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Strange fruit: Could genetically modified foods offer a solution to the world's food crisis?

It's a decade since GM products were hurriedly swept from UK shops after a panic about their safety. In the meantime, GM crops have been widely and successfully cultivated elsewhere. So is it time we embraced the new food?

The Independent | April 18, 2009
By Paul Vallely

How much do you spend each week on food? It depends on how much you earn, of course. But roughly speaking, the average Briton devotes around 7 to 10 per cent of their income to titillating their taste buds. Yet it's different if you're poor and very different if you're very poor. If you'd been unlucky enough to be born in parts of Africa, Asia or Latin America you could be spending 50 or even 70 per cent of what you earn each week just on trying to fill your belly.

And that fact could be about to alter what British shoppers are able to put in their supermarket trolleys. For Genetically Modified foods are back on the agenda.

GM foods have been out of the UK shops for almost a decade now, ever since the concentrated tomato paste based on the Flavr Savr® modified tomato was taken off the shelves in double-quick time, following campaigns in 1999 by anti-GM protesters and a lot of "Frankenfood" headlines in the popular press. Those were the days of mad cow disease, dioxins in chickens and antifreeze in German wine, when public suspicion of what might be happening to our food was first aroused.

But change is in the air. A few weeks ago the chief executive of Tesco, Sir Terry Leahy, admitted that UK supermarkets may have been too quick to jump on the non-GM bandwagon and signalled Tesco is willing to re-open the debate. The World Bank is calling for a new agricultural revolution, based on biotechnology. The pressure group Sense About Science has launched a major PR initiative with a report entitled "Making Sense of GM". Even the Pope has given his blessing to a meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences which includes many of the most respected names in 20th-century science at the Vatican in Rome next month, after it produced a report entitled "Feeding a Hungry World: The Moral Imperative of Biotechnology". There have also been more Google searches on GM food in the past two years in the UK than anywhere else in the world.

"It feels as if we are being given a second chance to explain the potential of genetic modification and as a society we need to get it right this time," says Professor Chris Lamb, the director of the John Innes Centre, Europe's premier research plant and microbial research institute. "Genetic modification of crops is a safe technology. It has the potential to be a powerful tool for improving the sustainability of agriculture and for helping to provide global food security."

Not everyone agrees. Prince Charles has in recent times repeated his warning that the moving of genes between species and varieties is "guaranteed to cause the biggest disaster environmentally of all time". Organisations like the Soil Association, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth continue to oppose the new technology, along with anti-GM pressure groups such as Genewatch and GM Freeze which has published a series of counterblasts to the pro-GM lobby with titles like "Feeding the World with GM Crops: Myth or Reality?"

And anti-GM activists are still on the alert last year they sabotaged the only GM trial approved by the British Government in 2008, a project directed by Professor Howard Atkinson from Leeds University who had modified 400 potato plants to make them resistant to nematode worms (which cost the UK potato industry around £50 million a year). It meant that almost all of the 54 GM crop trials attempted in Britain since 2000 have suffered vandalism of some type.

What has brought about this revival of interest in GM? A concatenation of factors has built up. Last year saw a massive rise in food prices across the world following poor harvests in bread-baskets like Australia. Then came a big rise in the price of oil, from which fertiliser is made and which fuels tractors. Next came speculation on world commodity markets after the loss in confidence provoked by the worldwide recession. All this was against a background of larger swathes of arable land being switched from food to the production of biofuels. At the same time increased affluence in China and India has led to increased meat consumption, which means more cereals are demanded for animal feed. On top of that climate change is turning productive land to desert or salt wastes or flooding it. And all the time the world's population grows by an extra 6 million every year.

"The global demand for food is expected to increase by 50 per cent by 2030," says Professor John Beddington, the chief scientist to the British Government, "and you won't do that with the tools of the Green Revolution". He is referring to the huge uplift in cereal production in countries like India in the 1960s, which tripled the world's food supply, using new crop varieties, agrochemical fertiliser and pesticides, and improved irrigation.

What will be needed instead, says his predecessor, Sir David King, now President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, is "the development of both biotic crops, resistant to disease, and abiotic crops, resistant to drought, salinity or flooding, using modern biotechnology techniques, including GM. The question is whether or not Europe will be contributing to this process, or hindering it, as it is at present."

The academic establishment frightened by the apocalyptic predictions of their climate change colleagues is injecting a new energy into the push for GM.

"We shot ourselves in the foot," Paul Collier, professor of economics at the University of Oxford, told a conference on eliminating global poverty last month. "Because we banned it, so did Africa which will need GM crops to adapt to a deteriorating climate produced by global warming." Opposition to GM, he added, was a romantic folly endorsed by politicians scheming to keep cheaper food imports out of Europe in order to keep EU farmers in jobs. "It must be done away with to build food security for the most vulnerable people on earth."

