Europe is in a mess over genetically modified foods. From tomato purée to margarine, genetically engineered products are already available in the shops. Tom Wilkie assesses the health, commercial and regulatory implications of this new technologyby Tom Wilkie / May 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
Published in May 1998 issue of Prospect Magazine
Ever since Frankenstein, science fiction writers have sought to shock their readers with tales of human chimeras. If there was to be an abuse of biology to parallel physics’ atomic mushroom cloud, then it would surely be man-made men.
No one thought that sweetcorn, tomato paste and soya beans would be the real battlegrounds of biology. It is an apt illustration of the hazards of futurology that the bio-technology issue which is now dividing Europe from the US and has set members of the EU against each other is that of genetically modified foods. By contrast, the application of genetics to human beings-human gene therapy and genetic testing-is regarded as a relatively benign part of medical science.
In the US, millions of acres have been planted out commercially with genetically modified crop plants-maize, soya, oilseed rape and cotton. In Europe, there have been only research plantings. And while Americans can soon expect their French fries to come from potatoes genetically modified to act as their own insecticides, only a few transgenic products have been accepted for human consumption in Europe. British consumers have bought more than 1.6m tins of genetically modified tomato purée over the past two years. Others are eating cheese made with genetically modified chymosin, a rennet substitute. These have been bought consciously-the products are labelled. But some of the margarine spread on the nation’s toast each morning may well be made from US genetically engineered soya beans. No one knows, for this has not been labelled.
The genetic revolution has come out of the laboratory and on to the farms, the fields and the supermarket shelves. The companies which make the new crops believe that they are merely doing more scientifically what plant breeders have done haphazardly for generations: creating new combinations of genes to grow crops more closely tailored to human preferences. But European environmentalists worry about the risks that the genes may transfer into undesirable plants-creating superweeds-and that the genetically modified food might give rise to allergic reactions or cause other damage to human health. Consumer groups, too, worry about risk and choice.
Things are moving fast. In March, Malcolm Walker, chairman of Iceland, the frozen food retailer, announced that its own label products would not contain any genetically modified ingredients. Two days later, the government’s advisory committee on novel foods announced that genetically modified tomatoes should be passed for sale in Britain-as long as they were processed and offered for sale in tins rather than fresh over the counter.
At the end of March, the government published a list of suppliers of soya beans who can guarantee that their products do not contain any material which has been genetically modified. The ministry of agriculture, fisheries and food said that while most of the suppliers would probably be too small-scale to interest retailers other than wholefood shops and the like, the objective in publishing the list was that “people should have choice.” At the same time, the department of the environment was preparing to back the EU consensus to force Austria and Luxembourg to lift their ban on genetically modified maize. Meanwhile, British ministers are meeting behind the scenes to decide whether to permit the commercial planting of genetically modified oilseed rape in Britain.
the genetically modified mess
Europe is in a mess over genetically modified foodstuffs. The EU is deadlocked over how to label the new foods. France, once an advocate of planting genetically modified crops, is now having second thoughts about oilseed rape and sugarbeet. Austria and Luxembourg are defying EU policy by banning modified maize. Across the continent, environmentalists have been uprooting trial crops and lobbying shoppers.
Europe has erected a complex regulatory structure to control genetically modified foods, but has so far failed to reassure the public that their diet is in safe hands. One senior British official expressed puzzlement at the public anxiety in Europe: “The US consumer has no problem with genetic modification.”
The surprising thing is that anyone should be surprised. Few things have such strong cultural resonances as food. Distinctively different regional diets in Europe contrast with a universal addiction to fast food in the US. They eat horses in France and Belgium; but not in Britain. In Austria, you will not find lamb on the menu, although it is a staple in countries just to the south, and so on.
A more recent trend is the antipathy to factory farming methods. European consumers have turned to “organic” produce, partly on safety grounds (fears about pesticide residues); partly on the grounds of taste (free range eggs do taste better than those from battery hens); and partly for aesthetic reasons (many people do not want to eat the flesh of animals raised by intensive methods). Common to all this, as to the dietary regime of Jews and Muslims, is a concern not just about the product but also about process. Thanks to mad cow disease, the revelation that farmers have habitually been turning cattle and sheep not only into carnivores, but cannibals, has exacerbated this tendency.
protein is protein
Into this cultural, national, regional and religious mix comes a new technology-genetically modified food-founded on the presumption that protein is protein, no matter where it comes from or how that protein was produced. The European commission, in common with most EU governments, has based its handling of the technology on the principle that the only important thing about the new products is their safety. And to assess safety, you need only check the degree to which the new foods differ from the unmodified versions. The founding principle of European legislation is therefore the principle of equivalence: if the proteins are the same, then the new food is not only acceptable, it need not even be labelled as coming from genetically modified sources. Many consumers do not share these assumptions.
The matter is compounded by the fact that the first tranche of genetically modified products appears to offer largely agronomic benefits: it is the seed merchant, the farmer and the food processor who gain, rather than consumers. Last year, the Consumers’ Association published Gene Cuisine, the results of research into consumer attitudes. It showed that in the aftermath of BSE “people are less inclined to accept official assurances of safety” and are less tolerant even of small risks.
