of careers required for a mixed economy that ensures a high standard of living for the majority of Canadians. Organic farming is labour intensive and would require more farm workers to work longer and harder to achieve the same result as modern agriculture.
Question 10: Won't biotechnology increase the use of herbicides?
1) Weeds are a major problem in agricultural crops. They reduce yield and can contaminate the crop with their seeds that may be toxic. This is especially a problem in a crop like canola.
2) Herbicides have been intensely used for a number of years as pre-planting, pre-emergence and post emergence sprays or as crop sprays that kill weeds in preference to the crop plants.
3) In the past, some of the pre-planting herbicides were a problem because some were quite toxic compounds and remained in the soil for long periods (e.g., atrazine) but were essential for weed control (e.g., in corn). They were also used as a matter of routine in anticipation of a weed problem that often did not occur.
4) Many of the common modern herbicides inhibit the formation of essential components required for the growth of the plant. The most commonly used herbicide is glyphosate (Roundup) which inhibits the formation of a class of amino acids called the aromatic amino acids. When a plant is sprayed with glyphosate, it literally starves because it cannot make these essential compounds. Animals, including humans cannot make aromatic amino acids. The herbicide glyphosate is therefore, non-toxic to animals; we have to obtain our aromatic amino acids from our diet. Bacteria can also make aromatic amino acids, but unlike plants, they are insensitive to glyphosate. If the gene that allows bacteria to make aromatic amino acids is moved to plants, the plants, like the bacteria, can make aromatic amino acids in the presence of glyphosate and become resistant to the herbicide. Because bacteria are resistant to glyphosate, they readily break it down in the soil and its effect is lost within a few days of its application.
5) Herbicide-resistant plants will allow the use of broad-spectrum herbicides that tend to be readily broken down in the soil. These sprays can be used, once the crop is established, to eliminate all weeds with one application of herbicide instead of several that are often used now. Weeds are most problematic at this seedling stage when they compete with the crop plants. The early application of herbicides to herbicide resistant crops allows crops to fill in the space, preventing light from penetrating and inhibiting weed growth. The same or less herbicide may ultimately be used. In addition to the savings in the cost of herbicide, there is also the prospect of increased yields.
6) Herbicide resistant crops have encouraged the evolution of new types of farming that could prove to be very beneficial for the environment. In particular, the use of no-till agriculture is becoming very popular. This involves the direct seeding into the remains of the previous year's crop without ploughing or in some cases, even tilling the soil. This reduces costs to the farmer, but also helps reduce the erosion of the soil and increases the number of beneficial insects and other animals such as worms. This method of farming has dramatically increased with the advent of herbicide resistant crops since they allow the used of broad-spectrum herbicides once the crop has become established as the most effective means of weed control which is one of the problems for no-till farming
Question 11: Will insect-resistant crops eliminate beneficial insects?
1) A gene that produces a protein toxic to insects can be used to create insect resistant plants. The most commonly used gene of this type was isolated from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. This gene codes for a protein called the Bt toxin that binds to the gut of the insect and prevents it from digesting its food. About 130 types of Bt toxin exist, each one specific to a group of insect species. The insect gut is sufficiently different from the animal digestive tact that Bt has no effect on animals, including humans. It is produced as an inactive pro-toxin which is activated in the gut of the insect by the alkaline conditions found there. If it is eaten in human food, if first encounters the acid in the stomach which inactivates the pro-toxin within 5 seconds. It is then digested very rapidly in the intestine like any other dietary protein.
2) Some crops require constant spraying with insecticides, e.g., potatoes for Colorado beetle and cotton for the boll weevil. In these crops, use of insecticide has been dramatically reduced by the introduction of insect resistant varieties. This has reduced the impact of insecticides on useful insects and lessened the effect on animals and humans. It is, therefore, important to determine the impact of spraying against the impact of the insect resistant plants. Studies so far, have suggested that the impact on beneficial insects of the insect resistant plants is minimal. In fact, insect life is usually more abundant in these crops because of the reduction in insecticide use. In addition, many insects, e.g., the Colorado beetle, are becoming insecticide resistant, and this is leading to use of more toxic or multiple insecticides. The use of Bt containing plants could overcome this problem.
