The war over GM is back, even as ministers go
2.Minister who infuriated Muslims is put in charge of immigration policy
NOTE: There may be less loud-mouthed outbursts now that the pro-GM UK Government ministers, Lord Rooker (item 1) and Phil Woolas (item 2), have been sacked or moved sideways, but don't expect New Labour to be any less pro-GM. (item 1)
It's hard though not to feel sympathy for the moslems who now have to deal with Phil Woolas and what they rightly term his 'insensitive, inappropriate outbursts... He is a Minister clearly out of his depth.' (item 2)
1.The war over GM is back. Is the truth any clearer?
The Observer, October 5 2008
Genetically modified foods were sidelined in Britain 10 years ago amid a furious assault on 'Frankenstein foods'. Now climate change and world hunger have placed them back on the agenda. The ferocious debate is again splitting the science, political and environmental communities. But, asks Observer food expert Jay Rayner, what's the real truth about GM?
Last week's big food story was one of haves and have nots. The haves include Tesco, which announced half-year profits of GBP1.5bn on the back of rising global food prices and booming sales of organics. The shelves are full and business is brisk. The have nots were the benighted populations of Ethiopia and Somalia in the Horn of Africa, which, the UN warns, is heading into the worst famine in generations. The one thing these two stories share is a negative: British supermarkets and large slabs of Africa are both entirely free of genetically modified foods.
According to the government's former chief scientist, Sir David King, these narratives are completely intertwined.
In a recent speech to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, King accused the British middle classes of putting lives at risk in the developing world through their food choices. 'The problem is,' he said, 'the Western world's move toward organic farming - a lifestyle choice - and against agricultural technology and GM in particular, has been adopted across Africa ... with devastating consequences.'
It was proof of just how divisive the debate over the genetic modification of our crops has become. On the one side are the biotech companies and their supporters in the scientific community who believe GM has the potential to reduce the cost of food, increase yields and bring into cultivation land that might otherwise have remained barren, thus helping to feed the growing number of the world's hungry. On the other side are the environmentalists, who predict that a vicious toll will be paid in what these new, under-regulated foods will do to our bodies and to the planet.
On Friday the opponents of GM felt they had something to celebrate as news of the government reshuffle broke. Two weeks before, at a Labour conference fringe meeting, food and farming minister Jeff Rooker was laying into the anti-GM crowd for wallowing in 'ignorance', and being on a 'messianic mission' to kill the technology. 'It is like a religion, but there is no science base to it.' Now suddenly Rooker was out, not just from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs - itself to be divided up - but from the entire government.
If his critics took Rooker's departure as an excuse to pop the corks on a few bottles of organic, bio-dynamic champagne, they would have been premature. Because the news that Hillary Benn was to head the new food and environment ministry, hived off from Defra, was proof that the Brown government's increasingly noisy pursuit of a pro-GM agenda was to continue. After all, Benn has hardly been a friend of those who have been calling for an end to all GM experiments. 'We need to see if they have a contribution to make,' he told another conference fringe meeting, 'and we won't know the answer about their environmental impacts unless we run controlled experiments. It's important we go with the science.'
To veteran Defra watchers, both Rooker's and Benn's comments looked like a rebuke to one of their own advisers.
Defra's chief science officer, Professor Bob Watson, is also director of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, a global study of current farming practices and their ability to alleviate world hunger. Its final report was published in April and its conclusions on GM were not positive. There was still too much uncertainty on 'benefits and harms' and a distinct 'lack of transparent communication'.
Again, for campaigners against GM the report was a major victory. The claims by biotech companies that GM could be a panacea for world hunger appeared to have been blown out of the water by the largest panel of international experts ever assembled. The sense that the debate was going their way was only added to over the summer, when Prince Charles accused the biotech companies of 'conducting a gigantic experiment with nature and the whole of humanity which had gone seriously wrong'.
But then came the fightback. Both the environment minister, Phil Woolas, and science minister, Ian Pearson, made public statements demanding a debate on the virtues of GM foods. For a long time, it had seemed the debate on GM in Europe was essentially over. No new product has been passed for cultivation by the EU for 10 years: suddenly, though, it was game on.
As the arguments raged, The Observer invited readers to have their say. We received hundreds of responses. There were a lot of predictable contributions from supporters of Friends of the Earth or Greenpeace, but there were also many from the academic community. Still, if anybody had expected the discussion to break down along equally predictable lines, with environmentalists on one side and scientists on the other, they were mistaken. The experts were manning the barricades on both sides.
As Benn must be all too aware, the debate over GM has become all encompassing. It is about politics and the law, the role of big business and the relationship between rich and poor. But it's also about the science, for in this field almost nobody can agree on anything. And in the middle is the consumer, desperately trying to make the right choices.