So what are the commercial benefits of genetically modifying food crops? Let us consider first the tale of the tomato, the least controversial of the new foods, and then the story of soya, the most controversial.
Tomatoes, as is the nature of fruit, go soft just as they approach their ripest. But soft tomatoes cannot withstand modern methods of handling and distribution. The journey from field to supermarket shelf is just too rough. That is why you can buy soft, ripe tomatoes off a stall in a street-market in Italy or Spain or Greece-because the grower is often the seller and the fruit is fresh-picked. But in a supermarket society, the tomatoes have to be picked when they are hard and before they are ripe, so that they can withstand the transit. That is why it’s so difficult to get ripe fruit in California-even though the climate is just as suitable as Italy.
Don Grierson of Nottingham university, in collaboration with the biochemical company Zeneca, sought a way to delay the softening of ripened tomatoes. Grierson realised that an enzyme-polygalacturonase (PG for short)-was produced during ripening, which started to break down the pectin in the fruit, turning it soft. Inhibit the production of PG, and Zeneca would have a non-squidgy tomato. The best way of achieving this was to put a copy of the PG gene into the tomato plant but to put it in “back to front”-a so-called anti-sense gene.
It worked. The tomato purée made from these genetically modified plants was approved for sale in Britain two years ago and has been marketed through Sainsbury’s and Safeway. The cans (from tomatoes grown in the US) sit next to the unmodified Italian tomato paste and, according to Nigel Poole of Zeneca, the modified tomato paste is outselling the traditional kind: “About two thirds of this market is the modified product.” Of course, the modified tomato paste is cheaper than the unmodified.
The story of the tomato also illustrates the commercial and regulatory complexity of the new genetic engineering business. The anti-sense gene technology was such a good idea that a US company, Calgene (a subsidiary of Monsanto), was also working away at it and there were threats of litigation over who had the rights to the intellectual property of the non-squidgy tomato. Zeneca and Calgene reached a settlement: the US company would concentrate on the fresh tomato market in the US and Zeneca would target the processed tomato market, particularly in Europe.
But, although Zeneca has approval to market the product in Britain, it needs to get separate approval to plant the seeds to grow the crop to make the product. They will only grow in hot climates; Zeneca wants to plant the crops in Spain, Italy and Greece. “It’s asinine to grow them in the US and put Italian farmers out of business,” says Poole.
But again there are commercial and regulatory complications. EU regulations stipulate that one country should act as “rapporteur” to analyse safety and recommend whether or not to permit the release of these genetically modified organisms into the environment. Zeneca asked Spain to act as rapporteur. Spain said yes to the new crop and passed the documentation to the other EU states. All of them agreed, apart from Austria and France. Austrian objections centre on the antibiotic resistance marker gene. Following its change of government, France is reassessing its attitude to genetically modified foods, so the French government’s position is unclear. The earliest a decision might be reached is in the autumn.
Although clearance to grow the genetically modified tomato plants might yet be given, there remains the hurdle of persuading at least one European country to put the variety on its national seed list. This has to be done before the seeds can be sold. Although Zeneca has been working on this project for more than a decade, there will be no commercial planting of the new tomatoes in Europe before spring 1999 at the earliest.
Zeneca’s tomato paste has attracted little controversy. This may be because the company has been completely open about what it is doing. Its product is clearly labelled. And besides the agronomic benefit conferred by delayed softening, the paste does seem to taste better than that from unmodified tomatoes, because so much more of the pectin is still intact. Eventually, Nigel Poole envisages that the outcome of the new genetic manipulation will find its way on to European supermarket shelves as ketchup and salsas.
the soya problem
Genetically modified soya is a different story. Monsanto, the US chemical company, intervened comprehensively in the plant’s physiology to create resistance to the weedkiller glyphosate. The rationale is that farmers would be able to spray fields of genetically modified soya with the herbicide, killing all the weeds while leaving the soya unaffected. Monsanto is the main manufacturer of glyphosate weedkiller, marketed under the name “Roundup.” Thus Roundup-resistant soya represents a step towards the vertical integration of the farming business. Farmers who buy this type of seed are thereby committed to buying their agrichemicals from Monsanto. No benefit is claimed for consumers, other than that soya might be grown more cheaply if less herbicide is used.
Genetically modified soya passed the US food and drugs administration’s licensing procedures and permission was given for commercial planting. The US is one of the prime producers and exporters of soya beans and Monsanto’s beans now account for nearly a quarter of the US crop. Nine million acres of genetically modified “Roundup Ready” soya were planted in the US last year and more than twice that area will be planted this year. But no one has asked US farmers to segregate their output. Soya beans from modified and unmodified crops have been mixed in the huge silos where the bulk material is stored prior to distribution to food processing companies around the world. It is impossible to sort them from each other and, as soya and its derivatives are present in a huge array of processed foods, consumers in Europe are already eating genetically modified food. Because of the mixing, there is no clear way in which products can be consistently labelled. And because of the Gatt international trade agreement, Europe could not legally keep the soya out even if it had access to substitute supplies from other growers.