The anti-GM lobby is unimpressed. It says that there are still no answers to the arguments it raised against all this a decade ago. They are partly political GM is just a way for big corporations to make a lot of money, rather than the most efficient way of feeding the world. They are partly concerned with public safety GM foods might have adverse effects on human health. And they are partly environmental GM could let a gene genie out of its bottle and do damage that could not be reversed; it might threaten biodiversity by driving out other plants and the wildlife that depend on them.

But some are shifting their ground on the issue. Oxfam, which in 1999 called for a moratorium on the growing of GM crops, now declines to offer a detailed opinion. Another organisation, the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (Cafod), is more open. "We opposed GM food a decade ago," says its head of policy George Gelber. "We were worried about market dominance Monsanto controlled the seeds used on 90 per cent of the GM acreage and on that front our concerns have not changed because that could work against the interests of poor farmers. But for me the debate has moved on."

What attracts him is the prospect that GM can modify staples like maize and rice to be resistant to diseases and pests, tolerant of salt and drought and be more nutritious. But as yet he stops short of endorsing it. "The reality consistently falls far short of the promise and hype," Gelber concluded in a recent Cafod position paper on the subject. "Agrochemical companies like Monsanto are more interested in twinning their seeds with their proprietary chemicals and have concentrated their research on the most lucrative markets. Tropical crops have been relatively neglected. But this does not mean that GM crops will not have a role to play in the future."

There are, of course, still fears that big multinationals like Monsanto could abuse their monopoly power. And they will inevitably focus on what they see as profit-maximising projects, much as a big drug company might focus more research effort on a slimming pill than on a cure for malaria because it is the rich world that is fat and people with malaria are, by and large, too poor to afford to buy a cure. But a GM debate which was once a surrogate for concerns about corporate power, intensive agriculture and the sanctity of nature is switching to one which is now more about science.

That is not to say the rows are any less intense, but they are about different things.

GM products for public good rather than private profit are on the brink of becoming a reality. In 2000 a Swiss scientist named Ingo Potrykus modified rice, adding a bacterial gene and two genes from the daffodil, to add Vitamin A to rice. His plan was to find an easy way of countering the vitamin deficiency which causes blindness in around half a million people, mainly children, every year. Half of them die within 12 months of going blind and others die of diseases such as malaria because the deficiency affects their immune system. Professor Potrykus called his invention Golden Rice.

When Bill Gates heard of it he offered several million pounds to expand Potrykus' work to add vitamins A and E, plus iron, zinc and improved protein to Third World staple crops like bananas, cassava, rice and sorghum. But his applications for field trials for the new plant have been delayed since then because of the complex regulatory process which the EU has put in place at the insistence of the anti-GM lobby. Countries such as India, the Philippines, Bangladesh, China and Vietnam have since expressed an interest in his biofortified rice and he is hoping to begin field trials in several of those countries within the next four years. The Rockefeller Foundation has recently announced it will fund the process.

To GM enthusiasts that is an unconscionable delay. Several million children have gone blind and died unnecessarily in the interval, all because of some anti-science superstition among affluent Europeans who can manage without GM and deny it to others. The world now knows, they say, that there is no risk from GM.

The amount of GM crops planted outside Europe over the past decade means that the rest of the world has done the experiment for us, says the chief scientist, Professor Beddington. There are now some 114 million hectares of GM crops and trees growing in 22 countries across the world. Some 2.6 per cent of farmed land now grows GM crops. In the US, half the cotton, three-quarters of the maize and 60 per cent of the soya bean are now GM. They are big in Brazil too and China, which recently invested $500m in biotechnology. In developing countries 10 million farmers, 90 per cent of them small-scale producers, are growing pest-resistant GM cotton. In India, production tripled last year to over 3.6m hectares; it has turned the country from a net cotton importer five years ago to the world's second largest exporter today.

GM is here in the UK too, indirectly. Virtually all British animal feed mainly soya and maize is imported into the UK, especially from the Americas, where GM and non-GM crops are mixed together. Anyone eating beef or chicken here has indirectly eaten GM. The world has consumed over a trillion GM meals because GM soya is in about 60 per cent of all processed food (as vegetable oil, soya flour, lecithin and soya protein) and GM maize is in about 50 per cent of processed foods (as corn, corn starch, cornflour and corn syrup). None of it is labelled since Government rules do not cover derivatives.

"Despite the vast increase," the chief scientist, John Beddington, told me, "nothing I'm aware of has ever indicated there's been an identified problem with human health." "The genie's been out of the bottle since 1996 on a massive scale in America and the world hasn't ended," says Denis Murphy, Professor of Biotechnology at the University of Glamorgan.

But the campaigners are not placated. "There may be no acute effects manifested but chronic effects haven't been eliminated," says Pete Riley of GM Freeze. "There have been no serious investigations into public health in the USA."