Dr Michael Antoniou was one of those scientists who contacted The Observer. As head of the Nuclear Biology Group at Guy's Hospital, and a one-time member of the government's advisory group on GM foods, he knows a lot about genetic modification. 'In our research into therapies for diseases such as multiple sclerosis and cystic fibrosis, we work with genetically modified organisms all the time.' It is because of that experience that he believes GM foods are potentially very dangerous.
The problem, he argues, is the unintended consequences of genetic modification. 'It's a highly mutagenic process,' he says. 'It can cause changes in the genome that are not expected.' So far, biotech companies such as Monsanto have brought to market only four crops - maize, soya, oil seed rape and cotton - with a limited set of modifications, like pest or herbicide resistance, so weeds can be eradicated without damaging the plants. 'These crops that have come along seem to be doing what they claimed they would be doing,' he says. 'The question is what else has been done to the structure of that plant? You might inadvertently generate toxic effects.'
The answer, surely, is that the regulatory regime is there to catch these things. No, Antoniou says, because it is not based on detailed genetic studies or even animal feeding tests. It is based on the doctrine of 'substantial equivalence', in which the original plant and its GM version are compared and, if found to be similar, passed as suitable for cultivation. It is, he argues, like comparing a conventional and nuclear weapon of the same yield and deciding they are substantially equivalent because of their explosive power.
The most obvious response is to point out that in America, where more than 90 per cent of all soya is now GM, people have been eating the stuff for years, with no adverse effects. 'That,' he responds, 'is only because nobody is looking at what the effects might be.' In short, he considers GM a risk because nobody knows what it might be doing. Later he sends me complex academic papers on unintended consequences in GM crops. They do appear to establish mutations along the genome, but, again, the researchers cannot say for sure what the consequences of those mutations might be.
Vivian Moses is sure he knows. A visiting professor of biotechnology at King's College London, and a member of CropGen, a pro-GM lobby group, he is experienced in arguing over the science. 'It's simply not true that there are mutations all over the genome,' he says. 'There was a paper published recently which looked at this. They found that the changes were specifically where the researchers intended them to be.'
In any case, Moses says, resistance to GM is not merely about the science, but about perceptions of the science. He points out that in the late Nineties, GM and non-GM tomato purées were stocked side by side in British supermarkets for two years, and sold in similar amounts. 'The consumer saw the product and they were not put off.' Then the newspapers started filling up with headlines about 'Frankenstein foods', and the market collapsed.
He rages against the culture of what he calls 'catastrophism and protest. There is a cultural problem that some people have. If they don't understand it they bash it.' It does seem that the anti-GM side can be prone to misunderstandings or exaggerations. For example, one briefing paper by the Soil Association referring to the same research papers on unintended consequences in the genome sent to me by Antoniou takes an unproved thesis - that unexpected mutations might cause toxic reactions - and turns it into fact. 'This,' it declares, with impressive assurance, 'explains why GMOs have been associated with allergic reactions.' When it doesn't explain anything of the sort.
Likewise, in the late 1980s an outbreak in the US of the auto-immune illness Eosinophilia-Myalgia syndrome was associated with a GM version of a protein food supplement called tryptophan. The episode resulted in deaths and injuries, and is held up as the definitive example of the damage GMOs can do, despite the fact that the scientific consensus insists the genetic modification had nothing to do with it. And yet anti-GM campaigners point to it as proof while also occasionally inflating the number of deaths from the generally accepted 37 to 'around 100'.
Most importantly, Moses says, what the oppositionists fail to recognise, indeed refuse to recognise, is that the process of genetic modification in our food crops is hardly unique. Here he is referring to the little discussed mutagenesis breeding programme that took place in the early years of the 20th century. 'Around 80 years ago researchers began to irradiate seeds and treat them with carcinogenic chemicals in the expectation they would cause mutations, some of which might be useful.' Many of these experiments produced seedlings which were useless, but a significant number were successful. 'About 70 per cent of our current crop plants have such an event in their history. Organic farmers use them by the bucket load and nobody bats an eyelid.'
Mutagenesis breeding was haphazard. By contrast, GM processes are, he claims, very precise. He also points out that conventional plant breeding is more than capable of producing a toxic plant, like a potato with a deadly cargo of glycoalkaoids. The difference is that conventionally created plants don't need to undergo any kind of testing regime, whereas GM foods do. But isn't that testing regimen - substantial equivalence - lacking in rigour? 'The industry provides the evidence that satisfies the regulators. But biotech companies are not responsible for chasing up every wacky idea thrown its way by the anti-GM lot.'
Moses can't hide his irritation with the anti-GM lobby; in his office at Oxford University's newly opened Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, the government's former chief scientist, Sir David King, comes across merely as frustrated. His whole argument, he says, is informed by his role as the EU adviser on African development. 'We're not starving in this country. We're not short of food. So when I suggest you should try GM tomatoes, the response is "why should I take the slightest risk?". It's a very different story in Africa.' He accepts that a lot of the anti-GM sentiment was caused by the bio-tech companies themselves. 'Monsanto marketed the products very vigorously in a way that had worked in the US, but here it caused great resistance and anti-American sentiment.' One of their innovations was to genetically modify a crop so it couldn't reproduce the next year, forcing farmers to restock with seed. 'And they called that the terminator gene. How stupid is that?'
