GENTECH archive


Genetic manipulation: consciousness-raising at work in UK.

INDEPENDENT (London) May 2
For a change some good news to rejoice about. But there's still lots to do
GM foods - Victory for grass-roots action

Now most of the big names in the food industry are to ban GM products -
but it is thanks to the consumer, not to the Government


It was an extraordinary scene, a fitting start to the week that surely
marks the beginning of the end for genetically modified foods in Britain.
At nine o'clock last Monday morning two of the most powerful men in the
global food industry turned up at a pressure group's door.

Richard Greenhalgh, chairman of Unilever UK, and Michel Ogrizek, the
international head of corporate affairs for the giant multinational - the
world's largest food manufacturing company - came to Greenpeace's offices
in Islington, north London, in what appears to have been a last-ditch
attempt to make peace. But next day the company had to admit defeat,
announcing that it would stop using GM ingredients in its products in

The announcement started a week-long stampede by leading companies, all
household names. The speed and suddenness of the flight from "Frankenstein
foods" has surprised everyone, humiliated the Government and provided the
most spectacular example to date of consumer power. Its repercussions will
reverberate far beyond this country: it could prove a turning point in the
battle over genetic modification worldwide.

Unilever insists that Monday's visit was just "part of a general ongoing
discussion in regard to issues on genetically modified organisms". But
Greenpeace recounts how it received a call from Mr Greenhalgh's office
late the previous Friday, requesting an urgent meeting. It says that the
company was "trying to resist going GM-free".

"Their suggestion was that some sort of full debate or discussion might be
valuable," says Peter Melchett, Greenpeace's executive director. "We said
that things had moved beyond that point."

Up to then Unilever had been one of the most committed proponents of GM
foods - and even in defeat it insisted that its announcement did not
"change our long-held belief in the potential of modern technology,
including the genetic modification of food ingredients." It went on: "This
technology offers huge future benefit to customers, but the realisation of
this depends on winning full consumer trust and confidence."

It's right, at least, about the last part - as it knows only too well. For
the giant company was forced into its reluctant volte-face by an
unprecedented onslaught from its own customers. Bemused executives
describe helplines swamped by worried and angry consumers since early this
year. Worse, sales of its GM soya product, Beanfeast, have slumped
precipitously. Some industry sources calculate they have fallen by 80 per
cent; Unilever privately says it is "nearer 50 per cent". (The company has
now promised to make it GM-free within two months.)

It is not suffering alone. Sainsbury will withdraw its GM tomato puree -
the first genetically modified product to be introduced in Britain - from
its shelves by June. Made from tomatoes modified to rot more slowly, it
used to outsell its GM-free rival by two to one: now, says the company,
"our customers do not want it".

No wonder Unilever's surprise announcement opened the floodgates. The next
day Nestle, another of the world's biggest food companies, announced that
it was phasing out GM products as fast as possible. The day after, Cadbury
followed suit. Meanwhile Tesco, Britain's largest supermarket chain, said
it would remove GM ingredients from its own- brand foods, joining
Sainsbury, Safeway, Asda and Somerfield. And the Co-op will tomorrow
announce changes that will make its products GM free as well.

When these phase-outs are complete, no major supermarket brands will
continue to contain GM ingredients and - after last week's Unilever,
Nestle and Cadbury announcements - many other foods will be free of them
too. It's an extraordinary reversal from the rapid, silent, expansion of
GM foods - from nothing to 60 per cent of the products on supermarket
shelves in less than three years. And it has put environmental activists
into the unfamiliar position of extolling market forces.

Those same forces will spread the effects of last week's events worldwide.
For these enormously wealthy companies (Unilever's turnover alone is more
than #35bn) will now start scouring the world for GM-free soya and maize,
raising their prices and providing a powerful incentive to farmers to
plant them. This could tip the balance in the many countries that have
been facing a close-fought decision on whether to introduce GM crops: some
analysts expect that many farmers will now abandon them even in the United
States, their greatest stronghold.

The speed of the reversal has taken everyone by surprise - even the
pressure groups which campaigned for many months before the issue caught
fire early this year. What made the difference, both they and the industry
say, was press coverage, including the Independent on Sunday's campaign.

And no one has been more surprised by the Government, which is now left -
together with Monsanto and other bioscience companies - as just about the
only supporter of GM foods. Last week's events are a major blow to its
credibility, and to the personal authority of the Prime Minister who went
out of his way, at the height of the controversy earlier this year, to
stress his confidence in them.

This is the Government's greatest failure yet to read the public mood.
Right up until last week - and in some cases even now - senior ministers
were convinced that the GM foods controversy was, as Mr Blair privately
told Labour MPs, just "a flash in the pan". How could an administration
which is usually so successful at catching the tides of public opinion,
have got so out of step?

The answer lies in Mr Blair's similarity to Tony Benn. In the 1960s Mr
Benn embodied the Wilson government's faith that the "white-heat of
technology" was the answer to Britain's economic problems. Mr Blair and
other modernisers, like Peter Mandelson, enthusiastically adopted this Old
Labour belief. They became convinced that the country's future depended on
knowledge-based industries, and equated biotechnology with them.

Thus GM foods became integrated into the Blairite "project": to express
concerns about them was to doubt New Labour. Blinkered by this conviction,
the Government failed to spot the many early signs of impending public
revolt .

It has been a damaging failure, for the episode has crystallised some of
the strongest popular concerns about the Government - that it is arrogant,
overinfluenced by big business and oversubservient to the United States.

