Anti GM Foods

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EVENTS AROUND the boardroom table at Monsanto's headquarters in the last couple of weeks must have been extraordinary to behold. Despite its enormous investment in biotechnology the company has been forced to acknowledge that it misjudged public acceptance of GM foods in Europe. Its climbdown on terminator gene technology and its indication of willingness to co-operate with organic farmers is an extraordinary turnaround and a great victory for public opinion over corporate might.

EVENTS AROUND the boardroom table at Monsanto's headquarters in the last couple of weeks must have been extraordinary to behold. Despite its enormous investment in biotechnology the company has been forced to acknowledge that it misjudged public acceptance of GM foods in Europe. Its climbdown on terminator gene technology and its indication of willingness to co-operate with organic farmers is an extraordinary turnaround and a great victory for public opinion over corporate might.

But it could get even worse for Monsanto. Its worst fear must be that scrapping their plans for terminator gene will not be enough and that it is now to late to avert a major reversal of the commercial adoption of genetic engineering in agriculture.

No doubt the biotech giant is hoping that its concession will stem the growing tide of public opposition to genetic engineering in Europe and, as it were, "inoculate" the North American public against the same reaction. But in its heart of hearts I suspect Monsanto already knows that, in the same way that it has lost the battle for public opinion in Europe, it is inevitable that once the American public finds out what is going on, it will have exactly the same reaction.

Much has been said about how Americans have a completely different attitude towards their food to the Europeans. This has been used as a justification for explaining why US citizens have seemed so indifferent to the GM revolution going on in their backyard, but I think there is a different explanation. If one had undertaken a survey of public opinion in the UK as recently as January 1998, less than 5 per cent of the public would have been more than dimly aware of the issues surrounding genetic engineering. Since then a series of events have commanded enormous media attention: the furore over research scientist Arpad Pusztai's work on GM potatoes at the Rowett Institute; the High Court battle of Guy Watson, the South Devon organic grower whose sweetcorn was at risk of pollution from GM maize; and the intervention of the Prince of Wales in the public debate, to name but three. Events have shown that the more we learn, the more worried we become.

Having now spoken at more than 80 public meetings on the theme of genetic engineering, sometimes on my own but equally often outnumbered by representatives of the biotech industry, what has struck me forcibly is that it is exactly the same issues that strike a universal chord of unease with almost everyone as they become better informed. These concerns are now so well known they hardly need restating: the irreversibility of the release of genetically engineered organisms, the unpredictable nature of taking a gene from one species and splicing it into another and the possible risk to human and environmental health, the incompatibility of genetic engineering with the principles of sustainable agriculture, and the denial of choice to the consumer and the farmer. Genetic engineering also seems to me to breach an ethical boundary. At a time when there appear to be no limits to the powers of science to innovate, messing around with the very stuff of life is, for most of us, a step too far.

Two events in the last week are, I believe, indicators that, despite apparently overwhelming odds against success less than two years ago, there is now a real chance that genetic engineering will cease to be used in commercial agriculture globally within the next five years. The first is the clear evidence that GM pollen is being spread up to three miles from GM trial plots by wind and bees. The second is that Arpad Pusztai's research work indicating that young rats fed genetically engineered potatoes may have suffered some ill-effects will be published in The Lancet.

These events press two sensitive buttons for most of the British public. The first offends us as citizens: what right has a biotech company to impose genetic pollution on the wider environment without consulting farmers, consumers or environmentalists before so doing? The second touches us as consumers: we are all very much aware of the links between nutrition and our health. When the scientists who claimed to know everything about the building blocks of life, and exercised that knowledge with a total disregard for those of us who objected, are proved wrong, it is time to put up our hands and say enough is enough. The Monsanto spokeswoman on Radio 4's Today programme (5 October) may be on message in Monsanto terms when she talks about the tremendous opportunities for genetic engineering in agriculture but she has a big problem. Nobody wants to buy her products.

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