GENTECH archive


Brit.OBSERVER Report on genetically manipulated food

Observer (London)
Sunday, February 14, 1999

Doubts about GM food are tainting our dinner tables with fear. Science
Editor Robin McKie asks how a once tasty concept turned so sour?

It was supposed to be the food of tomorrow: a genetically engineered
ambrosia to feed Earth's hordes next century. But it has turned into a
political nightmare.

Last week unprecedentedly ferocious criticism fell upon the heads of those
responsible for making genetically modified (GM) foods in Britain - an
onslaught so fierce it is hard to see how their products can survive

Far from being nutritional saviours, GM foods now look like the pariahs of
the European food industry.

But how did this PR calamity occur? How could such a wonder-food fail so
spectacularly in the eyes of the public? The answers have much to do with
misunderstanding the public's fear of science and failing to realise that
consumers become suspicious and vulnerable to fear when they are starved
of choice.

In particular, people worry that (GM) crops are dangerous to eat, that
they threaten the environment, and that they will allow a few big
pharmaceutical companies to monopolise agriculture.

In the first instance, there was little to upset consumers until the
Pusztai affair erupted last year. Dr Arpad Pusztai, of Aberdeen's Rowett
Research Institute, claimed that rats fed on GM food suffered immune

An external investigation subsequently criticised his experimental
procedures. He retired, and the matter seemed closed - until last week,
when a group of scientists (none of whom, it must be said, were noted
genetic engineers) signed a letter condemning Pusztai's employers for
mistreating him.

They claimed that his studies revealed possible dangers in genetic
engineering techniques. That is crucial. The group claims to have found a
danger so far unrecognised.

Pusztai was working with lectins - a group of chemicals which include
poisons found in some varieties of beans. He fed potatoes - some injected
with lectins and some modified to make their own - to rats, and they
suffered atrophy in various organs, including their livers.

The results caused a furore and the external inquiry was set up. Pusztai's
results were blamed on the simple fact that he was working with lectins,
which, it was argued, were the real cause of the atrophy.

But follow-up studies by one of Pusztai's colleagues, Dr Stanley Ewen of
Aberdeen University, suggests that these reassurances are misplaced. More
damage was done when the pototoes were modified than when they had simply
been spiked with lectins: in other words, there was something in the
process of genetic modification that was causing damage. 'We think we were
showing up something that nobody has spotted,' said Ewen.

Neither Pusztai's nor Ewen's research has been published or subjected to
peer review. 'This is the only study ever to claim there is something
damaging about the business of genetic modification, but we cannot
evaluate it because we cannot get access to their data,' said Professor
Ray Baker, head of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research

That was because the Government has not asked for information, the group
retorted. Regardless of who is right, the Aberdeen work was seized upon
last week as a 'food scandal': a lone voice trying to raise a matter of
vital public concern was being silenced. In vain scientists tried to point
out there was no scandal: no food for human consumption was involved.

'This was a safety trial,' said Dr Bernard Dixon of the European
Biotechnology Forum. 'We have them all the time. New antibiotics are
constantly being found to have adverse effects, and as a result are never
marketed. No one suggests the fundamentals of antibiotics manufacture is
suspect, however.'

It was also claimed that Pusztai's work was the first to use GM food in
feeding trials, and that scientists were failing to carry out basic safety
tests: feeding GM food to rats to study the impact.

'But that is exactly what we do do,' said Professor Nigel Poole of Zeneca,
the manufacturers of one of the few modified foods on sale in

When we created puree made out of genetically modified tomatoes, the first
thing we did was to feed it to rats and then study the effects on their
bodies. It is utterly untrue to say we don't do such studies. People are
making up facts as they go along.'

Then there were the pictures of healthy rat stomachs and those damaged
because of GM food. 'Of course, they were damaged,' Poole said. 'They had
been eating lectins, which are poisonous. It's got nothing to do with
genetic modification.'

Unfortunately, the British public - distrustful of official assurances
after the mishandling of the BSE crisis - is in no mood to listen to
scientific 'reason'. Nor is the media. As far as most people are
concerned, Pusztai has been vindicated, all GM products are 'Frankenstein
foods', and there should be a moratorium on the growing of gene crops - as
demanded by the '20 international scientists' who have backed Pusztai.

In making this last claim, the group is, in a sense, wasting its breath.
Given the hysteria unleashed, there is absolutely no chance that modified
crops will be grown commercially in this country for many years - though
some small, experimental trials have begun.

'There is only one application currently in the pipeline - from AgrEvo,
which would like to grow oilseed rape that can resist the use of the
herbicide glufosinate,' said Dr Phil Dale of the John Innes Centre in

'It will take years before they satisfy the regulatory process and pass
safety trials - if the company decides it is worthwhile proceeding, that

This leads us to the public's second major fear: that GM crops fitted with
genes to resist pesticides and herbicides will devastate our countryside.
The insertion of such genes is supposed to benefit the environment by
making it easier to control weeds.

'So far, all studies show modified crops need less chemicals than standard
crops,' Dale said. But many people fear that pollen from these crops will
drift and be picked up by nearby weeds, which will then become resistant
to herbicides. Britain will be invaded by superweeds that will strangle
our fields.

'People forget that only weeds of species that are botanically similar to
a particular crop will pick up its pollen and form a hybrid,' said Dale,
who was one of the Government's advisers on the release of GM organisms.
'In the case of modified oilseed rape, the principal candidate for
commercial planting in this country, there are no weeds with which it can
hybridise in Britain.' Critics of GM foods are unabashed. They point to
the fact that the industry refuses to release data from the trials of
modified crops. The public wants reassurance, and is simply not getting
it. And the Green movement - which has long disliked the intensive
agricultural practices of modern farming - has seized on these fields of
crops, genetically modified in some sinister way, as the battleground it
has been lacking.

This takes us to the third great fear: that one or two GM companies are
attempting to monopolise crop production. In the case of Monsanto, the
world's biggest GM company, they have good grounds for concern. Much of
the present crisis can be blamed on its persistence in exporting mixed
consignments of modified and unmodified soya oil to Europe. Consumers
could not tell the difference. Europe objected and was threatened with a
trade war, and many GM foods appeared unmarked in supermarkets. Two years
later, we are reaping the harvest.

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