There has been a great deal of public debate about the commercial
cultivation of genetically modified (GM) crops, the import of GM foods and crops, and the
patenting of genetic resources for food and farming.
As a long-standing member of both Greenpeace
and Friends of the Earth, I understand and share many
concerns about possible adverse effects of the release of GMOs into the environment.
However, I am not, in principle, opposed to genetic engineering.
Advantages of Genetic Engineering
It is not a new technique. In healthcare, we are already enjoying many of the benefits.
For example, human growth hormone has for many years been produced by culturing
genetically modified bacteria. Previously, the hormone was extracted from animal sources
and many people treated with this product contracted CJD. Human proteins produced by
genetically modified sheep are used in the treatment of cystic fibrosis.
The only genetically modified foods that have been passed for consumption in this
country, after rigorous assessment by the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes*,
are the 'flavr savr' tomato, and soya and maize genetically modified with herbicide
resistance. Most of the processed food that contains ingredients from GM soya and maize
does not contain any DNA or modified protein from the original organism. The ingredients
(e.g. lecithin, a fatty acid) are, therefore, compositionally identical to the same
ingredients from non-modified crops.
I support the call for all food containing GMOs to be clearly labelled. It is
interesting that none of the current furore arose when tomato paste from GM tomatoes was
introduced - a product which was clearly labelled. In fact, Sainsbury's told the
Science and Technology Select Committee, of which I was a member, that sales outstripped
the conventional form by two to one because of the price advantage. As in that case,
consumers should be able to make a choice as to whether to eat GM foods, rather than
having them, almost literally, shoved down their throats.
I am of the view that the failure of US regulators to require producers to separate GM
ands non-GM crops (or for them to do so voluntarily) has been a major blunder, and has
been responsible for much of the public mistrust. However, it has not actually been
Monsanto that mixed 'their' GM soya with non-GM crops, but the farmers. Monsanto clearly
label their seeds. What influence they may have exerted on the US Government to make their
path smoother (or so they thought) is another matter!
Though I am not worried about the safety of the very limited range of GM food
available, that does not mean that I have no concerns about the potential harmful effects
on the environment.
Some of my concerns are set out in a
report of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), which advises
Parliament (rather than the Government) on scientific issues. Research is being funded by
the Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council into the release of GMOs, and
information has been collected by the Natural Environment Research Council. I believe that
further independent research, such as that funded by the research
councils, is necessary before the Government should allow commercial growing of GM crops
in this country.
On this issue the Government is advised by an Advisory Committee on Releases into
the Environment (ACRE). Bodies such as English Nature also advise them. Contrary to
the impression that appears to have been created, English Nature has not advised a
general moratorium on GM crops, but that farm-scale trials are essential first. English
Nature called for these limited trials to last at least three years, but the Government ,
in fact, announced three contracts for four year farm-scale trials.
There is justification for a precautionary approach to these developments, and I have
pressed the Government accordingly.
Unfortunately, science cannot offer people what they really want - total certainty.
Scientists are seldom in a position to say 'never', the word the public wants to hear. It
is impossible to prove a negative. Risk assessment is about probabilities, rather than
certainties. The reason I feel so confident about the safety of GM crop products on the
market now is that ingredients derived from GM crops are chemically identical to those
from traditional sources, which, experience tells us, have been used safely for a very
long time. Of course, we know that traditional foods are not always safe. I take a
calculated risk every time I eat cheese made with unpasteurised milk because I see the
advantage of improved taste.
Apart from natural suspicions aroused by lack of crop segregation, another concern with
GM food currently available is that people cannot see any obvious advantages to them.
In 1999 the Government announced that it would set up a Biotechnology Commission.
In my response I urged the Government to ensure transparency and
choice at all levels.
With regard to the patenting of GM crops, I believe that this presents a difficult
dilemma. Without the right to patent, and thus profit from new seed varieties, it is
unlikely that companies will invest in research. As I am not fundamentally opposed in
principle to the existence of GM crops, I am keen to see improvements made to yield and
quality. Without greatly increased Government funding of scientific research, private
development is the only way that this will happen. A briefing
on patenting of biotechnological inventions is available here.
The National Farmers Union estimates that 30% of seed used by cereal farmers in
the UK each year is farm-saved from a previous harvest. Currently, farmers pay the
companies whose seed they re-use royalties, under the Plant Varieties Act 1997. If they do
not wish to pay royalties, they can purchase seed to which no company holds rights.
Protecting the Interests of
There is serious concern that large companies, such as Monsanto, are cornering the seed
market by buying out smaller, local seed producers, thus ensuring that local farmers must
buy their product. The World Development Movement has estimated that around 80% of seed
used by farmers in developing countries is farm-saved, and litigious companies could cause
havoc to small farmers. If this occurs, governments must take action to protect the market
and prevent monopolies from being created. Britain already has such laws in place, as do
most developed countries. However, governments of developing countries must be able to
seek assistance, if they require it, to ensure that adequate legislation is in place.
Monsanto did not modify their soya in order to feed the starving, but that does not
mean that biotechnology could not assist developing countries. This is something that I
raised with Clare Short, in 1999 when she was Secretary of State, during International Development Questions in the House. I particularly
mentioned the importance of ensuring that there is access to information that is
independent of commercial interests, and for Governments to have the necessary powers to
regulate large multinational companies like Monsanto.
The attitude towards the use of biotechnology of those working to improve agricultural
production in developing countries is not completely negative. Articles that appeared in Nature
Vol 402, 18 November 1999, about the benefits which GM crops could bring to Africa, and an
article in the 19 June 1999 edition of Guardian Weekend (page 10) which looked at
the situation in India, are both worth reading.
The Terminator Gene
Science can create beneficial alternatives to the nightmare of multinational
control of food production. There has been much debate about the morality of inserting a
terminator gene to prevent re-use of seed (or using the law to the same end), but one
scientist has come up with an alternative that could benefit poor farmers as well as
encouraging research and development. In an article which appeared in the Financial
Times on 15 June 1999, describes Richard Jeffersons work on trait specific
genetic use restriction technologies, or T-Gurts. This involves genetically engineering
desirable traits into crops, which can only be activated by the application of a certain
chemical. Without that chemical the seeds can be planted and harvested as normal, and will
produce viable seeds for future planting, but without the additional trait. Therefore, the
farmer can choose year on year whether to pay for a particular advantage or to re-use seed
from last years crop.