The GM genie that will never go back in the bottle

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The Independent Online
IT ALL began in a strawberry patch in California. An American bio-technology company, Advanced Genetic Sciences, applied for permission to spray the strawberries with genetically modified bacteria in an experiment to protect the plants from frost damage. For four years, environmentalists fought in the courts against the company's proposals but, on 24 April 1987, they lost the battle and so began the war against GM crops.

A decade ago, deliberately releasing GM lifeforms into the open environment caused the sort of furore in America to match the current outcry in Britain. Another 1987 GM experiment in the US - this time in a potato patch - was vandalised within a month of it going ahead. Things suddenly turned ugly between the GM activists in the green movement and the scientific and commercial establishment.

The row resurfaced on Wednesday in Britain with the leaking of a letter from the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Robert May, in which he said he cannot contemplate the commercial growing of GM crops until at least 2003 - effectively arguing for a moratorium. Yet ministers have refused to agree to a moratorium, saying that commercial production may even begin after the first year of farm-scale field trials.

There are less than 200 small experimental plots in Britain - most no bigger than a suburban lawn - where GM plants are grown. Most of them are on the land of research institutes or universities and are strictly for research purposes. Three licences have also been issued for larger, farm-scale trials where the aim is to assess the full impact of growing GM crops for commercial purposes. Further licences are expected to be issued over the next year.

In the US the war against GM crops and food has largely been lost. The US, China, Canada and Argentina are now the main countries in the world where GM crops are grown commercially. Between 1996 and 1997, the area of land in the world planted with commercial GM crops quadrupled from 2.8 million hectares (6.9 million acres) to 12.8m hectares (31 million acres) - equivalent to an area the size of England. The battleground has quite literally shifted to Britain and Europe where environmental activists have been prepared to go to jail for digging up GM crops and vandalising experiments.

The environmentalists are opposed to the release of any GM organism into the environment on the grounds that the risks are too great and can never be eliminated. Dr Douglas Parr, scientific campaigner for Greenpeace, said that it is effectively impossible for scientists to make genetic engineering safe because the technology is inherently unpredictable. "Genetic engineering crosses a fundamental threshold in the human manipulation of the planet, changing the nature of life itself," Dr Parr said.

Dr Parr's fears were in fact mirrored 10 years ago by the Government's previous chief scientist, Sir William Stewart, who was a key figure in Britain's first and, so far, more authorative inquiry into the release of GM organisms, published in 1989 as a report by Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. Sir William, a no-nonsense Scot, said there are genuine concerns about deliberately releasing into the environment new lifeforms whose genes are tweaked by the hand of man.

"Unlike chemicals, biological agents can multiply in the environment. There is therefore a risk that once released it will be impossible to control them," he said at the time of the Royal Commission's report. Yet where Sir William and Sir Robert differ from environmental activists such as Dr Parr, is that they oppose an indefinite moratorium. Indeed a moratorium was considered and rejected 10 years ago by the Royal Commission's experts, who thought it would prevent the exploitation of the "enormous potential" GM crops offer in improving the environment and health.

Over the past 10 years, the debate has become a political football. The Prime Minister is keen to be seen promoting the potential benefits of the new science, encouraged by more scientifically literate MPs and his scientific advisers. Meanwhile, the Tories have taken every opportunity to question the safety and usefulness of new foods and crops, detecting that the Government is vulnerable to public opposition on GM.

Scientists argue GM food offers new ways of alleviating hunger and disease. A type of rice engineered with genes for iron enrichment could alleviate the suffering of thousands of children in South-east Asia;cheap vaccines for the developing countries could result from work on bananas engineered with the vaccinia virus; and crops resistant to pests might provide a way of boosting food production worldwide.

Supporters of GM technology argue that virtually every food we eat is the product of human manipulation of genes by selective breeding.

The Government's Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes said GM technology could be less risky than conventional breeding because scientists can define exactly which genes they are manipulating and the end products have to go through extensive tests.

The monarch butterfly research, however, was the hardest evidence yet to suggest that the influence of a GM crop may go beyond the actual field in which it grows. It struck at the heart of the debate over GM crops because it showed that pollen is capable transmitting toxic effects to endangered wildlife.

Who Stands For What?


Supports the agreement that has been reached between Scimac and the Government on commercial planting for managed introduction of GM crops, which would not be brought in on an unlimited basis. Won't plant until given OK. "It's unlikely that we would be planting anything commercially before 2001 or 2002."

Michael Meacher: Greenest of ministers. Understood to be willing to agree a moratorium if at all possible. Angered some colleagues by suggesting scientists with links to biotech industry should be barred from government committees on GM issues. "No crop from any of the first- year trials will enter either the human or animal food chain."

Scimac: Represents bodies such as the British Agrochemical Society, the National Farmers' Union and the Society of Plant Breeders. "We support the regulatory process that has to be gone through before any crops can be planted. We have consistently maintained there is no scientific basis for stopping these plants' use."

Tony Blair: Known to be worried about the effects of a ban on UK biotech firms at a time when Americans lead the field. Keen for Government to be seen as acting on sound science. "We are not going to destroy an entire industry," he told Labour MPs in a private meeting. He told the Commons in February: "I do not think it is sensible to impose a moratorium."

English Nature: Advisory body on environment to the Government doesn't want commercial planting to go ahead until field and farm-scale trials have been done and research evaluated. Does not think US has done environmental research.

Jack Cunningham:

A PhD in Chemistry makes the Cabinet Office Minister one of the few scientists in the Government. Even more gung-ho about GM crops than the Prime Minister, he frequently refers to the thousands of jobs at risk if a GM moratorium is imposed. "GM crops have grown for 19 years in North America with almost no effects on biodiversity," he said last month.

Friends of the Earth:

Opposed to commercial development of GM crops for at least five years, because it will take that long to complete research. "It depends on who owns it and what's grown. This is an economic and political question because it's technology owned by a particular group of companies with particular commercial interests."

RSPB: Becoming more concerned. "We don't think there should be any commercial planting of GM crops in the UK until we have gone through rigorous environmental testing and shown them to have no significant deleterious effects on the environment. That could take at least four years."