GENTECH archive


INDEPENDENT May 21 - menu on Genetically manipulated plants

Below are several pieces and an editorial.

INDEPENDENT (London) May 22

PM attacked on GM crops

By Paul Waugh and Stephen Castle

THE GOVERNMENT will try to reassure the public today that genetically
modified food and crops are safe after a day of confusion over its own
policy on the technology.

Ministers will try to regain the initiative after The Independent's report
yesterday that the Chief Scientific Adviser had called for a four-year ban
on the release of GM crops.

Their problems were compounded yesterday when the European Commission
announced a freeze on licences for modified plants after research showing
that GM pollen can kill Monarch butterflies.

Jack Cunningham, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, is expected to
announce a tougher regulatory framework when he presents the results of a
review of GM policy. However, he will leave open the possibility of
"limited" commercial release of crops well before the end of a four-year
programme of farm trials.

The Tories and the Liberal Democrats seized on comments by Sir Robert May,
the Government's most senior scientist, that ministers could not
contemplate agreeing to the commercial release of some crops before 2003
at the earliest. They also attacked the creation of a "spin unit" by Mr
Cunningham to manipulate debate on the issue by "revising" the reports of

Tim Yeo, the shadow Agriculture Secretary, attacked the Government's
"confused and discredited" policy. "We could be suffering irreversible
damage to the British environment because of the Government's
unwillingness to act and the refusal of the Prime Minister to admit that
he's wrong, because of the close connection between this Government and
the American administration and the commercial interests in this field,"
he said.

INDEPENDENT (London) May 22

Brilliant scientist with a penchant for candour

By Paul Waugh Political Correspondent

HE may carry the lofty title of Chief Scientific Adviser to Her Majesty's
Government, but Sir Robert May FRS is far from most people's image of a
genteel, dispassionate civil servant.

A no-nonsense Australian, Sir Bob, as he prefers to be called, is unafraid
of telling both ministers and the media exactly what he thinks.

His letter to the RSPB, in which he suggested that some GM crops may not
be released commercially before 2003, is just the latest example of his
candour on a range of issues.Earlier this year he declared that there was
"not much of a case" for continuing the beef-on-the bone ban, although the
Agriculture Minister, Nick Brown, was committed to keeping it. He also
told the Commons Environmental Audit Select Committee that he had little
doubt that terrorists in Iran and Iraq were plotting to release
genetically engineered viruses on to the West.

On GM crops, the 63-year-old academic has repeatedly stressed that the
Government should be aware of their potential dangers to the environment.

As an keen naturalist and an expert in biodiversity, Sir Robert has said
that he shares the concerns of English Nature and green groups about the
impact of the technology on birds and wild animals as well as plants.

Even so, he has robust views on the issue and memorably told Radio 4's
Today programme: "If you mix cyanide with vermouth in a cocktail and find
that it is not good for you, I don't draw sweeping conclusions that you
should ban all mixed drinks."

Such frankness has characterised a brilliant academic career that spans a
PhD in theoretical physics at Sydney University, a professorship in
biology at Princeton University and a current fellowship at Merton
College, Oxford.

A rigorous mathematician, he has predicted population changes among
animals, insects and viruses and, notwithstanding criticism at the time,
accurately forecast the effects of HIV in Africa.

Appointed Chief Scientific Adviser in 1995, he has also had the honour of
attempting to explain Fermat's Last Theorem to the Queen. "Don't worry,
there won't be a quiz," he told the baffled monarch.

He admits his knighthood is an "extremely useful thing to whack in front
of your name", but is fiercely proud of his achievements, including the
prestigious Crafoord Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Scientists in

Known for his inability to suffer fools gladly, he is keen to educate
ministers as much as the public about science. "I see no harm in people
having a sense of who I am . Actually, it would be quite helpful if some
members of Government found out who I was," he said earlier this year.

INDEPENDENT (London) May 22

The GM genie that will never go back in the bottle

By Steve Connor, Science Editor

It all began in a strawberry patch in California. An American
bio-technology company, Advanced Genetic Sciences, applied for permission
to spray the strawberries with genetically modified bacteria in an
experiment to protect the plants from frost damage. For four years,
environmentalists fought in the courts against the company's proposals
but, on 24 April 1987, they lost the battle and so began the war against
GM crops.

