Manipulated soya beans: How can we learn what's in the food we're about to eat?

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When you get five minutes, why not take a look through your kitchen cupboards? Like most discerning consumers, you probably think you make positive choices about what you eat. But do you know that within a couple of years most the processed food you buy will contain genetically modified soya designed to survive spraying with weedkiller?

There are major changes taking place in the way our food is produced. British shoppers have indicated they are suspicious of them. Ministers have expressed similar doubts. Just this week they blocked the planting of these crops in Britain and also declared their intention to tighten up EU procedures for approving them.

Soya goes into 60 per cent of the processed food we eat. Soya flour is used to lengthen shelf-life and improve colour in bread, pizza bases, pastry crusts, biscuits and noodles. Soya oil is used in cooking oil, margarine and spreads. And a third substance, soya lecithin, is used as an emulsifier or stabiliser, and to improve "mouth feel" in products such as mayonnaise and even chocolate.

Although it is just one of a number of modified crops now being developed, soya is the farthest forward. Within the next few years, we will also see modified maize, sugar beet and oilseed rape, among others, produced mainly by half a dozen big biotechnology companies.

Ask Joe Public whether he wants to eat genetically modified food, and the answer will usually be "No", as a number of surveys have shown. But this story is not about what the public wants. It's about what the public is about to get.

Let us look at how modified soya has come to be developed. Monsanto, an agrochemical company based in St Louis, sells a highly successful glyphosate- based weedkiller called Roundup, whose US patent runs out in the year 2,000. But Monsanto must now be confident that its product will continue to sell. Why? Because it has developed a modified bean that can increase farmers' soya yields by 7 per cent if they spray with Roundup. Forty per cent of the world's soya is grown in America, including the vast majority of what Britain imports.

But how can Monsanto be sure that farmers won't just buy the beans and spray them with a cheaper imitation brand? This is where it gets clever. Monsanto licenses its technology to seed producers, who then sell on to farmers. Farmers pay a small fee for the use of the seed and also sign an agreement that says they must spray their crops with branded Roundup. By the time the patent runs out, the British Retail Consortium estimates that 90 per cent of the US crop could be treated in this way. Brilliant.

The men from Monsanto say this is not their motivation. To quote Colin Merritt, the company's UK Technical Manager: "We are moving into a business which is based on seed rather than purely based on chemicals. Many of our other developments are entirely different with just seed and no chemical involved." This new technology actually reduces the amount of chemicals sprayed on crops, Mr Merritt explains. And it is approved by the American Food and Drugs Administration (FDA), the European Union and the British government.

So where's the beef? Why are the environmentalists making such a big fuss?

Despite the regulatory system's approval, there are some very knowledgeable people who feel we do not yet know enough about the possible health risks involved in a range of modified crops. For example Professor Philip James, author of the proposals for the Government's Food Standards Agency and Director of the Rowett Research Institute at the University of Aberdeen, said on a Scottish BBC documentary this month: "The perception that everything is totally straightforward and safe is totally naive." He added: "Once the BSE problem is solved, if is is solved, then I think that the big public concern is going to be about the huge array of genetic manipulations ... and how we tackle that in a proper, responsible way."

And while the FDA is renowned for its tough attitude, it does sometimes approve foods that remain banned in the UK. Crisps made with Olestra, a fat substitute which passes straight through the body but which, it is claimed, can strip the body of essential nutrients and cause stomach cramps or diahorrea, are on sale in the US but not here.

As yet, there is no clear evidence to suggest genetically modified food is generally dangerous to human health. But, as the Consumers' Association argues, the effects will be hard to discern when we are all eating the stuff. Jeff Rooker, the Agriculture Minister, says that if the Government had been elected a year or 18 months earlier it might have demanded segregation of these crops. Now he must hope that government research will show there are no potential health problems.

"If they don't come up with something I for one will not be prepared to give robust answers about it all being safe for ever more," he says.

Then there is the question of environmental impact. What if the beans cross-pollinate with wild plants - possibly wild soya - to create indestructible weeds? Monsanto says its gene cannot transfer in this way, but environmentalists have their doubts.

The battle to bring genetically modified soya to Britain now centres on a PR war, pitting the resources of Monsanto against such organisations as the Consumers' Association, Greenpeace and a group called Wholefoods against Genetix Foods. Monsanto employs a PR firm, Lowe Bell, but you will rarely see the company's name on any publicity material. Its representative can be found in the 1997 phone book under Soya Bean Information Centre. If you phone this centre, you will find its name is now the Plant Biotech Information Centre. And it is based at 59 Russell Square, London: the address of Lowe Bell. Alternatively, the switchboard at Monsanto's headquarters in High Wycombe will put you through there.

Or you might like to get some information from the Food and Drinks Federation's "Food for Our Future" campaign, to which Monsanto says it gives financial support, although the FDF denies this.

What if you still don't like the idea of genetically modified food? This is an issue about consumers' rights, but consumers can only exercise their right to choose what they buy if they are fully informed. And even though the supermarkets plan to label products which contain soya as having genetically modified material in them, they will do so only at the bottom of a list of ingredients, and only when they redesign their packaging.

If ministers are really concerned about this issue, as they say they are, why not insist on tobacco style "health warnings," prominently placed and in large letters? They could say: "Warning: No one really knows what genetically modified food can do to your health."

Then shoppers could make up their own minds about what they want to eat. If Monsanto has won its PR battle for our hearts and minds, we will buy the products regardless. But if it has not, sooner or later they will disappear from our shelves.

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