3 March 2002

The seeds of discord

Genetically modified crops are now interbreeding to produce a chemically resistant super-weed, reports Zac Goldsmith

Two years ago, you would have been hard-pressed to find a single scientist willing to express doubts about the safety or usefulness of genetic engineering. That would have been career suicide and the few scientists who stepped out of line were swiftly punished. More than a handful lost their jobs.

Up in arms: protesters pull up GM crops last year, but the ecologist Zac Goldsmith warns that the industry may be winning the battle

Not so today. Complacency has given way to caution, even panic, that the establishment may have got it all wrong. No longer can the industry guarantee that the modified genes won't cross the species barrier - they have, as studies show. No longer can it pretend GM crops can be contained in their fields. They can't. Research in Canada and Mexico, as well as in the UK, has shown that genes travel miles from their sites.

Very carefully, organisations such as English Nature and even the Royal Society are revising their positions. The former announced last month that unintended breeding between different GM varieties is leading to super-weeds that could dominate agricultural systems and require a new generation of toxic chemicals to deal with them. The Royal Society, previously one of the biggest voices in favour of GM, has warned of "unpredicted harmful changes" to food ingredients as a result of genetic manipulation and suggests the British regulatory system would be unlikely to detect problems in time. And the Government's Commission on the Future of Farming advised ministers last month to "respect" public fears on GM crops.

Sound advice. For if they are wrong and the sceptical British housewife has been right all along, then the fall-out could be vast. A few years ago, reports were circulated that the US Environmental Protection Agency had given a German company approval to begin testing a genetically modified soil bacterium at Oregon State University.

Designed to break down waste vegetation and produce ethanol as a by-product, it was a tremendous success. But when students added the processed waste to normal, living soil and planted seeds, there were unexpected results. The seeds sprouted, but immediately died. The GM bacterium had out-competed soil fungi, essential to plant growth, and rendered the soil effectively dead.

Worse, the students discovered that the bacterium could survive and replicate. According to David Suzuki, Canada's pre-eminent geneticist: "The genetically engineered Klebsiella could have ended all plant life on this continent. The implications of this single case are nothing short of terrifying."

Had the Oregon students not done their research properly, the bacterium would have been approved for commercial use, with unthinkable consequences.

At its height two years ago, the consumer backlash against genetic engineering seemed unstoppable.

Monsanto's share price plummeted by 40 per cent, many of our supermarkets and retailers vowed to remove GM-contaminated products from their shelves and even McDonald's announced that its fries would be GM-free. The governments of Thailand, Sri Lanka and, rumour has it, some eastern European countries are all toying with outright bans. Others such as China and Japan are strengthening their regulatory controls on GM, despite threats of legal action from the US.

The industry withdrew its tentacles and the consumer army retreated. But far from accepting defeat, the industry went underground and is stronger than ever. How this has happened defies belief.

When Monsanto's massive advertising offensive spectacularly collapsed two years ago, it was forced to rethink. Today, the industry's strategy is more sinister and involves placing friendly scientists on international, and supposedly independent, scientific committees. In a leaked report, stamped "company confidential", one company boasts of its success at influencing the composition of UN food-safety committees.

In fact, it needn't have worried. Today's politicians are virtual ambassadors for the industry. Before the last US presidential election, Monsanto assured its shareholders that, regardless of the victor, they could be sure of a friend in the White House. And the enthusiastic Tony Blair has maintained two conflicting positions on the issue: one for industry and one for the worried consumer. Earlier this year, the Canadian Royal Society warned that "the public interest in a regulatory system is significantly compromised when that openness is negotiated away in exchange for supportive relationships with the industries being regulated".

But tax subsidies and political access aside, the plan has become more insidious. Don Westfall, of the biotech consultancy Promar International, summed it up: "The hope of the industry is that over time the market is so flooded [with GM] that there's nothing you can do about it, you just sort of surrender."

This certainly seems to be New Labour's strategy. When, just over a year ago, Advanta Seeds mistakenly distributed GM-contaminated oilseed rape to British farmers, it quickly alerted the Government. It was more than a month before the Government reacted, by which time the seeds had been planted on 11,500 acres.

Even then, despite laws forbidding the commercial cultivation of GM oilseed rape in the UK, the Government initially resisted demands that the crops be destroyed. Today, Britain hosts more than 100 GM test sites, most of which are for crops that are resistant to pesticides and designed therefore to increase, not decrease, the use of chemicals in agriculture.

Ambiguous though Mr Blair has been on the issue, he has been clear on one point. "It's important," he said, "that we proceed according to the facts and the science."

Well, what's he waiting for? Mainstream science has spoken and, unlike Dr Arpad Pusztai, the award-winning geneticist who was sacked from the Rowett Institute in Aberdeen after revealing nasty truths about his own GM research, the Royal Society and English Nature cannot be deleted. Nor can consumers.

There is a feeling today that we don't have to heed nature's laws. For the first time in human history, our relationship with nature is based not on learning to adapt to her many ways, but on adapting her many ways to our short-term requirements. It is a game we can only lose, for there is no surer indication that a civilisation is in decline than when it loses the power to discriminate between good and bad change.

Zac Goldsmith is the editor of 'The Ecologist'