A decade ago, deliberately releasing GM lifeforms into the open
environment caused the sort of furore in America to match the current
outcry in Britain. Another 1987 GM experiment in the US - this time in a
potato patch - was vandalised within a month of it going ahead. Things
suddenly turned ugly between the GM activists in the green movement and
the scientific and commercial establishment.

The row resurfaced on Wednesday in Britain with the leaking of a letter
from the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Robert May, in which
he said he cannot contemplate the commercial growing of GM crops until at
least 2003 - effectively arguing for a moratorium. Yet ministers have
refused to agree to a moratorium, saying that commercial production may
even begin after the first year of farm-scale field trials.

There are less than 200 small experimental plots in Britain - most no
bigger than a suburban lawn - where GM plants are grown. Most of them are
on the land of research institutes or universities and are strictly for
research purposes. Three licences have also been issued for larger,
farm-scale trials where the aim is to assess the full impact of growing GM
crops for commercial purposes. Further licences are expected to be issued
over the next year.

In the US the war against GM crops and food has largely been lost. The US,
China, Canada and Argentina are now the main countries in the world where
GM crops are grown commercially. Between 1996 and 1997, the area of land
in the world planted with commercial GM crops quadrupled from 2.8 million
hectares (6.9 million acres) to 12.8m hectares (31 million acres) -
equivalent to an area the size of England. The battleground has quite
literally shifted to Britain and Europe where environmental activists have
been prepared to go to jail for digging up GM crops and vandalising

The environmentalists are opposed to the release of any GM organism into
the environment on the grounds that the risks are too great and can never
be eliminated. Dr Douglas Parr, scientific campaigner for Greenpeace, said
that it is effectively impossible for scientists to make genetic
engineering safe because the technology is inherently unpredictable.
"Genetic engineering crosses a fundamental threshold in the human
manipulation of the planet, changing the nature of life itself," Dr Parr

Dr Parr's fears were in fact mirrored 10 years ago by the Government's
previous chief scientist, Sir William Stewart, who was a key figure in
Britain's first and, so far, more authorative inquiry into the release of
GM organisms, published in 1989 as a report by Royal Commission on
Environmental Pollution. Sir William, a no-nonsense Scot, said there are
genuine concerns about deliberately releasing into the environment new
lifeforms whose genes are tweaked by the hand of man.

"Unlike chemicals, biological agents can multiply in the environment.
There is therefore a risk that once released it will be impossible to
control them," he said at the time of the Royal Commission's report. Yet
where Sir William and Sir Robert differ from environmental activists such
as Dr Parr, is that they oppose an indefinite moratorium. Indeed a
moratorium was considered and rejected 10 years ago by the Royal
Commission's experts, who thought it would prevent the exploitation of the
"enormous potential" GM crops offer in improving the environment and

Over the past 10 years, the debate has become a political football. The
Prime Minister is keen to be seen promoting the potential benefits of the
new science, encouraged by more scientifically literate MPs and his
scientific advisers. Meanwhile, the Tories have taken every opportunity to
question the safety and usefulness of new foods and crops, detecting that
the Government is vulnerable to public opposition on GM.

Scientists argue GM food offers new ways of alleviating hunger and
disease. A type of rice engineered with genes for iron enrichment could
alleviate the suffering of thousands of children in South-east Asia;cheap
vaccines for the developing countries could result from work on bananas
engineered with the vaccinia virus; and crops resistant to pests might
provide a way of boosting food production worldwide.

Supporters of GM technology argue that virtually every food we eat is the
product of human manipulation of genes by selective breeding.

The Government's Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes said GM
technology could be less risky than conventional breeding because
scientists can define exactly which genes they are manipulating and the
end products have to go through extensive tests.

The monarch butterfly research, however, was the hardest evidence yet to
suggest that the influence of a GM crop may go beyond the actual field in
which it grows. It struck at the heart of the debate over GM crops because
it showed that pollen is capable transmitting toxic effects to endangered

INDEPENDENT (London) May 22

Deborah Orr - The world hangs on a butterfly

Chaos theory, the branch of mathematics that attempts to make sense of the
unpredictable, may not be quite as fashionable as it once was, but it
still retains its original wide-ranging appeal. The leading role that the
dissemination of chaos theory played in the emergence of popular science
can be put down to one striking, romantic yet sensible-sounding example of
chaos at work that anyone can grasp.