3) Insects may become resistant to the Bt toxin and crops will again have to be sprayed. This is a genuine concern, although insect resistance has not been as much of a problem as was feared. It is fundamentally a management problem. Farmers are required to leave twenty per cent of their crops as non-insect resistant varieties as a haven for the insect pest. Any resistant insect is likely to breed with a non-resistant form and the resistant trait will be lost in the next generation. A second strategy is to constantly modify the Bt toxin to overcome any resistance. Insect resistance to Bt is a recognized problem for the companies that sell insect resistant crops.
4) The pollen or other plant parts can kill beneficial insects. This is correct; monarch butterflies that are forced to eat milkweeds coated with pollen from Bt corn plants are damaged. This is not surprising since the monarch and the European corn borer moth are related insects. However, there is no evidence that this is a problem in nature, and is unlikely to have a major impact on the monarch population. It is something that should be
monitored. There are varieties of Bt corn in which the Bt toxin is not produced in the pollen and these will not have the problem of poisoning monarch butterflies. In addition, milkweed is eradicated from cornfields and is regarded as a noxious weed. Most of the butterflies feed on milkweed that is found in wasteland or other non-cultivated land free from corn pollen.
5) It should be noted that there is a significant loss in the yield of the corn crop each year amounting to a loss of revenue to American farmers of about $1.2 billion because of the European corn borer. Since the insect is buried in the stem of the corn, it is difficult to kill with insecticides. It is however, well controlled by Bt in the plant.
Question 12: Surely there is no control of where the transgene is inserted into the plant genome and this could cause unknown effects?
1) This is true at the moment, although targeting of genes is becoming more feasible and this could change in the future. Insertion of a gene so that it interrupts another gene could have an effect. However, these gene insertions often produce plants that can be recognised and rejected by using extensive screening before commercial release.
2) Plants can be affected by manipulations used not only in biotechnology, but also in other manipulations such as modern breeding. Plant tissue culture is essential for biotechnology, but is also used in breeding programs. This technique alone can produce what is called somoclonal variation and can lead to strange plants. The backcrossing of plants to wild relatives and the use of mutagens can also lead to unknown effects.
3) These unknown effects are most important in plants that are known to produce various components such as toxins. For example, the potato plant produces toxins (solanines) in the green parts of the plant and even the tuber can be very toxic if it is allowed to turn green and should never be eaten. Manipulation of potatoes in various ways or breeding with wild varieties can induce the presence of these toxins in tubers so that new varieties of potato are always tested for their presence. This should be the case for all plants that have the potential to produce toxic compounds.
4) The formation of a new variety by biotechnology involves the transfer to the plant, usually of a single gene whose function is well understood. It is also transferred to produce a specific effect so that its function in the plant can be monitored. In the case of traditional breeding, many thousands of genes are transferred, the functions of the majority of which are unknown. This will become of major importance when plants are crossed to wild or primitive relatives, or if mutagens are used to produce diversity.
Question 13: The use of antibiotic resistance in plants could make harmful bacteria resistant to antibiotics
1) When one attempts to make transgenic plants, only a small number actually have the gene incorporated into their genome. To find these cells, selection systems have been developed using what are termed selectable markers. Some antibiotics are toxic to plants and are used as selectable markers. Genes are known in bacteria that produce enzymes that inactivate the selectable marker, e.g., the antibiotic. If this second gene is linked to the gene we want to insert into the plant, we can simply treat all the cells with antibiotic and those that survive will have not only the selectable marker gene, but also the gene of interest to us. It is a quick, and often only way, of finding our transformed plants.