That stand-off continues in a whole host of areas. Almost no evidence in the debate is uncontested and much of it is contradictory. The antis say that GM does not increase yields, and may even decrease them; the pros say crops have been engineered for reliability against pests and herbicides, and that modifications to improve yield will come next. The antis say GM corn, soy beans and cotton have led to £122m more being spent on pesticides and £138m more on herbicides since 1996; the pros say the GM variety called Bt cotton has reduced insecticide use by about £15.6m over that period and that pesticide spraying was down by 286 million kg in 2006. Each side produces studies to confirm their claims.

So it goes, through a long list of disputed areas. Biodiversity has been reduced or increased, according to who you believe. Superweeds have not materialised as the transgenic mutations, the pros say; but they have, say the antis, in terms of weeds gaining tolerances against some herbicides so much so that Monsanto now dedicates a section of its website to telling farmers how to deal with them. Prince Charles, on one side, claims that GM cotton has increased suicides among poor Indian farmers, while the International Food Policy Research Institute insists suicides have fallen steeply since Monsanto's Bt cotton was introduced in 2002 enabling poor farmers to get out of the hands of loan-sharks.

Even Golden Rice could be a danger, the antis say, because it might lead to people overdosing on Vitamin A. They would be better off eating foods like liver, sweet potato and leafy green vegetables a suggestion which the GM proponents say is like saying "let them eat cake".

Then there is the issue of regulation. The framework has become so stringent in Europe that it costs at least 10 times as much to bring a new GM crop to market as an equivalent conventional crop. Ironically, that means that only big corporations can afford to do it, discouraging small partnerships and unsponsored academics with the public interest at heart. Such rules mean there have been only seven consents granted in the UK since 2002 while the US has had 13,000. And the complexity of the rules gives the impression to the public that if governments think such extreme precautions are necessary then GM technology must be inherently dangerous.

On the contrary, say the anti-GM campaigners, the rules are not strict enough. "We set out various questions at the outset 10 years ago and they haven't been properly answered," says Pete Riley of GM Freeze. "Who is responsible for the containment of crops? Who will be liable for any harm? All these issues remain unresolved."

It is hard for the outsider to adjudicate on these claims. "GM science is evolving and becoming more sophisticated," says George Gelber from Cafod. "But the evidence of the impact of GM crops is highly contradictory and difficult since, on both sides of the argument, it originates with people whose minds appear to be already made up." Many people on either side only produce research which bolsters their existing position.

There has been one major independent study. Last April, a report was released by a group of 400 scientists from government, industry, farming and aid agencies under a World Bank initiative. Called the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development, its brief was to find the best ways of reducing poverty and hunger. Its conclusion was not anti-GM, but it said the best way to attack world hunger was through supporting the poor smallholders (many of whom are forced by poverty to be organic) who produce 80 per cent of the world's food on subsistence farms. Some from the GM industry withdrew from the process when it became clear that the report would not back their view whole-heartedly.

The director of the IAASTD project was Professor Bob Watson, the man who co-ordinated the science that led to the saving of the ozone layer and who was later Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He is now the Chief Scientist at the Department for Environment. When he was asked at the launch of the report if GM crops were the answer to world hunger he replied: "The simple answer is no". There is enough food in the world at present, the problem is with its distribution and storage, and the fact that most farmers are too poor to buy GM seeds or the associated agrochemicals. But as the climate deteriorates, he said, GM "may contribute through improved crop traits such as temperature, drought, pest and salinity tolerance". New trials are needed for those, he said.

Neither lobby were pleased with his conclusions. The pro-GM advocates had hoped for a more ringing endorsement. The anti-GM activists said that the industry had been claiming for almost a decade that it would produce crops that could grow in arid or salty soil but the promised products had not materialised.

"Biotechnology industry spokespeople often give the impression that GM drought-resistant crops are just round the corner," laments Pete Riley of GM Freeze, "but so far none of these promised crops have delivered." Certainly researchers have been working on the problem for some time they have filed no fewer than 532 patents around the world on genes that might confer drought resistance but without success.

The problem is that engineering resistance to drought or salt is technically a far more complex process than bolting in resistance to a specific pesticide or herbicide. Professor Ossama El-Tayeb, an industrial biologist at the University of Cairo, has raised doubts over how swiftly GM drought tolerance can be achieved. And Professor Tim Flowers, a biologist at Sussex University, has suggested that salt-tolerant crops may still be decades from commercial production.

The multiple gene switches involved in creating those products could throw up more complex problems. "The more modifications you make," says Pete Riley, "the more you are asking the plant to change and the more unforeseen changes that may occur because of the novel proteins it will produce. It might, for example, produce allergic reactions, as happened in Australia when a protein which was benign in a bean was transferred to a pea and became allergenic."