This, of course, is the much-quoted suggestion that the flap of a
butterfly's wings in Australia can be the cause of a thunderstorm in
Bognor. The more recent spread of the knowledge that a change in the
surface temperature of a patch of the Pacific is, year after year, having
a devastating effect on the sale of Gore-Tex trousers in Aviemore - more
commonly bandied around as the El Nino effect - simply adds to the allure
of the butterfly equation.

Which is why it is such bad news for the Government that the latest mooted
casualty of the march of genetically modified crops is the monarch
butterfly, which, laboratory tests have suggested, dies when exposed to
the pollen in maize that contains an insecticide gene to protect the crop
from predators. For while it's now certain that the dying flutter of a
butterfly in the Midwest of the United States is responsible for a media
storm all over Britain, it's an unbelievable clanger for the Government to
release a statement attempting to downplay the findings that state that
"this type of maize will not be grown in the UK and the monarch butterfly
is not native to the UK".

This indeed points to chaos, in so far as it suggests that the Government
does not even begin to understand what really lies at the heart of the
public's hostility to GM food. The more lurid headlines have centred on
the possibility of severe implications for human health, with silly
phrases such as "mutant" and "third ear" setting the pace. In response,
the Government has attempted to allay the public's fears by treating us
merely as consumers who, when all genetically modified ingredients have
been prominently labelled, will be able to steer clear of anything we
don't personally want to digest. But many of our fears are in fact much
broader than this scaremongering, and instead are concerned with messing
around with ecosystems when we can't possibly predict the consequences of
doing so.

All the Government's latest statements do is further polarise a rather
hysterical debate notable for the reluctance of all concerned to consider
the sort of compromise out of which this Government has attempted to build
an entire political ideology. For while sensible folks are chary of
headlines whipping up "Frankenstein food" scare stories, they are also
unconvinced by blanket denials of the possibility of ecosystems being
adversely affected by GM crops. While extremists are asking for a complete
ban on genetically modified crops, most people simply wish for more
research to be carried out, a precaution which squanders nothing on the
planet except the entirely human constructs that we call time and money.

So it follows that what the Government is worried about more than anything
else is time and money, which are rather poor priorities when the already
dangerously compromised future of the planet may be at stake. (Although it
should not be forgotten that there's every possibility that GM crops could
fix the planet, rather than hasten its destruction.)

The time element is all about keeping the initiative, and maintaining
Britain's position as a world leader in genetic modification science. This
all stems from Labour's admirable wish to reverse Britain's awful record
of failing to invest in technological advances, then watching other
countries reap the benefits. But it's one thing to learn from history, and
another to decide that since caution has been a problem in the past,
caution must be avoided in the future. For while it's true that recent
British research and development history is littered with embarrassing
missed opportunities, anyone can see that there's a difference between
inventing the computer and then abandoning it to be exploited abroad, and
inventing the destruction of the food chain and then jumping straight in
to make sure that we get all the credit for such a literally world-beating

Anyway, it is not out of sheer caution that Britain has failed to
capitalise on the creativity of its inventors. Instead, the problem has
been an unwillingness to make speculative investments in the research and
development of new products. In other words, if the primary lesson of the
past has been anything, it has been that that research and development
funding is too hard to come by. So it's particularly annoying that the
Government seems so firmly against spending more money on research and
development in this case, and so firmly in favour of steaming straight on
to the humungous profit stage in the development of GM foods.

Again, this is a new mistake that has come about as a consequence of the
over-reaction against old mistakes. While New Labour is right to seek a
more proactive relationship with business, it is important that any
government should, when necessary, offer an alternative value system to
that which puts profit first. For while no one believes that
multinationals are keen to get on the GM bandwagon so that they can
eradicate world hunger, New Labour is behaving as though it really
believes that all of this is to do with the good of mankind, rather than
just shareholding mankind.

It's also annoying that the eco-warrior stance on all of this has been to
harass those who might be willing to lend their land for research and
development. This strategy is counterproductive, because it is crucial
that we should know more about this technology. There are plenty of
technologies that we might wish had never been discovered and developments
we might wish had never happened, but the old genies and bottles rule
applies here as much as anywhere. Any direct action that threatens to make
the acquisition of knowledge about genetically modified food more
difficult simply encourages the present climate of confusion, ignorance
and fear.

