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BioTech History: Genetically modified food: we eat it up, Europeans won't

by By Thomas Kupper , UNION-TRIBUN (reposted by Thursday, Jun. 21, 2001 at 12:22 PM

Biotech comes to the table Genetically modified food: we eat it up, Europeans won't By Thomas Kupper , UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER

Biotech comes to the table

Genetically modified food: we eat it up, Europeans won't

By Thomas Kupper


November 29, 1999

PICCOTS END, England -- For nearly three decades, Bob Fiddaman has waged war on his quiet farm in the British countryside against a nasty weed he calls "cleaver."

Each fall, he would plant his crop and spray almost immediately to guard against infestation. Then he'd go in again after a few weeks with a different weedkiller, and sometimes repeat the process in the springtime before harvest.

It was time-consuming, expensive and tedious -- and failure to knock out the weeds could cut his crop yield in half.

So when he got a chance to experiment on a few of his 1,200 acres with new seeds that allow him to spray once and be done with it, he saw no reason to hesitate. But there was one catch: The seeds were "bioengineered," manipulated genetically to stand up to weedkillers that would annihilate a conventional crop.

And when he planted those seeds this fall, Fiddaman walked into an emotionally charged debate that is raging across Europe over the use of biotechnology in agriculture. It's a common practice in the United States, where much of the food in any grocery store is genetically altered, but many Europeans are aghast.

Any day now, Fiddaman half expects, protesters will descend by the hundreds to destroy his plants.

Already, activists have attacked crops at other farms throughout England, and regular demonstrations in London have prompted grocery stores to banish biotech food from their shelves. New regulations require restaurants to identify any genetically modified -- or GM -- dishes. Most have simply eliminated those dishes outright.

Europe's refusal to accept the crops has created a trade rift with the United States, which is likely to hammer on the issue at World Trade Organization talks that start Tuesday. Hundreds of demonstrators are expected to be in Seattle for the meetings to try to focus Americans' attention on what they see as the evils of biotech crops.

Executives in San Diego, some of whom are leading multimillion-dollar research campaigns, will watch warily to see whether the Europeans back down -- or whether American consumers become the next group to turn against their work.

"It's extremely serious," said Stephen Briggs, head of the Novartis Agricultural Discovery Institute, which is erecting a seven-building campus in La Jolla. "I believe that without some strong opposition to this anti-technology movement, they'll win."

To pro-biotech farmers such as Fiddaman, and to biotech companies in San Diego and around the world, there's nothing wrong with using the latest technology to improve crop production. They believe genetic manipulation of plants could lead to enormous progress in battles against world hunger and environmental problems.

But to opponents, including many other farmers on both sides of the Atlantic, the threats are equally enormous. What happens, they wonder, if the long-term consumption of GM food turns out to be harmful in some unforeseen way? What happens if the manipulated plants cross-breed with standard varieties of crops, and whole species are wiped out?

"There is very little evidence at all about any benefits," said Sarah Burton, campaign director of the environmental group Greenpeace. "The benefits are all on the drawing board. They're putative benefits. They're hypothetical benefits."

The controversy appears to be spreading.

In Japan, a country that imports billion of U.S. agricultural products a year, food processors recently began asking for "GM-free" crops.

Perhaps even more worrisome to American companies, the environmental group Friends of the Earth has kicked off protests at grocery stores across the United States. And the Food and Drug Administration, which could technically restrict GM food if it determined it was harmful, is holding hearings to decide if it should be a more active watchdog over the industry.

Some believe the controversy will go away if products emerge with obvious consumer benefits. For example, some companies in the biotech industry are working on techniques to improve nutrition or add disease-fighting properties to crops. Executives see the backlash as a short-term reaction against something that is strange and new.

"When the cosmic book about ag-biotech is written, these activists will barely get a footnote," said Jerry Caulder, a longtime leader in agricultural biotech in San Diego.

But if farmers are forced to segregate their plots into biotech and nonbiotech sections to satisfy overseas consumers, some might not bother with biotech products at all. And if farmers start avoiding the products, as some already have, the companies and their investors might question the wisdom of spending money on the research.

Who ultimately wins the debate will determine what kind of food we eat. It will also determine the fate of the biotech companies, including several major players in San Diego, that are investing billions in the race to understand plant genetics.

Varied reasons

There is no simple explanation for why Europeans are rejecting food that many Americans eat without a second thought.

The most obvious is that recent food scares have made Europeans more nervous about food. First there was the 1996 episode of mad cow disease in England, when the European Commission banned British beef on the grounds that it might infect people with a possibly fatal cattle ailment. Then this year, scores of Belgians suffered nausea and vomiting from drinking tainted Coca-Cola.

