The fledgling Scientific Alliance hosted its first conference in London this month to re-evaluate the issues surrounding the genetic modification of food in light of the UK government’s latest drive to gauge public opinion on the matter. The often-emotive issue was debated vigorously, with pro- and anti- speakers on every aspect.’s Clare Harman heard the arguments.

Since the first genetically modified plant was produced in the early 1980s, the issue of biotechnology has excited diverse and emotional opinions. Delegates at the Scientific Alliance’s recent conference Fields of the future – GM Crops were able to appreciate first-hand the difficulties faced by governments trying to walk the tightrope of responsible regulation and scientific stimulation.

Thirteen countries, led by the US, have embraced GM technology and forged ahead in creating a supportive commercial environment, but policy makers and biotech companies in the EU remain in regulatory limbo. Public opinion in the EU largely crystallised against so-called “Frankenfoods,” and since March 1998, an EU-wide moratorium has meant that no GM crop, except for a few notable exceptions which crept under the wire (such as Monsanto’s GM soya and Syngenta’s Bt maize), has been approved for cultivation or marketing. From this November, however, EU members will be able to re-open the case files on the controversial crops, adhering to updated monitoring and safety requirements.

“Consumers must be offered a choice”

In the meantime the UK government, now awaiting the results from the farm scale evaluations (FSEs) it started three years ago, has agreed to go back to the drawing board and seek public opinion on GM crops. Dr Linda Smith, head of the GM Policy, Science and Regulation Unit at Defra, explained that the government believes “genetic modification itself is a technique – free to be used when there is a benefit”. It also believes, she says, that consumers must be offered a choice.

Is it possible to consult the nation?

The concept of public consultation is doubtless worthy, but the levels of funding put aside for the process have been derided and there is no guarantee that the relevant decision-making powers will listen to the findings. Nevertheless, Julie Hill, deputy chair of the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission (AEBC), which was established as part of a triumvirate with the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and the Human Genetics Commission to repair the crisis of public confidence that peaked in 1999, explained that together with the Public Debate Steering Board, the AEBC would report on its findings in June of this year.

But what chance has the public got to form a well-balanced opinion? Have the oft-speculative emotional or scientific arguments become any more accessible in the last few years? A public that, through the BSE crisis for example, has lost faith in its leaders and learnt to scrutinise the relationship between scientific fact and government policy, may take some convincing. How far has scientific, medical, economic and social evidence come in arguing the case persuasively for either side?

Environmental arguments

With regard to potential impact on the environment, the conference speakers agreed that it is hard to say. Not least because the UK’s FSEs, which Hill claims were originally intended to complete the jigsaw and pave the way for GM commercialisation, will publish results later this year purely on the impact that managed GM crops have on surrounding wildlife. Biodiversity is an immensely important issue, but so too is gene flow, and the possibility of co-existence between GM and organic crops. Research on these issues has yet to be carried out.

Professor Andrew Watkinson, an ecologist from the University of East Anglia, has traced the changes in biodiversity in the English countryside over the last century, and sees tremendous losses for wildlife where farmers have won the battle over weeds. Intensive agriculture kills farmland species – but will GM crops alleviate or aggravate the situation?

“It could,” he said, “represent the last nail in the coffin for biodiversity.” But there is hope: at least it’s being debated; fifty years ago it was not. The main problem however is in the difficulty of making predictive models. We need to understand how farmers will work with the new technology. Delayed pesticide spraying, a factor often cited in defence of GM planting, will not save all the weeds. There are also issues of scaling involved with any research – we want to know the impact of GM on countries over decades, yet must draw data from tests involving fields charted over months.

On the plus side, argued Professor Brian Thomas, research director at Horticulture Research International, a proliferation of GM crops will undoubtedly see a reduction in the use of pesticides – and offer farmers the chance to practice “flexible agronomic management”. Thomas, who specialises in crop improvement through the use of genetic technologies, explained that the dramatic take-up of GM in China (to about 3.5 million farmers in four years) resulted in a massive drop in pesticide use, which had the knock-on effect of reducing farmer deaths through pesticide poisoning from 19% to 7% between 1999 and 2001.

Healthy debate

Pesticide poisoning is a major agricultural concern in many developing countries, but not so in Western countries, where such agricultural technology was embraced differently. Discussion of the impact of GM foods on consumer health also highlighted the difficulty of mapping risk. Professor Sir Colin Berry pointed to the €70m (US$75.5m) already spent by the EU on 89 projects in an unsuccessful bid to uncover any new risk to humans or the environment; “indeed, the regulatory scrutiny could make them [GM foods] safer than any other”.