The very fact that for months now Dr Arpad Pusztai's research into the
damage to the health of laboratory rats fed on a diet of genetically
modified potatoes has come round and round and round, to be refuted again
and again and again, simply emphasises the astonishing paucity of research
into this area. Even a complete lay-person can see that this new
laboratory research into monarchs, conducted by Cornell University, is a
step forward from Pusztai's.

For while rats don't universally chomp potatoes around the world, the
monarch caterpillar does exist purely on milkweed, which does grow in or
near cornfields, and therefore is likely to become dusted with the pollen
from modified corn. But this is not necessarily an ecological disaster.
For while the monarch is already an endangered species, it, like other
creatures, may yet prove to be more at risk from the pesticides that it is
hoped GM crops will reduce, and from the increase in meadowland that GM
crops may precipitate because of the higher yields they offer. Again, the
only way of finding this out is to carry on researching.

Cautious progress on genetically modified crops, and generous investment
in research, can teach us an enormous amount about the subject and its
implications, and, like any wide-ranging research programme, it is likely
to involve all kinds of other useful discoveries along the way. Let's hope
that this time the far-flung flutter of a butterfly's wing induces not
chaos but calm.

INDEPENDENT (London) May 22


Scientists sow the seeds of doubt over GM crops

At the height of pre-election fever, Labour's media maestro Peter
Mandelson shouted across the campaign war room: "Get me a bishop!" He
urgently needed an independent moral authority to condemn the Conservative
portrayal of the then leader of the opposition, Tony Blair, as having
"demon eyes". The Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries, obliged by issuing a
statement deploring the use of satanic imagery in political advertising.

The same level of professionalism is now being applied to the rather more
serious business of Government policy in relation to genetic engineering.
A leaked memo from a meeting of ministers last week revealed their anxiety
to find an "independent" scientist who could appear on the Today programme
to support the Government line.

But Jack Cunningham's spin strategy has been knocked off course by the
disclosure in this newspaper yesterday that the independent scientist
whose job it is to advise the Government agrees with its critics. Sir
Robert May, the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser, told the Royal
Society for the Protection of Birds that genetically modified (GM) crops
should not be approved for commercial use until at least 2003.

In fact, Sir Robert's comments (despite his panicky attempts to back-pedal
yesterday) illustrate the dangers to the Government of attempting to
conduct an important scientific debate as if it were an election campaign.
Sir Robert's letter suggested that the common ground between the
Government and the environmentalists is greater than the impression given
by both sides. Amid the confusion of a consumer scare over genetically
modified food, "green" lobbies have called for a moratorium on the
licensing of GM crops. The Prime Minister has refused, insisting that
decisions about whether crops can be grown commercially should be "based
on science". He is right to do so: an arbitrary time limit on the approval
of GM crops cannot be justified - crops should be approved when the
balance of scientific opinion is that they are safe. But there is no
prospect of this being established satisfactorily before the end of the
first set of trials in the UK in four years' time.

Let us emphasise again the difference between GM food and GM crops. The
evidence is that GM soya and tomatoes are safe to eat. There must be some
small risk of unknowable effects, which is why GM food should be labelled
as such and the consumer allowed to choose. The risk of growing GM crops
is quite different, and has no direct impact on human health. The threat
is to the fragile balance of ecosystems in the countryside. Soya farmers
in America are able to use more toxic chemicals on their land because
crops have been designed to be resistant to weed-killers and pesticides.
This was not the brave new world once sold by the glamorous pioneers of
the biotechnology industry; they promised new plants that would be
designed to be resistant to pests, and would therefore mean that farmers
could use fewer chemicals. But even this greener and more benign use of
genetic technology has its costs: "pests", too, are a valuable part of the
ecosystem. Yesterday, we reported that GM maize in America, genetically
engineered to produce a natural toxin to protect it from insects, poses a
threat to the monarch butterfly. In that sense, we do not need the
controlled trials in this country; what is happening in America is a giant
experiment in the effects of GM crops on the environment.

Biotechnology holds out the prospect of huge benefits to humankind,
especially in the field of medicine, but the doubts are growing about
using it simply to intensify industrialised agriculture still further. The
Government should recognise that a policy that is genuinely "based on
science" would be cautious about licensing any GM crops for many years


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