ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network


1. Biospinology in our super-broccoli!

2. Super-broccoli plants bred to prevent cancer

3. Biospin meets super-broccoli pt. 2

1. Biospinology in our super-broccoli!

"Q3 Do you believe that genetically modified food is, potentially, of great value in improving the health of the population? For example, if the 'super broccoli' (containing significant anti-cancer qualities, for example) was a big success and consumed on a large worldwide scale, what statistical changes do you think we may notice (long term) for problems such as cancer/heart disease etc?"

That is the leading question posed in the John Innes Centre's project for schools "Biotechnology in Our Food Chain" to some of the contributors to its "Meet the Experts" section. It provides a useful springboard for waxing lyrical.

"I believe there are exciting possibilities for improving the nutritional qualities of foods by genetic modification and these changes may eventually lead to improved diet and health in whole populations."
John Lampitt from the National Farmers Union (NFU) Biotechnology Working Group

It turns out, however, that the super-broccoli line was a far bigger bit of hype than one might ever have imagined.

Genetic Modification is not even necessary in order to "improve" the "anti-cancer qualities" of broccoli.It is perfectly possible through conventional breeding to breed a broccoli plant, which is not genetically modified, but which contains considerably  more than usual of the naturally occurring compound believed to lower the risk of cancer.

Furthermore, it is the John Innes Centre that has now demonstrated just that!   The JIC produced this wonder plant, which they previously used to sell the potential of GM, through classical breeding. Even though it was possible to do it faster than would normally be the case by using DNA fingerprinting technology, that does not involve any insertion of transgenes ie does not require Genetic Modification.

Although the biotech brigade at the JIC are almost certainly too overcommitted to the GM route to have finally begun listening to some of their own colleagues, it is worth remembering that even at the JIC not all voices (even some very senior voices) are singing the GM tune:

“We have come a long way, but we can go much further with conventional breeding to obtain higher yields and better disease resistance and grain quality.”
- Professor John Snape of the John Innes Centre (Farmers Weekly, 10 March 2000)

"Oilseed crops can replace oil from non-renewable fossil sources and genetically modified crops need not play any role in the revolution. This is a novel strategy that is not widely appreciated as yet. But it could provide a real alternative to the use of GMOs. This approach could enhance agricultural diversity and supply us with valuable, renewable products for as long as the sun shines on the earth."
- Professor Dennis Murphy, Head of Brassicas and Oilseeds Department, John Innes Centre (Annual conference of the British Association for the
Advancement of Science, 1998)

The use of genomics, as opposed to recombinant DNA methods, may be one possible escape route for the biotechnology industry. Even Monsanto might be tempted:

“Genetic transformation is just one particular wrench in the biotechnology tool box. We have lots of other tools to accelerate the development of new wheat varieties.... It's a numbers game and ultimately non-transformation [ie non-GM] biotech offers the greatest potential.”
- Tom Crosbie, Monsanto's global head of plant breeding

As for what happened to all that "we must have GE or we will starve, be disease ridden and without hope" - did you ever have the impression a technology had been a mite oversold?

Certainly it seems about time someone told the JIC's "Science Communication and Education" department to start cleaning up its act!

2. Interestingly, the JIC do not appear to have press released this particular achievement, unlike others that can spun more positively with regard to the GM route eg

24th May 2000,  (Reuters)
Super-broccoli plants bred to prevent cancer
By Patricia Reaney

Super-broccoli loaded with natural compounds to help prevent cancer could be on dinner tables within a few years, British researchers said Wednesday.

Plant biologists at the John Innes Center, a government-funded plant research center, produced the super-broccoli by cross breeding the normal plant with a wild Sicilian species in the same family. The new plant, which is not genetically modified, contains up to 100 times more sulphoraphane, a compound that helps to lower the risk of cancer, than normal broccoli. "It's much more potent than normal broccoli," Richard Mithen, the head of the research team that produced the plant, told Reuters. "Our best lines have 100 times more sulphoraphane than a normal broccoli," he added. The activity of the compounds is well known and has for years been the focus of research, particularly in the United States. But Mithen said the super-broccoli is one of the first plants on which scientists have intensified their effects. "No gene has been inserted through genetic modification. This is classical breeding. But we speeded that breeding program up by using DNA fingerprinting technology."