Other companies have been following Monsanto’s lead. Novartis (a merger of Ciba and Sandoz) is the maker of the genetically modified maize to which Luxembourg and Austria have taken exception. The German company Hoechst manufactures a different non-selective herbicide, glufosinate, marketed under the name Challenge. It has applied for permission to grow genetically engineered oilseed rape in Britain where, again, the crop would be resistant to the herbicide. Oilseed rape is grown for the production of food-grade oil while the remaining pulp is used for animal feed. The oil and its derivatives are used directly, in margarines and in a range of cosmetics and detergents. The Challenge-resistant oilseed rape has been approved for release into the environment, but British government ministers are still debating whether to allow commercial planting.
The final stage in approval would be listing on a national seed catalogue. There are suggestions from the Greens in the European parliament that laboratory tests might show that seeds from some genetically modified plants do not have the stability necessary for listing. But it is hard to imagine that the companies would have invested so much money in developing the new crops and failed to take this point into account.
Monsanto expects that following its soya, “Roundup Ready” maize will be planted in the US this year; while in Canada, more than 2m acres will be planted with Monsanto’s oilseed rape. Among the crops which genetic engineers have applied for permission to plant commercially in Europe are maize, chicory, carnations and potatoes. All of these are in abeyance while the complicated EU procedures take their course.
Some non-food crops, such as modified cotton, have also been planted commercially in the US. The properties which have been engineered into some of these crops include not just herbicide resistance but the ability to make their own insecticides.
Such crops have raised more concerns than Zeneca’s tomato paste. What if the gene for weedkiller resistance were to spread to the weeds in the field? Many crop plants are relatives of weeds and some can cross-pollinate. There is some evidence from Denmark that herbicide resistance from genetically modified soya could spread to weeds. On the food safety side, there is the possibility that the newly introduced genes produce proteins to which some people may be allergic.
One common concern is whether existing regulations have enough provision for long-term follow-up, so that any adverse effects might be identified if they were to occur sometime in the future. (Unexpected side effects of diet are not impossible: a survey of childhood asthma in the former East Germany tentatively linked the recent rise in the incidence rates to increased margarine consumption after reunification, compared to greater butter consumption before.)
In Britain, the release of any genetically modified organism (GMO), whether crop plant, animal or micro-organism, into the environment, needs the consent of the department of the environment’s advisory committee on releases to the environment (Acre). Yet even short-term monitoring appears to be a problem, as shown by a report last December, in which Acre publicised three cases of “inadequate management of a GMO release” likely to result in “non-compliance” with regulations. In one incident involving the highly regarded company Nickerson Biocem Ltd, Acre had told the company to keep a 400 metre cordon sanitaire around its genetically modified oilseed rape, to prevent cross fertilisation with other trials of non-modified oilseed rape. But two days before an inspection, the authorities were told that the 400 metre zone “had been inadvertently reduced to 2.5 metres at sowing.” According to Acre, “the consent holder was reprimanded and instructed that all seed harvested within the 400 metre isolation distance would have to be destroyed by burial in a landfill site. The consent was varied such that no oilseed rape could be grown at the release site and surrounding 400 metre area for a period of three years after termination of the trial.” The financial loss must have been considerable.
Adrian Bebbs, biotechnology campaigner for Friends of the Earth, says: “We are not happy with the regulations and the short-term tests. There should be more application of the precautionary principle.” He is disappointed that Britain’s new Food Standards Agency will take over much of the existing regime unaltered, as far as regulation of genetically modified food is concerned. Julie Shepard, from the Consumers’ Association (CA), echoes the call for long-term monitoring, while stressing that the CA takes no position on genetically modified food. But once genetically modified soya is mixed with so many other foods, she asks: “If you do find a problem, what can you do?”
For the CA, however, labelling is the key issue. Zeneca’s Nigel Poole agrees: “People want to know. It’s the right thing to do in our culture.” But if European regulations do not inspire consumer confidence over safety, they are in a mess over labelling as well.
labelling the process, not the product
Esoteric and complex tests have been devised by the EU commission to measure the transgenic content of a food. These have not found favour with member governments, let alone with environmentalists. The British government is trying to broker a compromise while it holds the EU presidency. But, as Julie Shepard points out, both the British and the commission proposals suffer from the same defect: they are founded on the equivalence principle and thus depend on analysing the product to measure how great is the difference between modified and unmodified foods.
There is an alternative strategy, which relies on an analogy with the labelling of organic food, where it is the process which is certified and which merits the label. When something is labelled “organic,” this does not mean that it is entirely free of pesticide residues because of the potential problem of aerial drift of pesticide spray from adjoining fields. But no one would put forward testing for residues as the index by which to judge if a food is “organic” or not.
The “process not product” labelling strategy would appear to be more in sympathy with the cultural taboos and rituals associated with our food. But the EU is stuck with technical regulations drawn up over ten years or more of negotiation, and it must abide by international trade agreements. There is consequently a risk that, over genetically modified food, its citizens may find it to be both out of touch and powerless.