2) The antibiotic most often used is kanamycin. This antibiotic belongs to a group of antibiotics known as aminoglycosides. Kanamycin was used as an antibiotic extensively in the 1960's and early 1970's but it was then phased out because of the advent of more modern antibiotics, although it is still used occasionally for a small number of diseases. Kanamycin has serious side effects such as causing deafness. Bacteria had also become resistant to it. A gene was isolated from these bacteria that produces an enzyme called neomycin phosphotransferase that inactivates the antibiotic. It is this gene that is used to make plants resistant to the antibiotic.
3) It has been suggested that antibiotic resistance in transgenic plants could be transferred to bacteria in the intestine. Even if this is theoretically possible, the effect would be trivial compared with the resistance to antibiotics that has developed through the widespread use of antibiotics in human and veterinary medicine, was well as in animal feeds.
4) Could the antibiotic resistance gene be transferred to bacteria in the intestine? It is extremely unlikely. Enzymes secreted in the duodenum located just after the stomach very rapidly break down the DNA one eats. For the gene to be transferred, it would have to be precisely cut from The large amount of DNA in the food and without being damaged, cross the wall of the bacterial cell and be incorporated intact into its DNA. Not only that, it would have to be inserted into the bacterial DNA of the cell in a position where the gene was active. It would be extremely unlikely for all these events to happen. It has been calculated that we eat several trillion genes in our food each meal. If gene transfer is common, the bacteria in our guts would have a major problem surviving and would have many genes in their DNA from the plants and other organisms we eat. This has not been found to be the case.
5) There are other methods of selecting transgenic plants and these are now becoming popular and will no doubt replace antibiotics in the near future.
6) Mechanisms now exist for the removal of selectable markers and it is unlikely, in the future, that any crop developed by biotechnology will have a marker enzyme such as antibiotic resistance.
Question 14: Can't transgenic plants become weeds in other crops, if they are herbicide resistant?
1) This is correct and has to be addressed by bodies such as Agriculture Canada.
2) It also depends very much on the crop and the gene that is inserted into that crop. For example, canola is mainly self fertilizing and the chances of pollination from one field to the next is small, although cross fertilization can occur around the margins of a field. Separating transgenic fields can minimize the effect to low levels.
3) A more important problem with canola is the shattering of the seed pods. This occurs either before or when the crop is harvested and releases seeds into the soil where they can over-winter and grow the following year. This can cause a significant level of contamination and, if a farmer were to grow a different crop with the same herbicide resistance, he would have problems.
4) Clearly, for herbicide resistance, it is necessary to know the history of the field and design a succession of crops resistant to different herbicides. It is fundamentally a need for better crop management.
5) The "Terminator" gene would be a good solution to this problem.
6) It is highly unlikely that herbicide resistant crop plants will cause any environmental problems since crop plants are not effective competitors in the wild and the herbicide resistant gene confers no advantage in the absence of herbicides.
Question 15: Won't biotechnology eliminate traditional breeding and farming methods?
1) This is simply incorrect. When biotechnology is used to improve the quality of crop plants, it is just one tool in the breeder's bag of tricks. Biotechnology does not obviate the need for traditional methods of breeding new plant varieties.
2) Similarly, it is also just a tool for the growers of these crops. It does not reduce the need for good farm management and an integrated system is still an essential component of effective crop production.
Question 16: How can you be 100% certain that GM foods are safe?
1) Scientists hate assertions of certainty and it is this that makes them appear equivocal about the safety of plant biotechnology. You will find that scientists rarely write in their scientific publications such statements as: "these results prove our theory is correct", they are more likely to say "our results are consistent with our theory" or "our results suggest our theory might be correct". The media, however, want certainty and a guarantee that biotechnology is 100% safe.
2) In their research, scientists like to put a value on their confidence in the results. We often work with a confidence level of 95%, the nineteen times out of twenty of the pollsters. If our results are very good, we may try for 99% confidence level, but I have never seen a 100% confidence level. It would be impossible to attain, especially in biology. Hence, the apparent equivocation about the safety of biotechnology.
