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GMO Debate 

BBC Radio 4 Food Programme 9jun02

GM Food presented by Sheila Dillon 

Sheila Dillon examines the current state of play in the UK regarding the possible commercial exploitation of GM foods in this country, and finds out what the Americans make of our attitudes to what they see as a perfectly safe, cheap modern answer to many of our food problems. 

From a British perspective there is much evidence that the public would like its voice to be heard when it comes to the decision about whether or not we want to grow GM crops here. Weeley, in Essex, is the site of one of the last trial plantings of T25 maize, a trial the villagers didnít want. John Turkie is chair of the local residents' committee and runs the anti GM action group who object to the fact that what they thought was a public consultation with the government and the biotechnology company Aventis was only a public relations exercise at which DEFRA simply explained that the trial planting was safe.

Professor Malcolm Grant is Chairman of the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission set up two years ago by the government to give it strategic advice on GMs. It has issued a set of proposals to the government on how the public might be properly engaged in a public debate, advice which was broadly welcomed by Margaret Beckett last weekend, although whether she accepts the detail of their findings remains to be seen.

But if the government wanted a sneak preview of what the public actually thinks about GMs, it could read a recently published by the European Commission - Public Perceptions of Agricultural Biotechnologies in Europe. It drew its conclusions from focus groups held in Spain, France, Italy, Germany and the UK. Professor Brian Wynne, from Lancaster University, explains some of its findings: people do not have yes/no attitudes to GMs, but more subtle opinions. They accept some risk is inevitable but want to know what the benefits are, and what is the driving force behind the technology - company profit or the good of the world.

Sheila debates these issues with Vivian Moses, visiting professor of biotechnology at Kings College London and also the chairman of Cropgen - an industry funded and independent organisation that makes the case for biotechnology and Mark Griffiths a rural land management consultant and an anti GM campaigner.

Charlotte Smith also reports from the United States, the home of GM technology and finds out why some American people think that the labelling of GM food is unworkable and unnecessary as GM food is ďsubstantially equivalentĒ to non GM food and safe.

The biotech industry's UK champion
Prof. Vivian Moses, getting the verbal equivalent of the Lennox Lewis treatment on BBC Radio 4's 'Food Programme'.

His tormentor?
Mark Griffiths BSc FRICS FAAV - Rural Land Management Consultant and anti-gm campaigner [including work as editor of the nlpwessex genetic engineering bulletin service and web site: www.btinternet.com/~nlpwessex/Documents/gmocarto.htm

Anchorwoman: ÖVivian Moses, visiting prof of biotechnology at Kingís College, London and the chairman of CropGen, an industry-financed and independent organisation that makes the case for biotechnology. How is it independent, if itís paid for by the biotechnology industry?

Moses: Because we make up our minds entirely by ourselves as to what our attitude is with regard to any of these questions and what we will say. We do not speak for industry and the sponsoring companies have no voice whatsoever either in vetoing anything we say or telling us what to say.

Anchorwoman: In our Southampton studio is Mark Griffiths, a rural land management consultant and anti-GM campaigner. Prof Moses, what makes GM foods worth it for us Europeans?

Moses: There is a major benefit even to us in Europe in the reduction in the use of chemicals. Thatís something which is a possibility with many of these new crops. But I think there are wider issues and there is the question of the third world. The third world really does have food problems and theyíre going to grow very severely in the next 50 years or so. If we close our doors to these sorts of foods and refuse to trade with countries and companies that grow these foods in third world countries we will have a ruinous effect on their economies. A third point I might add is that if we as a country duck out of a new and thriving opportunity then we will the abdicating the opportunity that we have in this country to use our skills. There are very serious implications in that, as the Prime Minister hinted.

Anchorwoman: Mark, arenít those benefits very real?

Griffiths: Well, in the case of the debate for the UK, we are currently looking at the possibility of introducing herbicide-resistant crops. Last October the Royal Society of Chemistry produced a paper in its Pesticide Outlook journal which analysed the use of agrochemicals in the US following the introduction of these crops[1], and as far as herbicide-tolerant varieties are concerned, the paper came to the conclusion that herbicide-tolerant varieties had modestly increased herbicide use. When it comes to the issue of the third world, a couple of years ago the FAO produced a report looking at future projections of food demand and food production[2]. This study found that between now and 2030, they expect to see very substantial increases in food production. In fact, many starving people are actually in countries which have food surpluses. Itís not future food production which is the problem, itís actually issues of poverty.

Anchorwoman: Letís just concentrate for a moment on Europe. What are the advantages in food, Thereís a disagreement whether herbicides or pesticides are cut down, but in terms of me going to buy my weekly groceries, what advantage is there in GM technology?

