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15 January 2001

Thank you for the genes we eat

The biotechnology industry boasts GM foods will be the salvation of humanity. Ziauddin Sardar went t

By Ziauddin Sardar

Is genetically engineered food good for us? This is no simple “yes” or “no” question; the answer depends on interpretation of current research, our belief in science and progress, our attitude to the environment, our perception of risks and our politics. Even where we live has a bearing on the answer. If you live in Europe, where the BSE crisis has left an indelible mark on the public consciousness, you will probably worry about the long-term hazards of genetically modified (GM) foods. But if you live in the US, where the public still has a reverential belief in private enterprise, you are likely to see GM foods as inevitable scientific progress, carrying the promise of a better and healthier future.

In all, 99 per cent of the world’s GM output comes from three countries: 17 per cent from Argentina, 10 per cent from Canada and 72 per cent from the US. If GM foods lead to some sort of environmental disaster, the US will get the blame. If GM turns out to be a boon for humanity, the US will bathe in glory. That is why it is essential to understand the American position.

So I accepted an invitation to join a handful of other journalists on an “international visitor program”, sponsored by the US State Department, for a specially tailored GM tour.

Our first port of call was the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in Washington, DC. It is FDA policy, we were told, to ensure that new varieties of plant food are carefully and thoroughly tested for dangerous levels of toxins. All possible risks are identified and eliminated. In one case, for example, testing revealed that soybeans modified with genes from the Brazil nut triggered an allergic reaction. Once this was discovered, the FDA did not allow the company to market the product.

Who carries out the safety tests, I asked. The companies themselves, I was told. Are these tests mandatory? No, but they are strongly encouraged. The Brazil-nut allergen gene, I pointed out, was identified because the allergen was known and could be tested for. What if the allergen is not known? What if the new gene triggered a dormant gene producing new side effects, or if the effects emerged only over a long period of time? What if a genetically engineered food engendered quite novel toxicity and effects?

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The FDA spokesperson became confused. GM foods, we were told, are no more dangerous than the corresponding non-GM foods. The FDA believes that GM foods are “substantially equivalent” to non-GM foods in terms of safety and nutritional value, so, contrary to EU demands, labels have no need to mention how the food was grown.

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Are you saying, we visitors asked, that GM techniques are not radically different from traditional breeding? Conventionally, we pointed out, only genes from closely related species are combined. In GM techniques, the combinations involve genes from totally unrelated species. How can that be “substantially equivalent”? At this juncture, the PR lady intervened and the meeting ended abruptly with promises of further clarification and exchanges of e-mail addresses.

The US regulatory infrastructure, we were told, is one of the best in the world. So we moved on to another of its arms: the US Department of Agriculture.

Here, we learnt that the US is on an irreversible drive to GMs. Last year, 54 per cent of soybean crops planted, 61 per cent of cotton and 25 per cent of corn were given over to varieties that included a biotech trait. So rapid and extensive is this use of GM crops that it is almost impossible to separate them from non-GM crops. Moreover, the pace of development has persuaded the agriculture department to make the regulatory process easier and more efficient. Field-tested GM plants that are candidates for commercialisation can now acquire a non-regulated status that allows them to be moved and planted freely.

Our third and most insightful discussion was held at the US Environmental Protection Agency, which has particular jurisdiction over pesticides, including biopesticides derived from natural materials. The most widely used biopesticides are subspecies or strains of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a bacterium naturally present in soil and which is well known for its ability to control pests. The agency approved its use in 1996. By the end of 1998, there were 175 registered biopesticidal active ingredients and 700 products.

The day we arrived at the agency’s “crystal city” office, it released its much-anticipated report on StarLink corn, which was developed by introducing genetic material from the Bt bacterium. As a result, it produces a unique protein which has insecticidal properties that control the European corn borer. But the protein is also suspected of causing potentially dangerous allergies in humans.

Because of these doubts, the agency approved the corn for use as livestock feed only. But last year, evidence began to emerge that StarLink had entered the food chain; it was found in taco shells that came from at least two different producers and were distributed under various brand names, including Safeway. StarLink has also been detected in human food in Japan.

So the agency asked for an urgent assessment from its scientific advisory panel. It found a “medium likelihood” that StarLink protein is a potential allergen but, given the low levels of StarLink in the US diet, only a “low probability” of any reaction among those exposed to the corn. It recommended that “individuals who claim to have experienced adverse effects from StarLink corn consumption be studied as soon as possible to determine whether StarLink was the source of the reactions”.

