British Debate on GE Crops Continues


March 2, 2002

The seeds of discord Genetically modified crops are now interbreeding to
produce a chemically resistant super-weed, reports Zac Goldsmith


Two years ago, you would have been hard-pressed to find a single scientist
willing to express doubts about the safety or usefulness of genetic
engineering. That would have been career suicide and the few scientists who
stepped out of line were swiftly punished. More than a handful lost their

Not so today. Complacency has given way to caution, even panic, that the
establishment may have got it all wrong. No longer can the industry
guarantee that the modified genes won't cross the species barrier - they
have, as studies show. No longer can it pretend GM crops can be contained in
their fields. They can't. Research in Canada and Mexico, as well as in the
UK, has shown that genes travel miles from their sites. Very carefully,
organisations such as English Nature and even the Royal Society are revising
their positions. The former announced last month that unintended breeding
between different GM varieties is leading to super-weeds that could dominate
agricultural systems and require a new generation of toxic chemicals to deal
with them. The Royal Society, previously one of the biggest voices in favour
of GM, has warned of "unpredicted harmful changes" to food ingredients as a
result of genetic manipulation and suggests the British regulatory system
would be unlikely to detect problems in time. And the Government's
Commission on the Future of Farming advised ministers last month to
"respect" public fears on GM crops.

Sound advice. For if they are wrong and the sceptical British housewife has
been right all along, then the fall-out could be vast. A few years ago,
reports were circulated that the US Environmental Protection Agency had
given a German company approval to begin testing a genetically modified soil
bacterium at Oregon State University.

Designed to break down waste vegetation and produce ethanol as a by-product,
it was a tremendous success. But when students added the processed waste to
normal, living soil and planted seeds, there were unexpected results. The
seeds sprouted, but immediately died. The GM bacterium had out-competed soil
fungi, essential to plant growth, and rendered the soil effectively dead.

Worse, the students discovered that the bacterium could survive and
replicate. According to David Suzuki, Canada's pre-eminent geneticist: "The
genetically engineered Klebsiella could have ended all plant life on this
continent. The implications of this single case are nothing short of

Had the Oregon students not done their research properly, the bacterium
would have been approved for commercial use, with unthinkable consequences.

At its height two years ago, the consumer backlash against genetic
engineering seemed unstoppable. Monsanto's share price plummeted by 40 per
cent, many of our supermarkets and retailers vowed to remove GM-contaminated
products from their shelves and even McDonald's announced that its fries
would be GM-free. The governments of Thailand, Sri Lanka and, rumour has it,
some eastern European countries are all toying with outright bans. Others
such as China and Japan are strengthening their regulatory controls on GM,
despite threats of legal action from the US.

The industry withdrew its tentacles and the consumer army retreated. But far
from accepting defeat, the industry went underground and is stronger than
ever. How this has happened defies belief.

When Monsanto's massive advertising offensive spectacularly collapsed two
years ago, it was forced to rethink. Today, the industry's strategy is more
sinister and involves placing friendly scientists on international, and
supposedly independent, scientific committees. In a leaked report, stamped
"company confidential", one company boasts of its success at influencing the
composition of UN food-safety committees.

In fact, it needn't have worried. Today's politicians are virtual
ambassadors for the industry. Before the last US presidential election,
Monsanto assured its shareholders that, regardless of the victor, they could
be sure of a friend in the White House. And the enthusiastic Tony Blair has
maintained two conflicting positions on the issue: one for industry and one
for the worried consumer. Earlier this year, the Canadian Royal Society
warned that "the public interest in a regulatory system is significantly
compromised when that openness is negotiated away in exchange for supportive
relationships with the industries being regulated".

But tax subsidies and political access aside, the plan has become more
insidious. Don Westfall, of the biotech consultancy Promar International,
summed it up: "The hope of the industry is that over time the market is so
flooded [with GM] that there's nothing you can do about it, you just sort of

This certainly seems to be New Labour's strategy. When, just over a year
ago, Advanta Seeds mistakenly distributed GM-contaminated oilseed rape to
British farmers, it quickly alerted the Government. It was more than a month
before the Government reacted, by which time the seeds had been planted on
11,500 acres.

Even then, despite laws forbidding the commercial cultivation of GM oilseed
rape in the UK, the Government initially resisted demands that the crops be
destroyed. Today, Britain hosts more than 100 GM test sites, most of which
are for crops that are resistant to pesticides and designed therefore to
increase, not decrease, the use of chemicals in agriculture.

Ambiguous though Mr Blair has been on the issue, he has been clear on one
point. "It's important," he said, "that we proceed according to the facts
and the science."

Well, what's he waiting for? Mainstream science has spoken and, unlike Dr
Arpad Pusztai, the award-winning geneticist who was sacked from the Rowett
Institute in Aberdeen after revealing nasty truths about his own GM
research, the Royal Society and English Nature cannot be deleted. Nor can

There is a feeling today that we don't have to heed nature's laws. For the
first time in human history, our relationship with nature is based not on
learning to adapt to her many ways, but on adapting her many ways to our
short-term requirements. It is a game we can only lose, for there is no
surer indication that a civilisation is in decline than when it loses the
power to discriminate between good and bad change.

Zac Goldsmith is the editor of 'The Ecologist' (www.

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