“[GM] could represent the last nail in the coffin for biodiversity “

Reference was made to golden rice, among other examples, as a GM plant with tangible health benefits. Dr Ray Mathias, head of the Scientific Communication and Education Department at the John Innes Centre, admitted that this rice provides 40% of the RDA of vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiency is responsible for around one million deaths a year, and large levels of blindness. However, he asked whether a “technical fix” is ever really a long-term solution to a balanced diet? GM in this instance, he said, should be a stopgap until people can move to a healthier and more balanced way of life. The real issue here, he added, is patenting – which needs to take into account the possibility that developing countries could “be the victims of Western agendas”.

“Feeding the world,” he said, “requires a concerted effort from everybody, not just the scientists.”

Professor Vyvyan Howard from Liverpool University meanwhile argued that while it is slightly easier to work with risk assessment in a toxicological environment than a complicated ecological one, the “precautionary principle” must be the defining factor in dealing with GM foods. Howard contended that Monsanto’s risk assessment models for its GM seeds are “fact-free” and thus fundamentally flawed. Moreover, judging by previous examples of scientific discoveries released onto human subjects, “if GM were causing changes to common conditions (rather than some acute toxicity) – we probably still wouldn’t know.”

“When you start using the whole world as a test tube,” Howard concluded, “you can legislate for all sorts of things, but you can’t legislate for stupidity or dishonesty [which are both] at work in the human system.”

Commercial crux?

Perhaps, then, if the environmental and human health debates are stunted by difficulties in mapping complex eco- and toxicological systems, an objective economic model might provide some persuasive answers? Not necessarily. For when looking at the economic benefits of genetic modification, one question always needs to be asked – a benefit in whose favour?

Professor Vivian Moses, from Kings College, was fairly adamant that “the economics say yes” to GM. Moses, chairman of the CropGen panel, is credited with having “made a significant contribution to the science of biotechnology and the industry that drives it”, and he admitted that due to the large costs involved in research (it costs around US$400m to get a new product from the lab to the shelf), GM seeds came about as large companies developed commodity crops for US farmers. Now the sale of GM seeds is a global industry that grossed US$3000m in 2000, and involved 5.5 million farmers. “Farming in the Western world,” he said, “is an economic activity.” And it’s not only big-business that can reap the benefits; governments can claim a share too with an extended tax base.

Science broadcaster Moyra Bremner was insistent however that “putting the control of the food supply into the hands of multinational seed companies” is not a sensible option. She cited the growing price of oil (petrochemicals form the basis of most pesticides), and the stranglehold firms such as Monsanto can gain on agricultural land, with the associated risk to the survival of smaller and organic farms in the process. In conclusion, she insisted “using GM as a tool to extensively extend intensive agriculture will not be good for farmers [or a sustainable food resource]”.

Championing the need for science “to understand nature and work more closely with her”, Bremner concluded: “There’s a big lie. A lie of mammoth dimensions. An obscenity. That you cannot grow crops without intensive agrochemicals.”


“You can’t legislate for stupidity or dishonesty at work in the human system”

Developing dilemma

So what of farmers in the developing world? Does this potentially devastating stranglehold also apply to them, or is it a case of ‘5.5 million farmers worldwide can’t be wrong’? Moses is certain that for all those “out for a buck – as farmers ought to be”, GM technology can offer them the enviable chance to increase yields while decreasing manual labour inputs. Other inputs on the decline include machine usage, fuel and pesticides. Forty per cent of the global food crops planted never reaches the table, he said, as it is devastated by disease and pests, problems compounded in the developing world by poor storage and transport capability. GM crops can eliminate these risks, and give farmers the world over “significant economic benefits”.

Case closed then, surely? Not as far as Patrick Mulvany is concerned. A senior policy advisor at the Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG), Mulvany warned about the “Trojan seeds”, drawing classical comparisons with GM as a disguised foe – a potentially useful gift with no hazard warning. Mulvany drew two paradigms in the approach to world agriculture; to maximise extraction of resources, and to sustain the integrity and function of the agro-resources.

Mulvany highlighted the suspicions of developing world nations currently under a “corporate attack”, in terms of US pressure, the attrition of resistance to GM food aid and the financial control that he claims is skewing research. Further more, countries that find themselves “contaminated” with GM seed might not be able to pursue a long-term export agenda with the EU.

The African Model of Biosafety Law (highlighted in March 2002) asked for corporations to be “absolutely liable” for the impact of the seeds they sell, and Mulvany argued that biodiversity is the key to feeding the 815 million people in the world with insufficient access to food. Out of the 30,000 edible plants in the world, only 17,000 are currently eaten; and only 103 are vital for global food security – a rather insecure strategy.

The Scientific Alliance may be grateful that its brief was to promote discussion about genetically modified foods, rather than solve the debate. Conference chairman Dick Taverne, former MP and founder of Sense about Science, described himself from the outset as “not entirely neutral” due to his belief in objective, evidence-based science. GM, he said, contains some ethical issues, “but one must, surely, start with the evidence”.

The strongest evidence to date, it seems, can only lead to the conclusion that genetic modification is still posing more questions than it can answer.