The great engineered British breakfast

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The traditional English breakfast has become the latest product of genetic engineering. The food pictured in the fry-up above has been influenced in some way by developing techniques for stitching genes from one organism to another.

The breakthough for genetic engineering occurred in the early 1970s, when scientists dis- covered how to move the hereditary material, DNA, from one micro-organism into another, unrelated, one. It was one of the most significant breakthroughs in science because it meant that one lifeform could be given an ability or property quite foreign to its nature.

From the early days, scientists were aware that there were unknown, but potentially grave, dangers in what they were doing. Micro-organisms - bacteria and viruses - are, after all, the types of life which do mankind most harm, causing lethal and debilitating diseases.

The possibility existed that one with alien genes in its DNA could make some breakthrough in its ability to harm people. Geneticists were naturally concerned because, working in their laboratories to create the new lifeforms, they would be first in the firing line.

But after much debate, they mostly persuaded themselves that the new techniques could be used safely, and a host of research and development companies sprang up in developed countries, especially the United States.

Now, in the Nineties, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are starting to come to market in ways which touch all of our lives - yet most of us know very little about them. To date, there has been only one product on the shelves of a couple of British supermarket chains - cans of tomato puree made from a GMO tomato and sold by Safeway and Sainsbury's. It contains genes which allow the tomato to ripen on the vine, which makes it cheaper to process. Savings are passed on to shoppers in a lower price.

But all that is about to change, because the British Government and the European Union has licensed the use, in food, of genetically modified soya beans. The first consignment from the US, the world's great soya bean grower, arrived in Liverpool at the end of last week.

Greenpeace attempted to prevent the cargo ship carrying it from unloading, but its activists who clambered on to cranes and stayed up them overnight were eventually arrested and charged with aggravated trespass.

Soya, a protein-packed vegetable, is found in about 60 per cent of processed foods - oils, spreads, cakes and biscuits, snacks, frozen deserts and even ham and bacon. Soya extract is put in the brine injected into the meats, which makes them draw in water and increase in bulk.

Its arrival presented a problem for supermarket chains - several of which had promised customers that GMO products would be labelled as such. For one thing, such labels would suddenly appear like a rash. For another, soya beans which have now crossed the Atlantic are a mixture. The bulk of them are conventional. But 2 per cent are genetically modified.

The exporters argued that it would be impracticable to keep the modified beans separate. But it put the supermarkets and the firms which manufacture their food in a ``like-it-or-lump-it'' position, with no option to ask for GMO-free soya beans.

In Britain, the food industry has chosen to lump it, but in Germany - where concern about the issue runs high - Unilever has promised it will not use GMO soya.