The agency’s representative was refreshingly candid. It was impossible, she said, to establish a threshold below which it could be said with certainty that there was no health risk. Further, she quoted the case of the monarch butterfly. Its larvae feed on milkweed and, according to initial research, when the plant is covered in Bt corn pollen, it kills them. But later research showed that Bt pollen can be interpreted to be less dangerous than the insecticides and herbicides poured on conventional crops. Thus only continued research could give us an accurate picture of the balance of risks.

By this time, it had become obvious that there was a rather cosy relationship between the regulators and the biotech companies; that there was an unquestioned, blind faith in science; and that the failures of the regulatory process – the StarLink affair, the soybeans with a Brazil-nut allergy – were actually presented as successful examples of its ability to control and manage risks.

Moreover, everyone involved was suffering from historical amnesia. In the 1950s, pesticides were sold with exactly the same rhetoric; in the 1960s and 1970s, nuclear power was promoted with equal confidence. One led to Silent Spring and numerous species extinctions, the other to the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl disasters. Memories did not even extend back to 1989, when the FDA banned L-tryptophan, a genetically engineered dietary supplement. It had killed 37 people, permanently disabled about 1,500 and poisoned more than 5,000 before it was recalled.

Mostly, we were ushered into meeting the whole-hearted GM supporters – on bodies such as the US Grains Council, the Biotechnology Industry Organisation, the National Food Processors Association and lobby groups such as the Consumer Federation of America – who had beatific smiles on their faces, the kind one sees on the followers of cults such as the Moonies. Some innocuous-sounding bodies, such as the International Food Information Council, turned out to be supported almost exclusively by biotech companies. But we did meet a few doubters. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, established by a group with links to Ralph Nader, criticised the extent of the FDA’s scrutiny. It also pointed out that vegetarians and members of certain religious groups, as well as those who suffer from allergies (and who fear that foods they were previously able to eat safely might now harbour new substances), had a perfectly reasonable case to demand clear labelling of GM foods. The National Farmers Union, which represents family and ranch farmers, wants “a moratorium on the patenting and licensing of new transgenic animals and plants developed through genetic engineering”.

But these anti-GM voices appear to be completely marginalised. We were taken to the office of Congressman Dennis J Kucinich (Democrat, Ohio), who has sponsored two bills in the House, one requiring the mandatory labelling of GM foods and another to safety-test all GM foods. His spokesperson readily admitted that there is hardly any support for the bills.

At the Monsanto Life Sciences Research Center, based in a suburb of St Louis, Missouri, visitors are greeted by a strategically placed display. It has two plants: one looks bloomingly healthy; the other appears to have been hit by a plague of locusts. No prizes for guessing which is the GM plant – “Food, Health, Hope”, as the Monsanto logo puts it, of humanity.

At the visitors’ centre, lecturers told us that Monsanto’s vision of “Abundant Food and a Healthy Environment” was helping farmers produce more food, more economically, in an environmentally responsible way. This is a new caring, sharing Monsanto, one that wants us to believe that GM agriculture will save humanity. There is even talk of working with the peasant farmers of the high Andes to speed up, rather than replace, the traditional skills of plant breeding.

What brought about the change were the aptly named terminator seeds. Crops grown from these produce sterile seeds only, which cannot be replanted. In this way, farmers become completely dependent on Monsanto. Not surprisingly, there was an international outcry.

But there was no talk of that in St Louis. Instead, we were treated to a homily on new Monsanto products such as Roundup Ready (herbicide-tolerant) Canola, launched recently in the US, and Roundup Ready Soybeans, now widely available in Romania, Russia and Japan. Roundup Ready products, said Gary Barton, the firm’s director of business strategy and communications, are “analogous to Coke and Pepsi – individual countries can have their own local varieties”.

We had a guided tour of the laboratories, which were among the most sophisticated I have seen. Although much of the research is automated, there are a thousand or so humans; the bulk of them work on modifying cells to develop seeds with specific traits. We saw researchers, mostly women and mostly oriental, toiling at microscopes. What we heard on biotechnology safety simply repeated what we had been told elsewhere. (Do the regulators, decision-makers, corporations and scientists agree on a common line, I wonder?) But one important question came to the fore: why don’t Europeans believe Monsanto when it says GM organisms are perfectly safe?

Perhaps, it was suggested, because Europeans are just too cynical; this is a common American prejudice. Or maybe it has something to do with Monsanto’s previous assurances of safety. For example, BST (bovine somatotropin), the chemical injected into cows to increase their milk yields, was declared by Monsanto to be totally safe, until researchers at Cambridge University showed otherwise.

