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Genetic Modification -- the Debate Continues

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- Jack Shamash, Horticulture Week, January 15, 2010
Until a few months ago, it seemed that genetically modified (GM) foods were a complete no-go area for growers. The media regularly described GM as "Frankenstein foods", the public hated it and the big retailers and even restaurants were forced to announce publicly that they would not stock any GM vegetables.

In recent months, there has been a shift. Academics, government bodies and even industry figures have started to suggest that GM is a way forward and that it could ensure that we have food security and access to new varieties that can cope with climate change. There is now a distinct possibility that the future could be genetically modified.

Last week, the Government's chief scientist Professor John Beddington gave growers and farmers at this year's Oxford Farming Conference a clear indication that Britain must embrace the technology, warning them that it is no longer possible to rely on improving crop yields through traditional methods.

"Techniques and technologies from many disciplines, ranging from biotechnology and engineering to newer fields such as nanotechnology, will be needed," he says.

A report by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) published in November examined the public attitude towards GM food and, unsurprisingly, found it to be overwhelmingly negative. However, the report showed that many people feel they don't know enough to make hard judgements. It also suggested that negative views to GM were linked to negative views about science as a whole.

The study found that when people were given wider information on GM, their negative views were likely to soften. The pro-GM lobby has taken this to mean there is a good chance that the public might change its mind about GM.

At present, large amounts of maize, cotton and soya have been genetically modified. However, very little work has been done on minor crops. Researchers are now suggesting that this should change.

Agricultural Biotechnology Council chairman Dr Julian Little points out that two trillion meals containing GM foods have been eaten without any obvious harm to consumers. He welcomes the FSA report: "It is encouraging to see that consumer attitudes have become more positive or stayed constant."

Other specialists have also struck a positive note. Professor Jerry Cross at East Malling Research argues that GM technology should not be dismissed out of hand. "It needs to be looked at very carefully. It could help to produce better strains of fruit and reduce our reliance on pesticides," he says.

There are two basic types of genetic modification — cisgenesis and transgenesis. Transgenesis involves importing genetic material from completely different species — such as putting mouse DNA into a tomato. This is highly controversial and often disturbing to the public.

Cross has deep reservations about this technique but is more interested in cis-genesis, where traits are imported from related species. "We could find apples that are resistant to scab and import their DNA into less hardy dessert apples. We'd end up with a better apple," he argues.

He points out that work to transplant resistant DNA into Gala apples is currently being done in Switzerland. Cross suggests that the same result could be achieved with conventional breeding techniques but would take many years. He adds that this sort of technology might be needed because of more stringent rules on pesticide use.

GM has been boosted by Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board chief scientist Professor Ian Crute. He describes GM as "one of the most sensible forms of technology" and says it would be an "important weapon in the armoury". He adds that genetic modification could help reduce the amount of pesticide being used. "Essentially, it's a green thing to do," he maintains.

Crute envisages a wide range of applications. "Work is currently being done on blight-resistant potatoes. Tomatoes can be given resistance to bacteria. There is an enormous amount of work being done on GM oil seed rape. Since this is a Brassica, the technology could be transferred relatively easily to cabbages and broccoli," he says.

He adds that the Chinese are starting work on GM brassicas — primarily pak choi and choi sum. The technology would help to combat club root. He also notes that work on GM carrots and onions is being considered in China and India.

Crute believes that with a less costly regulatory regime, GM could be accepted in this country, and suggests that GM could make good economic sense. Ten years ago it would have cost millions of dollars simply to sequence a gene — the first step required before you can even think about using it. Now the price is down to thousands of dollars.

Probably the biggest barrier to GM is public confidence. There are fears that modified genetic material could spread to the wider population of plants. This could result in, for example, the country being faced with vast populations of weeds that could not be killed with weedkiller.

There are also fears about the role of the multinational companies. The big furore about GM in this country started after it was realised that Monsanto was breeding plants that could not be killed with its own weedkiller, Roundup. Monsanto was perceived as trying to dominate the market for seed and weedkiller simultaneously.

Crute suggests that such fears are groundless. He points out that GM technology is cheap enough for many rival products to be introduced, preventing one company from having a monopoly. He also argues that GM pollen would be unlikely to spread more than a kilometre away from areas where the crops would be planted. This would prevent the uncontrolled spread of the new species.

However, growers are more cautious about a GM future. A recent American survey showed that GM seed has shot up in price over the past nine years. In the 25 years from 1975 to 2000, soy bean seed rose in price by only 63%. Since 2000 — in the period when GM seed dominated the market — seed rose in price by 230%.

For many producers, this has raised concerns that the multinational seed companies are able to force up prices and can take an excessive chunk of the growers' profits. The survey, by the US Organic Center, also showed that rather than reduce the amount of pesticide used on crops, the introduction of GM has actually increased it.

Brassica Growers Association Chairman Philip Effingham is also concerned about the growing power of the multinationals. "In the short term, GM might force down the cost of production. As a result, growers would have to buy GM seed," he says. However, the growers would not be able to hold onto their profits. "The shareholders of these multinationals want double-digit growth. They are in a position to manipulate the market. The grower will simply lose control of the end price."

Effingham argues that attempts to regulate the multinationals would be ineffective. "A harsher regulatory regime would simply put the smaller biological control companies out of business." He suggests the industry should try to be as "natural as possible" and win the respect of the public. "GM is not the answer," he adds.

British Carrot Growers Association chairman Martin Evans believes that GM could have potential benefits - increasing yields and producing a healthier product. However, he warns that it would be a huge struggle to win public confidence. "The closer you get to the market place, the more reluctance there is to introduce GM," he says.

As for apples, there is a similar story. English Apples & Pears chief executive Adrian Barlow says there are some possible benefits. He thinks it might be possible to produce apples with a better shape or colour or with greater regularity of appearance. It might also be possible to get rid of common pests such as scab and mildew.

Barlow is not worried about the multinationals. He says the large variety apples makes it unlikely that one grower could ever get a stranglehold on the industry. However, he sounds a note of caution: "Apples are considered to be very healthy. Nobody would want to undermine that perception".

Some growers are even more negative. British Tomato Growers Association executive officer Gerry Hayman believes that tomato growers have little to gain and much to lose from GM. "We're not interested in herbicide resistance because we grow a crop out of the earth. We're not interested in a long shelf life because that results in a very tough and tasteless fruit."

He adds: "Some people have claimed that a GM tomato could have more vitamins, but many of the claims that we have seen on this subject simply don't stand up. In PR terms, GM would be a disaster."

There is undoubtedly more interest in GM than at any time over the past few years. However, whether the GM lobby will get its way is debatable. The Soil Association recently launched a counter-attack, insisting that if any GM foods are sold in this country, they should be clearly labelled as GM and this should be enforceable by law.

This is the sort of proposal that is likely to give supermarket managers sleepless nights. If the public puts its foot down and boycotts GM, it will be impossible for British supermarkets or growers to take the GM route.