Genesis of Eden

Genesis Home

Let's Keep the Genie in its Bottle Sue Mayer New Scientist 30 Nov 96

Environmentalists are back at the barricades, blockading ports to stop the import of genetically engineered crops. Their actions should come as no surprise. The regulations covering genetically engineered products are woefully out of touch with peoples concerns. Monsantos herbicide-resistant soys bean is the first target but protests are sure to continue. The problem is that the government interprets European regulations to exclude or discount most of the things people worry about. No one is happy with them, neither a regulators, environmentalists or industry. All requests to the European Union for consent to market genetically modified orgaiiisiiis have been disputed by one of the member states. Recently Britain objected to Ciba-Geigy's proposal to import genetically manipulated corn because it contains a resistance gene to the commonly used antibiotic, ampicillin (This Week, 4 May, p 7). Britain says that problems with bacterial resistance could increase if the corn is used and so a ban on its import is possible. The US claims that the corn is safe and a trade war looms of Europe decides to exclude it. A decision is due in December after a tussle of two and a half years. But even when Europe has taken a decision it does not have public confidence. The EU says Monsanto's genetically engineered herbicide-resistant soya bean is safe, is identical to the traditional soya bean and does not need segregation or labelling. Yet Greenpeace activists blocaded shipments of beans at Ghent and Antwerp. Environmentalists protest that the beans mean more herbicide use, genetic pollution and threats to health. Consumer organisations say at least people should have the choice So why is there stich a mess? The problem stems from the way boundaries are set and judgements are made. lt is only the physical characteristics of the GMO that are taken into account in the EU's risk assessment. The underlying assumption, especially in Britain and France, is that genetic engineering in agrictiltlire is a positive step and that any influences on agricultural practices (such as more herbicide use) is not part of the risk evaluation of the GMO. Northern European countries, such as Denmark, take a broader view of the risks and include effects on agricultural land and practices in evaluationg GMOs.

Britain considers Ciba-Geigys genetically engineered corn as a real risk, because of the horizontal gene transfer between plants and bacteria If the corn were processed before use, Britain's objection would vanish, though other countries environmental concerns would remain. Regulators say Monsanto's soya bean is safe because it is 'substantially equivalewnt' to nautral soya bean. Substantial equivalence is an OECD concept used to decide if things are sufficiently different to raise concerns over safety or labelling. It compares the chemical composition of novel foods with their natural counterparts, for example. But the soya bean has unquestionably been genetically engineered, contains foreign genes and produces a novel protein. Unexpected food allergies can not be ruled out. This t together with the likelihood of increased herbicide use and perpetuation of intensive t agriculture has led environmentalists to a different conclusion. Genetically engineered soya bean is not the same as traditional soya bean. Laboratory tests of "substantial equivalence" do not pick up what may prove to be the most critical differences. They would not pick up the difference between a free-range and a battery egg and would not have identified problems of feeding sheep protein to cattle which led to the outbreak of BSE in Britain. And it does not stop there. Battery hens have a miserable life. Using antibiotics in feed has created antibiotic resistant bacteria. Large-scale processing has led to contamination with Salmonella and disease in humans. These are the effects of the systems used in intensive egg production and their interactions with the environment. They cannot be predicted in the lab but have tangible impacts in the real world. The beef industry and the genetic engineering enterprise inhabit the same world. As long as the genetic engineering regulations and the concepts they rely on do not encompass peoples' concems, they will not gain public confidence. The Etj's regulations covering release of GMOs were intended to be precautionary. But rather than taking on board the human desire to value and protect the environment for ftiture generations, the way in which regulations have developed has been too technical in nature and has not responded to the shortcomings in science-based risk assessment. So the environmentalists' blockades against genetically engineered products will remain while the regulators remain bemused, not recognising their value judgements and commitments in the decisions that they take. They argue that the market place will determine need and benefit then cut off opportunities for choice. It's a recipe for conflict.

Sue Mayer was director of science at Greenpeace UK She is now a freelance consultant on environmental science and policy issues.