Focus: It's hard to swallow

With the suppression of a disturbing report into genetically modified food, concern is growing over its side-effects
Earlier this summer the biotechnology giant Monsanto ran an advertising campaign to persuade Britons that its plans for introducing genetically- modified (GM) crops would benefit us all. Before the campaign started, 44 per cent opposed the idea of food with genetically-modified ingredients. After it, and with pounds 1m spent, 51 per cent opposed the idea.

As successes go, that was not one of Monsanto's greatest. But it was in keeping with the problems that the company, and the technology, of GM foods and crops have faced when the public has encountered them over the past two years. The odd thing is that as opposition to GM produce has risen, so the amount we consume has risen. Nor have we begun to tap the potential benefits of this technology. Some 15 crop plants provide 90 per cent of the world's food energy. To match population growth food production will have to grow by between 1.4 and 1.6 per cent annually.

Speaking in May at the World Farming Congress, Graham Blight of the International Federation of Agricultural Producers, said: "People must realise that these GM [plants] are going to be part and parcel of agricultural production. There's something like $18bn (pounds 11.25bn) worth of crops grown now in the world from genetically engineered products."

Indeed, if you buy biscuits, bread, pastry crusts, noodles, cooking oil, margarine, mayonnaise and chocolate, you will have bought some of the results of biotechnology. Soya goes into 60 per cent of the processed food we eat. It was the arrival of the GM soya bean in 1996 which led us here - a point where people are left less keen on a technology after a calm advertising campaign than before.

The soya beans, developed by Monsanto, contain genes that carry the code for a protein which the plants then secrete. It is this that gives them resistance to a herbicide called Roundup (also a Monsanto product). Spray Roundup on to a field full of plants, with just a few GM soya plants in it, and a few weeks later you'll easily be able to tell which they are: they'll be the ones still standing. The weeds, and any other plants without the Roundup resistance genes, will be dead. The crop yield is 7 per cent higher than by normal methods. That's fine as far as it goes. But the commercial use of such plants raises issues because the soya is harvested to provide the ingredients for all those staple foods you see on the shelves.

FIRST, will farmers use herbicide less carefully, knowing that they can dose an area, confident that the crops they want - soya - will survive? Second, could those genes pass into wild plants such as weeds, to create "superweeds" that can resist herbicides? And third, is it safe for people to eat the extra proteins generated from the Roundup resistance genes?

The answer to the first is that yes, farmers will prefer an easy solution. That has led groups like English Nature to worry that insects which live on weeds will actually die, and in turn the birds which depend on the insects.

This is one of the most important aspects of the introduction of GM crops to Britain, where a delicate ecosystem depends on groups of species living in closely-spaced habitats. Hedgerows and crop fields give Britain's agriculture its special character.

In evidence to MPs in the House of Commons in the summer, Tim Galvin of the US Department of Agriculture admitted that the two countries' ecologies are very different, and that the effects of growing of a GM crop might also be very different. Just how different is now a matter for wider debate.

On the second question, there is a real worry that "superweeds" could be created. Scientists have discovered wild weeds interbreeding with commercial ones, and there is a real possibility that the genes could pass over. That will create an "arms race", whereby companies try to produce new herbicides and GM crops resistant to them while evolution selects the weeds that can survive. Evolution will win, as it always does.

But the answer to the key question that people are most worked up about - whether it is safe - is: almost certainly. Repeated tests show that during processing of the soya, the proteins tend to become degraded into their constituent amino acids. The human gut doesn't discriminate between amino acids (which it uses to build up new tissue); it simply absorbs them as required. Proteins are more complex; some are poisonous. But not, it is thought, the Roundup resistance ones; that was settled by testing long before the commercial release.

The strange thing is that everyone has become much more concerned about that last issue than the previous two. The most likely reason is the BSE crisis. Consumers were told that a new disease in cows would have no effect on humans, only for us to learn that the opposite was the case; that what you ate years ago might kill you - with no chance of treatment or cure - years from now. Thus in Europe we are less prepared to trust those who tell us that a novel technology in our food will make no difference. Mr Galvin told MPs: "In the US, fortunately, consumers have great faith in the US Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. That's probably why our consumers don't express any concern about biotechnology."

But he did admit that retailers there do not have to label such foods, so American consumers have no inkling when they are eating food with GM components. And biotechnology companies which make GM crops don't advertise that fact.

The truth is that American consumers care less about the source of their food than Europeans do. Visit a supermarket in the US, and the huge size of the tomatoes is stunning, as is their lack of flavour. Thus the introduction of the Roundup Ready soya beans at American farms in 1996 didn't cause much of a stir. In the first year the beans constituted only 5 per cent of the total acreage planted.

FARMERS and soya processors decided not to separate the GM soya crop from the standard soya. It would be difficult and increase costs. So the GM soya was lumped in with the rest. That was fine for consumers there, but the US grows 40 per cent of the world's soya, including the majority of that imported by Britain and Europe.

Environmental groups in Europe such as Greenpeace began to murmur. If the soya was shipped to Europe and then used to make food, consumers would be buying products containing genetically modified components. Yet there would be no labelling to indicate that fact. The first protests came with shipments in September 1996. Few people took any notice, but the campaign continued. In 1997 Roundup Ready soya constituted 15 per cent of the US soya acreage. British supermarkets agreed that foods containing soya should say that they "might contain" GM ingredients. The labelling came into force this year.

But it was too late for Monsanto to win the PR war. Because Roundup Ready was its technology, it was seen as the source of this technology, rather than some intransigent US farmers. It failed to see that what people wanted was to be able to choose their food. By not applying any pressure on the farmers, it was seen as being on their side. The advertising campaign simply rubbed that in.

Yet GM crops do offer opportunities to enhance agriculture. In countries where insects and other predators destroy huge proportions of the crop, GM plants and crops could literally save lives. Helped by Monsanto, African scientists have developed a variety of sweet potato which is resistant to a virus that presently kills 80 per cent of standard strains.

Another step forward is the development of plants which make useful products such as vaccines. The Cambridge-based Axis Genetics has developed a transgenic potato which confers resistance to "Delhi Belly". It mimicks a fragment of the bacterium that causes the illness and readies the body's immune system to attack the real thing. Axis is now working on a GM plant which produces a vaccine against hepatitis.

The trouble is nobody is listening to issues like that. By taking the cause unto itself with its advertising campaign, Monsanto drew people's attention to the fact that there was GM food on their shelves. And nobody knows how they are going to persuade people to like something they distrust.