Normally the breeding program would have taken about 10-15 years but thanks to DNA technology Mithen has done it in four. The institute owns the patent on the breeding method.

The super-broccoli looks and tastes like normal broccoli but it is packed with sulphoraphane that induces natural  protective enzymes to rid the body of carcinogens before they can do harm. "It switches on the defenses of our body. We have these natural defenses but in some people they work better than in others. If we eat broccoli it switches them on and makes them more effective," Mithen added. Breeding  work on the super-broccoli is nearly finished and the researchers hope to begin testing it on humans next year.

It could be available within a few of years. Mithen said plant biologists had come full circle with the breeding of super-broccoli because in medieval times broccoli and cabbage were grown as medicinal plants.

REUTERS Executive News Svc. [Entered May 25, 2000]

3. Biospin in our super-broccoli: a sound basis for our future!

Above  [1] we looked at how the development of an "anti-cancer" "super-broccoli" had been hyped by the John Innes Centre (JIC) as offering major health benefits via GM when, in fact, it was possible to breed such a plant without any use of genetic modification whatsoever [1]. We also looked at a specific example of how super-broccoli via GM was hyped by the JIC in the Lord Sainsbury funded UK schools' project "Biotechnology in our Food Chain." But the GM super-broccoli line has penetrated much farther than that as is well illustrated by the Government's current "Foresight" project organised by Lord Sainsbury's Office of Science and Technology, part of the Dept of Trade and Industry  (DTI).

"Foresight" is defined as being about "making sure that we are ready for what lies ahead". To that end: "Foresight brings together the voices of business, government, the science base and others to identify the threats and opportunities that we are likely to face over the next ten to twenty years. In doing so, Foresight aims to bring about a culture change in the way business and the science base relate to each other and to the future."

The current Foresight project dates back to 1993 but this is not the first time the DTI has engaged in this kind of exercise. Technology Foresight was a previous incarnation. This identified wealth creation through building businesses out of genetics as a generic priority for UK science and technology. The "corporate strategy" of the UK's public funding body for the biosciences - the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) - was deliberately shaped to reflect the thinking of Technology Foresight.

This facilitation of commercial exploitation of independent science has, of course, contributed significantly to the current GM debacle in the UK. How ill prepared those guided  by the Technology Foresight strategy have been for what has occurred is well articulated by Dr Nigel Halford of the BBSRC-funded IACR:

"For many of us working in plant biotechnology and the associated sciences of molecular and cellular biology and biochemistry, the prospect of commercial exploitation of our research has been part of the justification for the time and effort we have expended and the money, much of it public, which we have spent. The degree of hostility which has greeted GM crops becoming a reality has caught most of us by surprise.  Exactly what went wrong is not obvious..." [Dr Frankenstein, I presume. BBSRC Business,  January 1999]

The current Foresight project obviously needs to address this issue. To help Foresight reflect on it, one of its specialist groups, the Food Chain and Crops for Industry Panel, has as one of its six areas of focus the "Debate on the use of Technology in the Food Chain". The group of experts focusing on this particular issue is charged with looking into how we can have a better informed public debate with particular regard  to the fact that

"...recent events, particularly but not exclusively concerning genetic modification of food crops, have shown that it is still difficult for the public to get balanced information and to be involved in an informed debate on contentious topics... Ultimately, a great deal of money has been wasted in recent years because of ill-founded decisions, and such a waste of public or even private money because informed debate is not occurring is surely something that ought to be avoided."

The Foresight panel is charged with helping business and science to get it right for the future. The Foresight panels are also being asked to consider the implications of their findings for education.

As part of this group's work, it is seeking views through various "debate mechanisms" involving members of the public. This currently involves "pilot consultations" during the summer which will feed into a report in autumn 2000.

To assist the thinking of the members of the public involved in the project certain possible "future foods" that "might theoretically be possible" have  been outlined. There are 6 of these. Each has particular characteristics and is intended to raise particular questions about possible future foods. "Anti-cancer broccoli" is the future food that has "proven and directed health benefits".

