The NCBE guide
That was the food that was?
JS tomato purée, 1999JS tomato purée, 1999JS tomato purée, 1999

Introduction

Technology

Issues

Regulations

Case studies

Timeline

Publications

The archive

Links to other sites

Following the recent decision of Bayer CropScience to withdraw its herbicide-tolerant fodder maize, Chardon LL, the soonest we are likely to see commercial cultivation of any GM crop in the UK is 2008. This mini-site examines the history of GM food in the UK.

 

TOMATO FIRST

In February 1996, J. Sainsbury and Safeway Stores in the United Kingdom introduced Europe's first genetically-modified food product. The modified tomatoes were grown in America, but they had been developed in the UK at Nottingham University and at Zeneca Seeds, based in Bracknell. The two retailers did everything you might expect of responsible firms: they labelled the tins very clearly, even though there was no legal obligation at that time for them to do so; they made sure that an alternative non-GM product was always available alongside the modified one; and additional information was available in leaflets in the stores and a telephone help line. Rather than avoiding publicity they encouraged it, in newspaper and magazine articles and in radio interviews. The Consumers' Association applauded this approach and sales of the product were brisk. If there can be said to be a 'right' way of introducing such a product, this came pretty close.

Three years later, almost to the day, everything changed. Friends of the Earth held a press conference at the House of Commons, highlighting the preliminary findings of a small-scale study in which rats had been fed GM potatoes. Arpad Pusztai's research had not at the time been published, and the memorandum presented by his supporters was principally concerned with securing Pusztai's right to publish his findings, and highlighting the apparently heavy-handed way in which he had been treated by his employers.

Pusztai's work had been reported by a 'Panorama' television programme the previous summer but had gained little attention. Now, however, the opponents of GM food swung into action with a carefully-orchestrated campaign whose effectiveness shocked even its organisers. For several weeks in February 1999, each day almost all UK newspapers carried many pages of GM-related articles. TV reports showed maize being dumped at the gates to Downing Street, protesters dressed as animals, scientists munching on tomatoes and the Prime Minister depicted as Frankenstein's monster. This media circus was fuelled by press releases, publicity stunts, claims and counter claims from both sides of an increasingly-polarised debate. The most recent (2002) Eurobarometer survey conducted by the European Commission noted that 1999 was indeed the turning point in Europeans' attitudes to GM food.

 

DIFFICULT CHOICES

Arpad Pusztai's rat-feeding study was eventually published in The Lancet. A Royal Society report in May 1999 criticised the design and conduct of the study and its statistical analysis. Even Pasztai's original supporters had noted the study's apparent shortcomings in their memorandum, and had urged that more research was needed (although they admitted that they had not actually seen Pusztai's work and when, subsequently, it was published and subjected to public scrutiny, several of them distanced themselves from it). To be fair to Pusztai, the study was only preliminary and was never intended to be published. Pusztai, however, has staunchly defended his original work against those who thought it flawed. Others have suggested that Pusztai was the victim of a wide-ranging pro-GM conspiracy.

Whatever the truth of these particular claims, today there is hardly any GM food in European shops, largely because of the success of the anti-GM campaign, triggered (in the UK at least) by the Pusztai work. The tomato purée has gone, and for the last five years there has been an effective moratorium on the introduction of any new products within the European Union. This unofficial ban may shortly be lifted and the choice before us has been portrayed as a stark and simple one: to accept GM food or to reject it. The scientific evidence has been mixed: some GM crops would appear to have an adverse effect on the species diversity; other modified crops may be more benign or even beneficial to the surrounding wildlife. Likewise the public reaction to GM food, although it has remained very negative throughout Europe, may be less polarised than the UK's recent 'GM Nation' debate suggested.

 

INTRINSIC VS EXTRINSIC CONCERNS

Reiss and Straughan, in their study of the science and ethics of genetic engineering, point out that arguments against GM generally fall into two categories: those that regard the technology as fundamentally wrong in principle (i.e., intrinsically wrong); and those that focus on the potential consequences of its application (i.e., its extrinsic properties). Note that similar sorts of reasoning also apply to some who speak in favour of the technology.

With those who object to (or support) GM on principle (e.g., by arguing that the process is morally objectionable (or desirable) there is no debate to be had. Their moral views should be respected and that is that.

For those whose arguments are based on extrinsic concerns, however, the choice is less easy. Essentially they are making a prediction about what might happen if a particular technology is used. The evidence, scientific and non-scientific, is difficult to assess, even for those with a knowledge and understanding of the subject. After considering all the arguments, assuming a person does not decide to reject the technology entirely, what sort of GM crops might they accept, and which ones might be rejected? What regulations and safeguards should be put in place, and how should these be policed? How, if at all, can it be ensured that farmers of all types both here and overseas are not disadvantaged, and that vulnerable ecosystems are protected?

 

THIS WEB SITE

It is with questions above and others in mind that this Web site has been assembled. We have tried to include relevant background information, plus links to numerous stable Web sites and publications presenting all sides of the debate. Where the stance of a particular site or its origin is not immediately apparent, we have attempted to supply these details.

We have tried not to link to Web sites that peddle potentially libellous claims, such as those that scrutinise the financial dealings of environmental campaigning groups or present conspiracy theories centred on government figures or multinational companies. Anyone who is interested in such things will have no difficulty finding them.

Please note that this site is still under construction, and any helpful comments or suggestions would be very welcome.

 

WHO FUNDS THESE PAGES?

The NCBE is part of The University of Reading, and has been in existence since 1984-5. It is not funded by government or industry, but receives funds mainly by charging for the courses it runs for teachers, school students and others, and from the sales of equipment and materials to schools.

We are concerned with promoting biotechnology education, not promoting biotechnology per se. We are not a campaigning organisation and the NCBE takes no particular stance on GM issues (in fact, all the NCBE staff have different opinions on this subject). Understanding the technology, how it is applied and regulated and informed debate about the issues it raises are essential if society as a whole is to benefit from the technology while minimising the adverse effects that many fear may arise.

Copyright © National Centre for Biotechnology Education, 2006 | www.ncbe.reading.ac.uk