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
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…