Moses: Well itís very difficult to perceive the future in those terms. Just as 20 or 30 years ago when one used to go to the greengrocer and have to pick among the produce to get the individual fruits which were not mouldy, people werenít thinking of the days when you could go in and see perfect fruit in piles and you didnít have to pick. We didnít think in those terms and we canít think in advance of what itís going to be like. But weíre used to a progressive increase in quality and weíre used also to keeping the price as low as possible. Thatís a very important factor and this is one of the contributing ways in which one can do so.

Anchorwoman: The one place mostly untroubled by these questions is the United States, the home of GM technology. GM foods are everywhere in the States, but theyíve been having difficulties with their export market. The EU has insisted that foods containing more than 1% GM material must be labelled. That made the US government and agribusiness angry. Ö. [material related to this] ... Anchorwoman: Weíve had an odd situation in Britain, weíve had supermarkets, not governments, reading the runes of public opinion and deciding to exclude GM foods from their shelves. Itís a strange way to make policy, isnít it, Vivian?

Moses: Exactly, but they refuse to sell it even if it has labels. They are thereby it seems to me interfering with the choice which is to be made by consumers. I donít think that they have tested the commercial market in this. There was only one product which labelled and clearly on sale some years ago, the tomato paste, and that sold very well, so the commercial evidence such as it is, is that you can sell it.

Anchorwoman: Mark, the House of Lords put out a report recently agreeing with the Americans on labelling, saying non-GM foods should be seen as a niche market. Is that the way to do it, price dictating what people can eat?

Griffiths: Iím surprised that they called non-GM food a niche market because at the moment itís actually the whole of the market, and so to reverse the current majority of the market into a niche, I find a somewhat surprising suggestion. Labelling is certainly very important but whether in the long term we can keep to the current suggested thresholds, I have very considerable doubts about. Once you set off down this route, the contamination is bound to be creeping, is bound to increase, and the danger is that as it increases with time, those who support the technology will say, look, we canít actually keep our food supply to this level of purity and therefore weíve got to reduce the standards. And thatís the real risk, that once we start off down this route, gradually itís going to become a fait accompli.

Anchorwoman: Americans, Vivian, are very confident about the safety. Are they right?

Moses: Itís impossible to prove absolutely that anything is safe because to do so is to imply that you know whatís going to happen tomorrow and of course you donít and canít. One could say that butter, for example, which is normally regarded as a safe food, isnít, because people tell us if you eat too much of it over a long period of time it causes you harm. So I think the comparison is with the conventional variety of the same food and no one has found anything whatsoever.

Anchorwoman: Mark, do you think there is enough evidence for the Americans to be truly confident of the safety of GM foods?

Griffiths: America has one of the weakest regulatory systems in the world regarding GM foods. And there are many other respected bodies that feel that even our own are inadequate or at least the ones in their own countries. If you go onto the European Commissionís website you will find that they have commissioned a study on this whole issue [3] and itís clear from the introduction to the study that they are not sure that the current safety testing protocols are sufficient to identify adverse effects. And what they have said is that when this study is completed, and itís not due to be completed until 2004, then if the results are not satisfactory, "the whole strategy for the safety assessment of novel foods from GM plants will need to be revised." Now, if there is that element of uncertainty at this stage, then I donít see in policy terms or in scientific terms how you can possibly allow any GM foods into the food chain until that issue is resolved.

Anchorwoman: What do you think the situation will be in 5 years time?

Griffiths: I actually believe that weíre going to move on to a more sophisticated, more appropriate, more integrated form of genetics, based on applying gene mapping to conventional plant breeding[4], which clearly eminent voices in the biotechnology industry consider have great potential, including as it happens the head of plant breeding at Monsanto. So I regard genetically engineered technology as an interim technology, I think itís going to become yesterdayís technology, and if we have a good debate we have a reasonable chance of finding the best solutions to creating a viable and sustainable agriculture in the future.

Anchorwoman: Vivian, yes to this technology? [this should read "Vivian, yesterday's technology?", nlpwessex]

Moses: No, I agree partly with what Mark says, that quite clearly GM technology as it now stands or indeed as itís likely to develop over the next few years is not the be-all and end-all and will be part of a suite of methods and techniques which one can use in the furtherance of agriculture. Do I think that this will remain an issue for ever? My guess is that in 20 yearsí time it will be accepted and forgotten. Within 5 years, I canít be sure.

Anchorwoman: Thank you both very much, Vivian Moses of Cropgen and anti-GM campaigner Mark Griffiths.

[1] Pesticide outlook paper - Royal Society of Chemistry http://www.mindfully.org/Pesticide/More-GMOs-Less-Pesticide.htm
[2] FAO report http://www.btinternet.com/~nlpwessex/Documents/faoreport.htm
[3] European Commission safety study http://www.btinternet.com/~nlpwessex/Documents/ECnoconfidence.htm
[4] Marker Assisted Selection http://www.btinternet.com/~nlpwessex/Documents/GMdebatesolution.htm

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