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Food and Drink

Food & Drink: Do we have to eat our genes?: We will soon be offered genetically engineered food. Joanna Blythman does not think we should accept it

This summer in Munich, a group representing 40 top German chefs convened to voice opposition to what they consider a serious threat to their traditions and integrity. 'Dinner for Two: biological hazard will be joining you', read the banner they unveiled.

This contained a menu of genetically altered foods: for starters, smoked trout fillets with the gene for human growth hormone and tomato salad with flounder-fish gene; grilled chicken with bovine growth hormone gene and baked potato with scorpion gene for the main course; melon with virus gene for dessert.

This menu was not drawn from a fevered imagination: all these foods have already been developed by genetic engineers in laboratories and tested in the field. When the German equivalents of Nico Ladenis or Raymond Blanc take a stand, people listen. Germans are touchy about genetically engineered foods - so much so that there are none on the German market.

In Norway, genetically engineered foods had their progress checked because they failed to satisfy the government's 'proof of need' criterion: Norwegians, too, seem to think that they can live without them.

There have been similar goings- on in the United States. There, 1,500 chefs (including big names such as Wolfgang Puck) have lent their support to the Pure Food Campaign, which calls for an international boycott of all genetically engineered food, dubbed 'Frankenfoods'. The campaign has made the foodstuffs a major issue, with car stickers and restaurant posters: 'Say no to blackened catfish with trout hormone and cornbread with firefly gene'.

By contrast with the US and Germany, Britain seems to be in a reverie. Already, two genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been approved for use by the Government's Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes. The first is a genetically altered yeast, the second a genetically altered enzyme called chymosin, used as a vegetarian rennet in cheese. Whether bread and cheese made with these GMOs is on sale in our shops is impossible to establish, since the manufacturers are under no obligation to mention in the labelling that GMOs have been used.

But would you buy bread or cheese that carried a label reading 'Produced with the aid of genetic technology'? The Polkinghorne Committee on the Ethics of Genetic Modification and Food Use reported to the Ministry of Agriculture last month that 'food products containing such organisms should be labelled accordingly'; but the Government delayed a decision on implementing the recommendation, partly because of a coming debate in the European Parliament.

On 27 October it will vote on a package of proposals aimed at regulating the production and sale of genetically altered foods in the EC. The proposals, which revolve around tighter safety assessment and obligatory labelling, as well as imposing on manufacturers full civil and criminal liability for any damage caused, are meeting a wall of opposition from the biotechnology industry.

This industry quite correctly assumes that if genetically engineered foods were labelled as such, most shoppers would avoid them like the plague. Advocates of the new foods argue that a label is not necessary because these foods are a non-threatening extension of traditional animal and plant breeding and fermentation methods which have existed for thousands of years.

But this new approach moves genetic material from one living organism to another, irrespective of species barriers. Scientists once bred wheat with wheat and corn with corn to achieve characteristics such as insect resistance; now genes can come from anywhere.

With this freedom, the genetic engineer can introduce human genes into animal ones, fish genes into plant ones and so on. In the near future, 'transgenic' foods may contain genetic material from hundreds of unrelated species of animals, insects, bacteria and plants. It is this sort of thinking that has produced tomatoes with the flounder gene to make them frost-resistant, and high-starch, low-moisture potatoes destined for crisp-making thanks to a gene from intestinal bacteria which allows them to absorb less fat when fried.

In the US alone, there are some 370 field tests under way into genetically engineered foodstuffs. These include virus-resistant cucumbers, potatoes and tomatoes, herbicide-tolerant corn, soybean and tomato, and insect-resistant apples, strawberries and walnuts.

With genetic engineering, it is even possible to manufacture many foods (such as cocoa and palm oil) in a laboratory and replace their natural production entirely. If agricultural biotechnology progresses as its supporters hope, these foods, and more like them, will be on supermarket shelves this decade.

While some industry scientists may be thrilled with the cleverness of it all, many other interest groups have grave reservations. Such new genetic food constructions have never before been part of the human food supply and the long-term consequences for public health are unknown. There is not, as yet, any scientific consensus on how the safety of such new foods for human consumption might be tested.

There is more agreement over the potential risks. Last year, the US Food and Drug Administration identified some of them. These included the introduction of new toxic substances and allergens into the food chain, reduced effectiveness for some antibiotics, and diminished nutritional quality and 'counterfeit freshness' of food.

Ecologists predict big problems for the environment. They argue that genetically engineered foods are the latest 'quick-fix' approach from the corporations that gave us pesticide-dependency and industrial-style agriculture. For them it represents a 'break and enter' approach to farming, where self-regulating natural systems are driven out by new miracle solutions.

Certainly the push for genetically engineered foods is coming from big business. In the US, almost 80 per cent of genetically engineered foods proposed for testing were developed by industry. Five transnational companies - Monsanto, Upjohn, Frito-Lay, Calgene and Pioneer Hi-Bred - account for more than half the products.

It is estimated that of the food products being engineered, about 98 per cent are being altered to facilitate food production and processing; only the residual 2 per cent offers a direct benefit to the consumer in the form of improved nutrition or taste. This is a point that has been emphasised in the report that will be voted on by the European Parliament. 'The objective behind genetic manipulation is not better foodstuffs, but generally quicker, cheaper production in greater volumes,' says Dagmar Roth Behrendt, the German rapporteur to the parliament.

There have been numerous flash points of consumer anxiety about food quality and safety in Britain. The root causes of salmonella in eggs and 'Mad Cow Disease' (BSE) lie in intensive modern production methods. But the arrival of a brave new world of genetically altered foods pushes the risks into an altogether more serious league.

If the European Parliament does not vote for compulsory labelling of genetically engineered foods and those that have used GMOs in their manufacture, transgenic foods may be silently slipped into our food supply without us having the choice. If the biotechnology industry is so convinced that genetic engineering of food is safe, let it say so on the label, and then argue its case with the sceptical consumer.

(Photograph omitted)