3) To place it in another context, I personally have no concern about eating foods altered by biotechnology and have done so knowingly over an extended period of time. I have grown Bt potatoes in my own home garden and had no concerns about eating them. Their resistance to Colorado beetles was quite outstanding and much to be preferred over normal potatoes that I had to constantly spray. I believe transgenic crops have been well tested and are safe. In fact, I am, more concerned about many traditional foods since contamination of food is a far bigger risk than foods from transgenic plants. Recently, many people were made seriously ill after eating raspberries that were contaminated with bacteria. Food poisoning is still a major problem and it has been suggested that many cases of what is described as stomach flu is, in reality, food poisoning. No food would ever be approved for consumption if it had to be proved to be 100% safe; it simply cannot be done.
4) Seeds and nuts are a special problem since molds growing on them can be very toxic. This is especially true for peanuts that invariably contain a deadly poison called aflatoxin made by the mould, Aspergillus flavus. In commercially produced peanut butter, the level of aflatoxin is monitored and kept at an acceptable level, but there is no assurance of what the level might be in "homemade" peanut butter. Foods that are eaten without being cooked, such as fruits and vegetables, are also a major concern since there is often no control over the way in which the food is handled between the growing plant and the place of sale. This is especially true for salad components such as bean sprouts that are grown under ideal conditions for bacteria and moulds to flourish.
5) The safest food is to be found in modern well-run supermarkets where fresh clean food is available. The staff is trained to handle food correctly and there is a fast cycling of food on the shelves with old food being discarded.
It all comes down to a matter of risk and benefits. What are the risks of GM foods as compared with traditional foods? It is necessary to evaluate the risks and determine if the benefits of the technology are worthwhile. In the case of transgenic crops, the benefits are great and the risks small.
David T. Dennis
Performance Plants Inc.
Notes (see numbers in text)
1 Food fright, an article in Canada's "Report on Business", November 1999, was strap-lined: "The backlash against genetically modified foods is spreading from Europe to North America." The article went on to outline Greenpeace Canada's so-far muted campaigns of supermarket boycott, which singularly failed to catch the public eye.
2 "The countries where support for the biotechnology applications described here is greatest are Portugal and Spain, followed by Belgium, Finland and Greece....., whereas those where support is least are Austria and Germany, followed by Denmark, Sweden and Luxembourg....". [so said "Europe ambivalent on Biotechnology: an article by The Biotechnology and the European Public Concerted Action Group (administered for the EU DG XII by Andreas Klepsch)", quoted in the House of Lords, EU Regulation of Genetic Modification in Agriculture, European Communities Committee, 2nd Report 1998-99, Evidence document, known here as HoL, 1998.] This work quoted Eurobarometer public opinion research undertaken in 1996 (administered by M Bauer, J Durant - assistant director, The Science Museum - and G Gaskell - Department of Social Psychology, London School of Economics. John Durant wrote to the HoL inquiry saying, in part, that the UK public "occupies an intermediate position" in the spectrum noted above.
3 The Consumers' Association described itself as having 750,000 members in 1998. It told the House of Lords inquiry: "This is a new technology and consumers have a fundamental right to choose whether to eat food produced using genetic modification. This principle was acknowledged when irradiated foods, for example, were introduced onto the market." [Consumers' Association note in HoL, 1998
4 "The RSPB believes that the use of genetically modified (GM) organisms carries the threat of damage to biodiversity. The potential impacts on land-use as a consequence of the utilisation of GM organisms could create big and long term problems for the environment, and in particular for biodiversity. We believe that the current regulatory mechanisms and the way they are interpreted fail to deal with this threat." RSPB evidence, HoL 1998.
5 Greenpeace described itself as having 25m supporters worldwide and 194,000 paying supporters in the UK. In 1998. Lord Melchett, its UK executive director, told the House of Lords inquiry: "Our view is that there should not be a release of these organisms to the environment, because that is a long term major risk to the environment and to public human health" [HoL, 1998]
6 Joanna Blythman wrote in the Observer (31.1.999) that it was she who had approached Greenpeace with the idea of a joint campaign. Very rapidly, she wrote, "130 of Britain's leading food writers and chefs shared a platform". In her article she listed several of the usual criticisms of GMOs, including their threat to the integrity of organic systems, and added, "We want safe, naturally-produced food".