GM proponents counter by saying that just because it's hard doesn't mean we shouldn't try and that, of course, regulations are needed that would require testing for such allergenic switches. GM, they say, offers too many tantalising benefits for the public good not to be tested.

"We all know we should eat more fish oil for our health, but fish stocks are depleting," says Professor Ian Crute, who is director of the world's oldest agricultural research station, the Rothamsted Research centre. "The benefit of fish oil comes from the concentration in the fish's liver; they get that from eating small fish which have eaten algae. If we can put the key genes from that algae into oil seed rape we can produce 'fish oil' in a sustainable way and consumers can get their polyunsaturated fatty acids without depleting the fish stocks."

Other scientists, says Professor Crute, who has 35 years' experience in plant pathology and crop genetic improvement, are working on using GM to insert vaccines into bananas, tomatoes or orange juice so children in the African bush can be vaccinated without the need for injections, the trained staff to administer them or the refrigeration to store the vaccines in chemical form. "A UK firm devised a way of doing that," he says, but because of all the furore surrounding GM "they couldn't get their second phase backing to continue the work". There is even talk of engineering bacteria to clean up toxic spills, generate cleaner fuels, and sequester excess carbon.

The anti-GM lobby insists that before such fancy science the world needs to apply itself better to proven technologies. Agro-ecology which involves better land management, anti-erosion measures, water harvesting, trickle irrigation, recycling manure, increasing the soil's organic content and integrating woody perennials with crops can increase yields by 60 per cent. Other improvements in traditional plant technology, such as marker assisted breeding, are producing improved crop varieties without resorting to GM.

"GM is an unnecessary cul-de-sac at best, and at worst a distraction diverting precious research time and funds away from cheap and more easily available solutions to agricultural problems," says Pete Riley. "There is no problem in feeding the future population providing we adopt a sensible balance between plant and animal protein and land use."

Those pressing for a rethink on GM accept much of that. "Good things can come from agro-ecological techniques," concedes Prof Crute, "and there are advances in techniques in conventional breeding. But it's not an either/or. The challenges are so great that we need everything we can get. GM isn't a panacea, but it's part of the answer."

In the Biotechnology Unit at the University of Glamorgan, Professor Murphy, who is writing a major report on climate change and the world food crisis for the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, agrees. "The debate has been going round in circles. GM has been massively over-hyped in the past, leading both to exaggerated fears and exaggerated hopes for the technology. It is certainly not the answer to all our problems but it is part of it, along with DNA markers, crop breeding and the rest."

But will the British public buy it? "My sense is that the public has substantially recognised that there is a technology here that can be used," says Professor Crute. "The fear of the technology is overplayed. That's what Terry Leahy from Tesco was acknowledging when he said 'we may have made a mistake'. When you understand how crops are grown, how plants convert solar energy into chemical energy, it makes no sense not to maximise crop output on the smallest imprint of land."

The Government's chief scientist, Professor John Beddington, shares this belief in the common sense of the British public. "It was perfectly reasonable for people to have fears about the effects of GM and to insist on employing a precautionary principle at the outset," he says. "But is it reasonable to continue to deploy that in the face of increasing evidence that they don't do harm?"

Howard Atkinson, the Leeds professor of plant scientists, whose 400 potato plants were last year trashed by activists, is more direct. It is time for the "precautionary principle" to give way to a sensible risk-benefit analysis such as people regularly deploy in their everyday lives on matters such as driving a car. "Cars kill people. So we put in place sensible rules to control them. But we long ago gave up requiring men with red flags to walk in front of them," he says. "A lot of the opposition is not science but just juju."

"GM is not a silver bullet," says Professor Beddington. "There's a whole series of solutions to the world food crisis, but GM could be part of them because in some areas like rust diseases in wheat it will produce far quicker results than other methods. GM is a tool we'd be very unwise to throw out a priori. I think the public are prepared to accept evidence and the evidence is that GM is being increasingly used in the rest of the world and there are no serious health effects."

That may be happening already. Public concern about GM appears to be on the wane. In 2001, 43 per cent of those polled by the Food Standards Agency were opposed to GM but the percentage of those opposed has since fallen to just 24 per cent.

"The supermarkets are going to have to do a U-turn on GM, I'd say in the next three years," Professor Peter Lillford, chair of the Royal Society of Chemistry's food steering group, and a former chief scientist at Unilever, said recently. "We're in a ludicrous position. Go to India or South America and talk about this and you realise it really is a British backyard issue on the world stage."

So will change come in Britain's shops? The supermarkets have maintained a prohibition on GM products for a decade but it is clear that Tesco, the market leader, is now sitting on the fence. "If we'd known 10 years ago what we know now we might have approached it differently, but we are led by the customer," said a spokesman for the supermarket giant this week. "We'll continue to monitor the science but will be guided by our customers".

It looks like the decision is over to us.