Ministers (with one or two honourable exceptions) have haughtily dismissed
concerns about the effects of the crops on health and on the environment,
parroting the reassurances of official scientific committees who have a
majority of members with links to the food and biotechnology industries.
And growing anti-Americanism and hostility to multinational companies has
been stoked by the US decision to mix GM and ordinary soya (so that they
could not be distinguished or separated) before shipping them to Europe;
by Monsanto's heavy-handedness; and by the evangelical zeal with which the
Clinton administration has been pushing GM foods.

But even within the White House there are signs of concern, if not change.
A few days before the Unilever announcement, at the start of an official
lunch in New York, my neighbour - one of the Clinton administration's most
senior environmental policymakers - turned to me and opened the
conversation; "Tell me. How do we get out from under this GM mess?"

INDEPENDENT (London) May 2

Ministers told to study GM food cancer risks


THE COUNTRY'S most senior doctor has told ministers to set up a special
panel to examine whether eating genetically modified food could cause
birth defects, cancer or damage to the human immune system.

In a confidential report to the Government, the Chief Medical Officer and
the Chief Scientific Adviser have recommended that ministers set up a GM
health monitoring unit, similar to the body of experts which discovered a
link between eating beef from BSE infected cows and human CJD.

They believe not enough research has been done to determine whether eating
GM food could cause serious health problems in humans.

The report, seen last month by the ministerial committee on genetic
modification, proposes "the creation of a new unit to monitor the health
effects of GMOs, similar to the unit monitoring CJD". It should examine
"potential health effects" including "foetal abnormalities, new cancers,
and effects on the human immune system".

Professor Liam Donaldson, the Chief Medical Officer, and Sir Robert May,
the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser, concluded that "our
understanding [of the effect of GMOs on human health] is still
developing". While there is no conclusive evidence, their findings will
renew public concern that GM food could lead to unknown health

Scientists, including Dr Michael Antoniou of Guy's Hospital in London,
have warned that genetic engineering could lead to the creation of new
allergies, cancers and other illnesses in human beings because of "the
disruption of our natural genetic order".

"The reasons why we can't be specific about the health consequences of GM
food is that we don't know enough," said Dr Antoniou. "Each genetic
engineering event holds its own dangers. You could have acute toxicity or
something that sneaks up over many years. Any of these things are

INDEPENDENT (London) May 2

GM Foods - Countdown to a consumer victory


7 February

The Independent on Sunday launches its campaign to get a three-year freeze
on developing genetically modified crops, and for all products containing
modified food to be clearly labelled. More than 100 chefs and food writers
back opposition to GM food; thousands of readers back the campaign.

12 February

English Nature warns it cannot recommend safety of GM foods.

13 February

Scientists stage Westminster news conference to demand that the findings
of Dr Arpad Pusztai are reinstated after an international panel of 20
experts endorse his work. He claimed laboratory rats fed with GM potatoes
had suffered damage to their immune systems and vital organs. Blair
rejects demand for moratorium on GM food. Labour's former chief spokesman,
David Hill, and Tony Blair's US pollster and strategist, Stan Greenberg,
are revealed as advisers to GM food giant Monsanto.

15 February

Tony Blair gives personal assurance that GM is safe to eat. Lord
Sainsbury, science minister, revealed as owning a key GM gene that is used
to create most of the GM foods currently on the market, such as soya.

17 February

Royal Society scientists to re-issue report on dangers of GM foods after
ministers ignored it for five months.

20 February

Tony Blair warns that banning GM food would jeopardise Britain's bio-tech
industries. Pressure mounts on Lord Sainsbury.

21 February

IoS/NOP poll shows 59 per cent unhappy with way Government has handled
issue; 68 per cent worried about eating GM food.

25 February

Prime Minister tells Commons there will be no inquiry into Government's
handling of GM foods. Councils to ban GM food from schools, town halls and
old people's homes.

28 February

Advertising Standards Authority criticises Monsanto for its misleading

3 March

Dr Jean Emberlin, director of National Pollen Research Unit at University
College, Worcester, says dangers of contamination by GM pollen may have
been seriously underestimated.

11 March

English Nature scientists warn science and technology select committee
that GM crops pose a severe threat to wildlife and ecosystems.

15 March

Marks & Spencer to remove all GM ingredients. Novartis, world's third
largest drug company, pans "hysteria" over GM. Lord Sainsbury says GM food
poses a risk, but benefits outweigh possible dangers. Ministers meanwhile
confident that they can persuade firms to back voluntary three-year freeze
on GM crops.

18 March

Supermarkets Waitrose and the Co-op promise to make their own brands

19 March

New laws on labelling of foods containing GM products come into force.
Shops and restaurants failing to do so face fines of up to #5,000.

29-30 March

Protests against GM foods held across Britain, including demonstrations at
supermarkets and the ripping-up of oil seed rape plants at farms. Two
protesters cleared of criminal damage to #44,000 worth of crops at a Devon
farm; Crown Prosecution Service says public opinion is one reason for not
pursuing the case.

21 April

Britain's finest restaurants, including the Savoy and the River Cafe,
announce that they will ban all GM products.

27 April

Tesco promises to remove GM foods from its shelves, wherever possible.
Unilever announces a ban on its products.

29 April

Further rules governing the labelling of GM foods so that GM-free products
can be clearly identified are being considered by the Government. Cadbury
Schweppes announces that it is removing all GM ingredients from its