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GM crops: the 'debate' goes on

Twenty years ago, genetic modification was a big issue across Europe. A single large, US-based multinational, Monsanto, had successfully tweaked soy bean plants to be tolerant to its ubiquitous herbicide, Roundup (brand name for glyphosate), found that American farmers were eager to save costs by growing Roundup Ready varieties, and saw no reason why European consumers should have any concerns about GM soy turning up on ingredient lists on supermarket shelves. How wrong they were.

It turned out that consumers needed little prompting to be concerned about potential dangers lurking in their food, however speculative the stories. Greenpeace had a field day and newspapers across the political spectrum carried negative stories. After an attempt to close ranks and calm the public, UK supermarkets were forced to announce they would remove GM ingredients from the shelves over a period of time once one small retailer – Iceland – took the initiative to announce its own ban.

The reasons for the panic were not clear-cut. At its heart was the fact that many people are profoundly ignorant about how their food is produced, most now being distanced from actual farming and buying what they need washed, prepared and pre-packed. It quickly became clear that few people ever read ingredient lists; the fact that soy derivatives appeared in a wide range of goods from bread to chocolate was news, and disturbing news at that. And to learn that scientists had then tinkered with the genes of the soy plant was simply a step to far for many.

This occurred because choice was taken away. In principle, eating any processed food with a soy derivative in it meant consuming ‘frankenfoods’ to use a popular neologism of the time. No matter that many people had happily bought tomato purée made from GM tomatoes and clearly labelled as such, once GM soy derivatives became widespread a promising technology was given the kiss of death for human consumption across Europe.

Consumer surveys at the time showed that respondents were as concerned about, for example, eating an egg laid by a chicken given GM feed as by consuming GM foods themselves. Genetic modification anywhere in the food chain seemed to provide the ‘yuk factor’ that made many people reject it. In Germany, food labelling went a stage further than simply saying a product was free from GM ingredients, the term ‘ohne Gentechnik’ was introduced to guarantee that GM wasn’t used at any stage of production.

Public rejection was fed by false or misleading stories from activists – pictures of tomatoes with fish tails for a transgenic tomato with a gene expressing an anti-freeze protein derived from an Arctic fish, for example – but there was clearly a receptive audience that hardly needed prompting. Surveys confirmed a disturbingly low level of scientific literacy, making almost any claim superficially credible (a high proportion of respondents to one survey believed that only genetically modified foods contained genes, for example).

Since those heady days, things have calmed down considerably. For most people, genetic modification is a non-issue, and certainly one that comes very low on any priority list of concerns about food. Faced with what appears to be a real choice of actual products, most people are able to make an informed decision on a product on its merits rather than what campaigners might say.

But, unfortunately, the rejection of GM food and crops from the 1990s is now deeply embedded in the political systems of many EU member states. One of the plus factors from the UK’s impending leaving of the EU is indeed the returning of decision-making is this and other contentious issues to Westminster and regional assemblies.

Generally far below the radar of most consumers, companies and scientists continue to produce material favourable to genetic modification, while campaigners also publish far-fetched attacks on its safety. That certainly doesn’t mean there is any room for complacency about the possibility of further scares being whipped up; the successful attempt by Penn and Teller to get people to support a ban on dihydrogen monoxide because of its clear links to deaths shows how easily things can happen.

It is with this in mind that organisations such as the Agricultural Biotechnology Council in the UK continue to promote the safe use of GM crops via publications such as Cultivating the Future. In this, a number of experts lay out the challenges of expanding food production and their views on the potential of crop biotechnology. Such support is helpful in light of continuing developments, most recently for example new ‘super yield’ GM wheat trial gets go-ahead.

This report refers to field trials at Rothamsted Research of wheat with boosted photosynthetic potential, something that could be of enormous importance across the world. But critics continue to attack such developments, as they have done for the last two decades. Liz O’Neill of GM Freeze (renamed from the original Five-Year Freeze) is quoted as saying "Techno-fixes like GM wheat suck up public funding that could make a real difference if it was spent on systemic solutions like waste reduction and poverty eradication. Then we could all enjoy food that is produced responsibly, fairly and sustainably."

That is a legitimate point of view, but to some it will seem simply like justification for a visceral rejection of modern agriculture. A small number of activist scientists also provide occasional ‘evidence’ of the dangers of GMOs, most notably the French scientist Gilles-Eric Séralini. It is, of course, not enough to argue that the great majority of scientists believe that properly regulated GM crops are perfectly safe, since science is not a democratic affair, but an objective assessment of the anti-GM arguments shows them to be at best one-sided and at worst deeply flawed.

But the apparent ‘debate’ will continue, not least because campaigners argue that companies and others supporting genetic modification are not ‘independent’, whereas they are. This is a disagreement that cannot be settled by rational argument, but relies on politicians and retailers ignoring unsubstantiated attacks and the media refusing to give credence to scare stories. The BBC has, regrettably, decided not to give airtime to those it considers global warming sceptics, but has failed to take a similar stance on campaigners against modern biotechnology.