Genetically modified food is safe and tasty

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GENETICALLY MODIFIED foods have entered British supermarkets. The outcome has been mixed; some have been accepted without hesitation - for example, the purée made from genetically modified tomatoes. But the flour from genetically modified soya beans has caused a huge amount of controversy, and food manufacturers have now ceased to use this product in the UK, although not in the US.

GENETICALLY MODIFIED foods have entered British supermarkets. The outcome has been mixed; some have been accepted without hesitation - for example, the purée made from genetically modified tomatoes. But the flour from genetically modified soya beans has caused a huge amount of controversy, and food manufacturers have now ceased to use this product in the UK, although not in the US.

Why is this? Is GM soya unsafe, and will these crops damage the environment? What are the risks?

The first two products - tomato paste and "vegetarian cheese" - offered the consumer both advantage and choice. For example, both Safeway and Sainsbury sold 170g of the modified tomato paste at the same price as 142g of the conventional product - because there is so much less loss in transporting the tomatoes from the field to the processing plant, and it tastes better. Not surprisingly, the GM purée outsells the conventional product. In contrast, the flour from the herbicide-resistant soya, from Monsanto in the US, offers no obvious advantage to the consumer, but rather to the producer, and the consumer has not been offered choice.

So although all the evidence - including the fact that 300 million Americans have been eating it for years without mishap - is that GM soya is as safe as normal soya, it offers the consumer no advantage, and the scare stories may just be true. The wish to avoid it is perfectly understandable, but this is interpreted by the Green groups as evidence that a large majority of the British public are against GM. I doubt that is true.

Is this new soya safe? Herbicide-resistant soya was genetically modified by introducing a gene from a soil bacterium to make the plant resistant to the herbicide glyphosate. Before it can be sold in Britain, it needs government approval and ministers take the advice of the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes, which I chaired for nine years. The committee considered this new soya to be as safe as conventional soya.

We do not eat soya beans, but the flour made by grinding the beans. The added gene and the new enzyme are degraded by this treatment, and they will be quickly broken down in the gut.

What about the environment? A number of groups have been concerned about risks. Political pressures have focused on a call for a "moratorium" on the planting of all genetically modified crops, even though this would be illegal under EU rules. English Nature points out that the English countryside is very different from that in North America where farmland and natural land - for example, in their splendid National Parks - are far apart, whereas in England they are cheek by jowl. The Soil Association is concerned with the promotion of organic farming, and wants to prevent contamination by pollen from GM crops, which they regard as unnatural.

My judgement is that GM crops are no more likely to spread their pollen than the crops that we have been growing for years. But if organic farmers want to ensure that the rape that they grow has absolutely no "contamination" at all from GM rape, and if by "no" they mean zero, then we have a difficult problem to solve.

If GM soya is as safe as unmodified soya, and we can control adverse effects on the environment, do consumers want to eat it? Certainly, some do not. Why are consumers so concerned? There have been a number of articles on this. A publication from the Department of Health points out that: "Risks are generally more worrying if perceived: to be involuntary, inequitably distributed, inescapable by taking precautions, to be poorly understood by science, and as subject to contradictory statements from responsible sources". The BSE epidemic has been disastrous for public confidence.

I believe GM foods have become a lightning-rod for many concerns: scepticism about the regulatory process, hostility to high intensity agriculture, and concern about the way the agrifood business has consolidated into about six companies worldwide.

Scientists should listen to consumers and treat their views absolutely seriously. Be open, never promise absolute safety - all we have is no evidence of risk, not evidence of no risk - and resist pressure from politicians and companies to give them convenient answers.

Don't expect to be appreciated!

From a speech by the former head of the advisory committee for novel foods at the Royal Society for the Arts

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