A slightly edited version of the following article was first published in the magazine Eastern Daily Press NORFOLK, July 1999
Hype, bluster and spin
“You can’t buck the market!” was the Thatcherite cry of the 80’s but with GM food we have seen a bold attempt by researchers and producers, backed by government, to create an entirely artificial market for products that seem to be neither wanted nor needed.
The pro-GM lobby counter consumer-resistance with a myriad of seductive promises: among the most hyped, that GM crops will reduce the use of agro-chemicals, increase crop yields and so feed the world. Many experts, including the aid agencies such as Christian Aid, are decidedly unconvinced. They point out that these wholly desirable goals are achievable without resorting to a largely untried and hazardous technology that will consolidate ownership of the global food chain in the hands of a few giant multinationals at the expense of farmers and consumers worldwide.
They also note the quiet shift in many parts of the world over the last few years towards well-managed sustainable agriculture. As research by Jules Pretty, the Director of the Centre for Environment and Society at the University of Essex, has shown, the top quarter of farmers using sustainable methods in North America have been achieving higher yields than their conventional counterparts. From Bangladesh to Vietnam as many as a million rice farmers have learned alternatives to pesticides whilst still increasing yields by around 10%. In Mexico 100,000 coffeee growers have gone fully organic and increased productivity by 50%. To many, this is the future.
But GM food is already on our shelves and those promoting the technology insist it must not be denied its place in a carefully regulated pluralistic agriculture. The problem is: “It is not being carefully regulated or monitored. There is a hole in the regulatory system.” So says Baroness Young, the head of English Nature, and if that expert view is cause for concern with regard to the environment, things are hardly more reassuring when it comes to food safety.
"Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food. Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible." As Monsanto’s director of corporate communications makes clear, food safety is very much down to the regulators. Yet the GM ingredients that have been going into 60% or more of processed foods in the UK have gained approval without any long-term testing, despite being derived from crops, like GM soya and maize, every cell of which contains randomly inserted genes from foreign organisms that may never previously have been part of the human diet. These include genetic elements of viruses and bacteria and, in the case of GM maize, an antibiotic resistance gene.
Many in the scientific community warn of unpredictable effects including novel toxins and allergens. According to Gordon McVie, head of the Cancer Research Campaign, "We don’t know what genetic abnormalities might be incorporated into the genome [the individual’s DNA]... One of the problems is that because it’s a long-term thing, you need to do long-term experiments." But GM foods have been rushed onto the market not only without long-term testing but even ahead of the clear and comprehensive labelling that would be needed to track their impact.
Why? The head of a Monsanto subsidiary,
the Asgrow seed company, provides the answer, "If you put a label on genetically
engineered food, you might as well put a skull and crossbones on it."
Our own government, of course, vigorously denies that trade considerations have taken precedence. On the contrary, according to Jack Cunningham, the government is “certainly a lot closer to the consumer and environmental organisations” than it is to the big GM food companies. However, answers to parliamentary questions reveal that in a twelve month period government ministers had some 56 official meetings with those companies compared to just 6 with environmental and consumer groups.
Beneath the spin and the bluster, the government appears far from confident about how to defend the present regulatory system. A recent leaked report from Dr Cunningham’s Cabinet committee asked: “Why don’t we require a pharmaceutical type analysis of these foods with proper trials?”
Why indeed? Why is a technology barely in its infancy being “exploited with all the cool reflection of a gold rush?” as one commentator put it, not least when it poses major and entirely novel questions for human health and environmental safety.
To be fair, the government inherited the UK’s regulatory structure from the previous administration. Douglas Hogg, when Agriculture Minister, spelt out their approach to GM food: “Without the right regulatory balance, we shall not be able to compete... Some estimates have predicted a £9 billion market [in the UK alone] by the year 2000. We cannot jeopardise this by over-regulating initiative and enterprise.”
The consequences of a regulatory timetable and agenda dictated largely by trade can be seen throughout the system. Professor Phillip James, principal architect of the proposals for the new Food Standards Agency, recently told a Commons select committee of the "heavy involvement" of industrial companies in the Codex Alimentarius, the world arbiter on the health implications of new technologies. He also noted the low priority given to public health by the World Trade Organisation, which interprets the Codex rulings.
In a UK and European context, Professor James warned, "There is... a need to develop more effective and appropriate screening methods to alert companies and government agencies to the unexpected consequences of the often random insertion of genetic traits into plants." Elsewhere Professor James has remarked that the current regulatory system is open to challenge simply because “we are making all sorts of judgments with so little evidence at hand.”
The key body making those judgements in the UK is the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP). One of its scientists has commented that some of its members are so deeply involved in genetic research that they are unlikely to question it. A majority of its members, in fact, have links to the food industry and several have links to GM companies, while others are academics researching the subject sometimes with commercial sponsorship. Even the token consumer representative on the committee is believed to be carefully ‘selected.’
If this smacks of “regulatory capture,” then it shouldn’t be forgotten that the research findings which the comittee scrutinises are mostly provided by the applicant companies - a situaton that has been likened to having the tobacco industry provide the health data on smoking. This research is then treated as confidential, disallowing any wider scientific scrutiny.
Such flaws in the regulatory system are both alarming and revealing but as Dr Michael Antoniou, senior lecturer in molecular pathology at a leading London teaching hospital, recently warned MPs, "We should not lull ourselves into a false sense of security: we should not think that by regulating something which is inherently unpredictable and uncontainable it automatically becomes safe."
So amidst the bluster and the promises, the rumours of trade war and the laments for lost competitiveness, what is needed more than anything is time for cool reflection. The ‘five-year freeze’ supported by over 50 organisations, from the Norfolk Society (CPRE) to Action Aid, the Local Government Association to the Townswomen’s Guild, seems the barest minimum if we are to allow further detailed research and a calm assessment of whether we want, need or can afford the many risks of genetic engineering.