We are told by Foresight that on the one hand "The techniques used [to boost the levels of the "beneficial" chemical in the broccoli plant] will almost certainly involve genetic modification of the broccoli to enhance the production of the required chemical", and this it notes might be a cause of concern to the public. On the other hand, we are told that such a genetically modified plant will offer "benefits in terms of health" which "will be considerable both to the individual and to society, by reducing the number of cancers and thus the load on the health services".

As "anti-cancer broccoli" is the only one of the 6 future foods outlined that is said to require GM, many members of the consultation groups, one might imagine, may well be unwilling to turn their backs on the considerable  benefits outlined despite any concerns they may have about GM. However, in reality the trade off of benefits and concerns that is implied in the example is entirely misleading, at least as regards GM. The techniques used to boost the levels of the "beneficial" chemical in the broccoli plant need not, as we have previoulsy established, involve genetic modification in any way [1, 2]. Thus as a "discussion tool", the "anti-cancer broccoli" very effectively throws those involved in the consultation onto the horns of an entirely false dilemma.

How on earth, one may wonder, did the panel come up with such a wonderfully misleading example?

According to Foresight, they have so far "relied largely on the expertise of the task force members" augmented with the views of "some leading food chain scientists". The latter are not in any way identified, but as the John Innes Centre is widely regarded as Europe's leading plant biotechnology institute it may seem less than improbable that one or more of its scientists may have been amongst those whose views were solicited.

Be that as it may, among the task force members themselves is Dr Lynn Frewer from the JIC's sister institute, the Institute of Food Research (IFR) which has been at the forefront of the research into the anti-cancer properties of broccoli - see:, and which commissioned the JIC to do the "super-broccoli" plant breeding. Another member of the Panel is Dr Monica Winstanley of the BBSRC which is the JIC and the IFR's principle sponsor.

What are we to conclude from this? It might suggest that either these expert panelists have (improbably!) been kept entirely in the dark about the real nature of the plant breeding of the "anti-cancer" broccoli at the JIC, or else that like certain JIC scientists, not least those in the JIC's "Dept of Science Communication and Education", they have a well developed taste for pro-GM propaganda! (Dr  Winstanley is the BBSRC's Head of Public Affairs while Dr  Frewer's area of expertise is "Consumer Science".)

Either way, some kind of explanation is clearly required. After all, it is pretty bizarre that such a misleading example is being utilised by a body that is supposedly grappling with the fact that

"...recent events, particularly but not exclusively concerning genetic modification of food crops, have shown that it is still difficult for the public to get balanced information and to be involved in an informed debate on contentious topics"

The hyping of super-broccoli via GM certainly looks like an excellent example of that difficulty! Whether the panel is capable of drawing the necessary conclusions is another matter.

It seems perhaps unlikely when one considers that among the expert panelists selected to grapple with how to involve the public in a properly informed debate are to be found the likes of Professor Janet Bainbridge, the current head of ACNFP, the key advisory committee which oversees GM foods in the UK. Prof Bainbridge is the successor at ACNFP to Derek Burke, who played a key role in both the disastrous earlier Technology Foresight project and its incoporation into the BBSRC's "corporate strategy. More to the point, Prof Bainbridge is on record as saying that it is no more appropriate to involve the public in discussing the safety of GM foods than a child in the question of when to cross a road.

It's good to know that somebody who regards her fellow citizens with such disdain has been selected to help make sure we're properly prepared for the future.
For further information on the Foresight programme, visit the Foresight web site on or you can phone them on 020 7215 6705 or
fax them on 020 7215 6715 or e-mail  A pack on the  work of the Food Chain and Crops for Industry Panel is available and they say they welcome any feedback by 31st July 2000. The quotes (above) attributed to Foresight all come from their pack.

Further reading:

Jonathan Matthews, "False reports and the smears and men," GM-FREE, vol 1, no. 4, pp. 8-14
Also viewable at:

Dr Jeremy Bartlett, "Sweet as you are," a review, SPLICE: the magazine of the Genetics Forum, vol 5, no. 6, p16
Also viewable at:

Professor Bullsh*t