It's certainly the case that Monsanto's practices - vigorously pursuing farmers suspected of illegally planting their seeds without paying royalties through the courts, creating seed 'technology packages' that force farms into a dependence on the company - has engendered a deep mistrust. Many do not like the notion of a multinational corporation owning plant life through patents, a move that only became possible through a change in US patent law in 1980. But that, King says, should not blind people to the benefits. Britain was leading the world in this technology for many years, but a lack of consumer interest has driven companies out of the biotech business. 'The GM campaigners have won a great victory, but the cost to the economy has been enormous.'
More importantly, he says, it risks stifling future developments. A regular battleground for both sides is whether GM foods can solve the problem of hunger that affects 850 million people. Anti-GM campaigners point out that there is no evidence GM crops improve yields. They are right; they don't, and there have even been examples of certain crops reducing yields.
However, the reality is that none of the GM crops on the market has actually been designed to increase yields. They have been designed to reduce costs by being pest-resistant or requiring less herbicide. Higher yield crops or those that may be drought- or salt-resistant are only now being developed. 'Saying GM research should stop because it hasn't worked yet is a little like saying we haven't yet developed a malaria vaccine, so let's stop working on it. If I were a betting man, I would put serious money on the companies developing these products,' says King.
Unsurprisingly, this is not an argument that holds much sway with Greenpeace. 'If these products escape and get a foothold in the environment, there's no way of containing them,' says Doug Parr, chief science officer for the organisation. 'With the environment you could even create the problem simply by testing them.'
Hence a campaign of direct action, to rip up test fields, the most recent of which took place in Yorkshire this summer, when a field of potatoes genetically modified to cope with a form of pest was destroyed by persons unknown.
The environmental concerns certainly deserve consideration, even if, as with so many of the arguments, they remain unproved. The notion that a pest- or herbicide-resistant crop could cross-pollinate with a weed, creating an unstoppable super-weed, remains - for the most part - theoretical. More troubling is the way some GM crops can become so popular they result in a monoculture, as happened with GM soya in Argentina from the late Nineties onwards. 'What it comes down to is, what are the risks we are running through the propagation of GM crops?' says Parr. 'Are they significantly different to those with other crops? I say yes they are.'
Why does he think there has been a sudden upsurge in voices speaking out in favour of GM? 'It's very simple. The biotech companies want to have another go at cracking Europe.' After all, if they get Europe onside, not only do they land all those consumers; they also neuter most of the non-governmental organisations and charities that have affected the debate in Africa, where GM foods have been almost completely rejected.
Sources in the government say there hasn't been a change in policy, that Tony Blair always saw the benefits and that this view has continued into Gordon Brown's premiership. The only change has been the resignation as science minister in 2006 of Lord Sainsbury who, because of his connections with the supermarket that carried his name, chose not to talk about GM foods at all.
So the silence is over and the debate rages. But will it have any impact? Perhaps the answer lies back in the Pankhurst Room at Manchester's Radisson Hotel. After Jeff Rooker had spoken up in favour of GM, the other panellists were invited to weigh in, including Andrew Opie of the British Retail Consortium. 'We don't sell GM because no one wants it,' Opie said, simply. 'There is no demand for GM products in this country. When I am challenged by people on this, I say, "If you think there is such a demand for GM, open a store".'
Don't expect to see a rash of GM-friendly supermarkets opening up in Britain any day soon.
What our readers think
Some weeks ago, in preparation for this feature, Jay Rayner posted online and asked you, our readers, to point him in the direction of good research on genetically modified foods. You replied in your hundreds. Almost every single research paper he consulted came via this request, as did three of the four main interviewees in the piece.
Food blog: tell us what you think
2.Minister who infuriated Muslims is put in charge of immigration policy
By Glen Owen and Brendan Carlin
Daily Mail, 4 October 2008
Controversy: Labour's Phil Woolas has infuriated the Muslim community
Muslim groups expressed anger last night after a Labour politician who has been at the centre of a series of race controversies was made Immigration Minister.
Phil Woolas, previously an Environment Minister, was handed the brief despite infuriating the Pakistani community earlier this year by warning they were fuelling birth defects by inter-marrying.
He also caused anger following the Oldham race riots by calling for 'the reality of anti-white racism' to be acknowledged.
Last night, the Muslim Public Affairs Committee condemned his appointment. A spokesman said: 'Phil Woolas has a track record of insensitive, inappropriate outbursts that have verged on Islamophobia.
'He is a Minister clearly out of his depth. We will monitor his work for any more signs of his all too obvious antipathy towards British Muslims.'
His appointment was part of a raft of junior ministerial changes announced by Gordon Brown yesterday, including rewards for MPs who led the famous 'curry-house' plot against Tony Blair...