7 Christian Aid is one of the most resolute opponents of GMO technology. Careful to mention that the technology could benefit the poor of the world, the main emphasis of its briefing on the subject is that the main interest and policy of corporations is unhelpful and that only strict regulation could make the technology remotely useful. "Biotechnology and GM crops are taking us down a dangerous road, creating the classic conditions for hunger, poverty and even famine. Ownership and control concentrated in too few hands and a food supply based on too few varieties of crops planted widely are the worst option for food security. The new technology does not address the growing gap between rich and poor and is in fact likely to increase poverty." [Kevan Bundell, International Policy Team, January 2000
8, Christian Aid Policy Briefing/Position Paper, published on their web site, captured January 2000. The tone of the group's attitude can be had from this note on the document: "This paper was originally written to support 'Selling Suicide - Farming, false promises and genetic engineering in developing countries' by Andrew Simms, a report published for Christian Aid Week, May 1999."
9 Miss Sue Davies, Principal Policy Researcher, Consumers' Association, in examination of witnesses, HoL, 1998
10 HoL, 1998
11 Sometimes these voices were newspaper regulars, and in the case of the Daily Telegraph's Robin Page, is a farmer to boot. His feature [Daily Telegraph, 13 June, 1998] listed many of the things which critics believe may go wrong with GMOs in the countryside, then suggested that he and others like him were not opposed to GMOs in principle, but wanted Monsanto and others to devote resources to making the technology work directly for the environment and the poor: "I believe Monsanto's motives revolve too much around profit and that a healthy, safe environment is more important than Monsanto's millions".
12 Joe Rogaly of the Financial Times may be taken as typifying how this debate crosses boundaries: "Beans and genes: genetically altered soya beans are in our food - like it or not", ran the headline over a column of his [Financial Times, 7/8 December 1996]. "Monsanto may have produced a boon to farming, but it cannot be certain that the product is flawless. We consumers should choose. Heaven alone knows whether Roundup Ready is safe beyond all possibility of doubt. Let us posit that it is. That is beside the point.... Customers should be give the option not to buy. If the market does not provide that, regulators should."
13 The spokesman was discussing his firm's policy as it then stood, and regulations as they then stood. Both have since changed.
14 Brian Johnson, of English Nature, told the Times [18 February 1999] that weed eradication on American GM fields were approaching 95 percent, as against a more normal figure in conventional agriculture of 60-80 per cent. This of course took no account of what might be achieved by voluntary or compulsory regimes to encourage wildlife alongside farming.
Writer, broadcaster and commentator
Sunday Times: Environment Columnist, 90-2
Independent: Environment Correspondent, 86-90
Author, LIFE ON A
MODERN PLANET: A manifesto for progress (Manchester University Press, 95
Recent pamphlets: Hereditary Peers: The case as yet unheard (Social Affairs Unit, 99); The Hunt At Bay (Wildlife Network, 99); Fur and Freedom (Institute for Economic Affairs, 2000)
Forthcoming: RISK: The human adventure (Institute for Economic Affairs, 2000)
Earlier shows and presentations to: National Trust, the National Police College, LARAC, English Nature, Population Concern Youth Conferences, Glastonbury, Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival, Forum for the Future, business, PR and other conferences
The Animals Report (Penguin, 82); Wild
Fools For God (Collins, 87); Schools for Tomorrow (Green Books, 87)
Early writing: since mid-70s, writing on politics, arts, profiles, travel and conservation for Radio Times, Times, Sunday Times, Observer etc
US regulators: www.aphis.usda.gov/biotechnology
The Soil Association: www.soilassociation.org
Natural Law Party: www.btinternet.com/nlpessex/Documents/gmoquote.htm
There is much useful scientific evidence, interesting opinion and lively argument at www.agbioworld.org and perhaps especially at an archive of correspondents to a related site, http://agbioview.listbot.com/
International Consumers for Civil Society: www.icfcs.org
ends GMO document