I got a strong impression that safety is not a major issue for biotech corporations such as Monsanto or, indeed, for the US government. For them, the issue is selling GM crops and foods to the rest of the world – as fast and as aggressively as possible. But the European backlash against GM crops has thrown a span-ner in the works. It took both the US administration and the GM industry by surprise. Then came the uncertainty over StarLink, which rattled US commodity markets. Japan, the single biggest buyer of American corn, has stopped shipments of Bt corn for the first quarter of 2001. Thailand has refused to grow GM rice, for fear that it would be unable to export it. Greece and Brazil talk about designating entire regions GM-free. Tasmania is proposing to use its quarantine laws to ban GM foods. As the anti-GM fires spread across the globe, they threaten the future of American bio-agriculture.

This explains the US concern about EU plans to label GM foods. James Murphy, an assistant US trade representative, made his country’s position absolutely clear: the EU labelling system would kill exports of GM crops to Europe. “We are losing trade; already we have been shut out of the corn market,” he told us. To stop GM foods from being labelled, the US is ready to go to the World Trade Organisation. A full-blown trade war cannot be ruled out.

But the US objects not just to the labelling of GM foods, but also to the labelling of other foods as GM-free. Part of the argument is that it is extremely difficult to guarantee that a food is 100 per cent GM-free in a country where all processed food contains some GM maize or soya. But this is largely a manufactured problem. Or, to use the words of one State Department official, the US engages in some deliberately “advantageous commingling”. It is quite feasible to separate GM crops from non-GM crops, as DuPont has shown. It grows non-GM crops on selected farms and provides a guarantee that the whole process can be traced from seed to final product. DuPont wants this food clearly labelled as “non-GM”.

The GM debate has moved so far from the American position that it is beginning to generate a mild panic. One can see it in the faces of industry representatives such as the American Soybean Association members we met in St Louis. Their aim is to distance GM foods from environmental and safety issues, and to link them to two trump cards: third world hunger and medicinal benefits.

The claim that GM agro-technology is intended to feed the hungry is undoubtedly the greatest hypocrisy of all. Hunger in the developing world has nothing to do with how food is grown and everything to do with how it is distributed. Both China and India have suffered major famines at times when they also had food surpluses. Hunger and famine are caused, as the literature on the subject testifies, by inequality and unjust economic structures. It is the denial of what Amartya Sen calls the “entitlements” of the poor – such as access to markets and ownership of land – that is the root cause of hunger. In times of famine, only the poor starve, whatever kinds of crops are being developed or grown.

Indeed, GM crops are likely to increase, rather than decrease, hunger. Many of the crops that Monsanto wants to “improve” in Africa are cash crops, grown solely to earn foreign exchange. Such crops sustain and reinforce distorted patterns of ownership. The poor are pushed on to marginal land where they cannot grow economically viable crops and where even subsistence food crops give meagre returns. So the only people who can benefit from GM crops are likely to be the already advantaged.

In the third world, GM developments follow the classic patterns of dependency. A new technology, presented as a saviour, is imposed with the full co-operation of the World Bank. Developing countries have to buy everything from the suppliers – the seeds, the fertilisers, the technology, the expertise, the consultancies. Dependency increases, along with poverty and hunger. It is a well-established equation. When things go disastrously wrong – as they often do – everyone jumps ship, taking the profits with them, and leaving the poor countries to fend for themselves.

It was instructive to learn that nobody involved in selling GM foods, from Monsanto to the FDA, tries to claim that GM foods at present provide benefits for consumers: they are not cheaper, safer or healthier. But eyes and rhetoric are fixed on the next generation of GM products: bananas that vaccinate, apples that enlarge breasts, potato crisps that fight cancer, milkshakes that cure obesity. Rice fortified with vitamins, soybean oils with the taste and health benefits of olive oil, corn stripped of artery-clogging fats and spiked with extra nutrients – all these are almost ready to come off the production line. And beyond that, in the third wave, GM crops will replace factories and be used for producing pharmaceuticals and fuels. Where will consumer resistance be then?

For all the talk of science (a word brandished with messianic fervour throughout my US trip), I cannot help reflecting that GM technology really operates on a much older model of human behaviour. The staple foods consumed by people around the globe are the product of long development, stabilised through a process of mutual adaptation stretching over millennia. It all began with some inquisitive human being operating the basic “suck it and see” methodology.

The issue with GM foods is not all that different. Science is no longer about prediction and control: it is increasingly about uncertainty and man-made disasters. The long-term environmental and ecological effects of GM technologies will be discovered only over a long period of time. It is a case of letting the genie out of the bottle. Science proceeds – and has always proceeded – not by abolishing risks, but by applying itself ever more urgently to devising remedies for escaped genies. Only those motivated by ideology or politics will say for certain that GM crops are totally safe and good for you.

So the ultimate question is: is a verdict of “inconclusive”, “low probability”, “not proven” good enough? Because, in all honesty, that’s as good as it gets.