But some believe that Europeans are simply slower to accept change. They see food and agriculture as an important part of their culture and tradition, and they don't like to see corporations on the other side of the ocean messing around with it.

"There's the image of us as Americans as cowboys," said Joe Panetta, a former Mycogen executive who now heads San Diego's BioCom trade group. "They see us as people who love technology and don't care about the risks."

The protests have been effective enough that some countries have begun avoiding American corn and soybeans altogether.

Officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture have said American corn growers are losing 0 million a year in potential sales, and Archer Daniels Midland has said it will pay premium prices for corn and soybeans that aren't genetically modified.

Few objected when GM products first arrived in Europe, though. Zeneca started selling a bioengineered tomato paste in England in 1996, and Monsanto's GM soya has also gone into many processed foods since then, as it has in the United States.

Then, in August 1998, a scientist named Arpad Puztai went on British television and said he had evidence that GM food stunted the growth of rats. Other scientists quickly shot down the findings, but the "Puztai Affair" focused public attention on the issue.

Supermarkets, which had kept British beef on the shelves after the mad cow scare, reacted quickly this time by pulling products off the shelves. That was a big job, as it's not easy to figure out whether some products have GM ingredients.

With commodity crops such as corn and soybeans, there's no way to determine if GM or non-GM shipments went into the end product.

Some stores have taken out newspaper advertisements to tout their elimination of bioengineered products and have put up signs declaring their products GM-free. The response has been so dramatic that some people believe European stores will never again accept genetically engineered products.

"They've gone to so much trouble to get rid of this stuff, they're never going to let it back in," Greenpeace's Burton said. "They're furious at the agricultural biotech companies, and Monsanto is like a curse word."

Rowan Tilly of the group GenetiX Snowball first took to the fields to destroy bioengineered crops on July 4, 1998.

At the time, few British realized bioengineered ingredients were in their food, but groups such as Tilly's have succeeded in drawing attention to the issue.

Tilly says she is prepared to continue the campaign until the last GM seeds are removed from British soil. She's even willing to go to prison, a real possibility if biotech companies decide to prosecute her for violating a court order they obtained to protect their tests.

"I'm not relishing the idea at all," she said. "But again I feel like if that's what it takes, then that's what people have to do."

What is it about genetically engineered crops that provokes such vehement opposition?

The activist groups -- led by global organizations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth -- talk largely about potential harm to the environment, not to humans.

But the issue has also grabbed hold of consumers who are reluctant to eat something they don't understand.

While no one has proved that genetically modified crops are bad for you, it's also impossible to state with absolute certainty that they're just as safe as any other food. On the other hand, the benefits of GM soybeans and corn go mostly to farmers and aren't easy for everyone else to understand.

Given panics in England over mad cow disease and occasional food contamination, the British have decided they'd rather not take any chances. Even if the risks of eating GM food are tiny, the reasoning goes, why take any risk at all if you're not getting anything in return?

"On the broadest level, our concerns are about what the risks are and whether they're even knowable," Burton said. "There are many known potential risks. We fear there are more that are unknown."

It's also clear that GM technology has the potential to create significant changes in the environment. Earlier this year, for example, a Cornell University laboratory study suggested that insect-resistant corn might kill monarch butterflies -- though some scientists question whether those findings will hold up in the field.

Scientists also worry about the likelihood that GM plants will cross-breed with neighboring plants.

Burton points out that some wildflowers in England are related to rapeseed plants, which were planted in GM varieties this fall in large-scale trials on several farms. If the wildflowers cross-breed with the rapeseed through pollination, the flower varieties could be permanently altered.

Another possibility is that weeds could pick up some of the traits of the GM crops. So, for example, weedkiller-resistant corn could one day find itself surrounded by weedkiller-resistant weeds, which would require biotech companies to develop a new generation of more sophisticated products -- and also create problems for those who try to minimize spraying.

Activists also point to the potential for GM traits to spread beyond the plot where they originate. That means a farmer who wants a non-GM crop -- which includes all organic farmers -- could be out of luck if a neighboring farmer plants GM crops on an adjacent plot.

"You're going to have neighbor pitted against neighbor," said Liana Stupples, campaigns director of Friends of the Earth. "If there's cross-contamination of crops, which is inevitable, how is the farmer who wants to market his crop as non-GM or organic going to protect his business interests?"

Media pressure

Questions like these have dominated the British media in recent months and forced biotech companies to backpedal from efforts to market bioengineered products.

For example, the British company Zeneca has abandoned for now its efforts to market a tomato puree made with California-grown tomatoes engineered to ripen more slowly. The technology enabled Zeneca to discard fewer tomatoes and thus charge a lower price.

When the product arrived on shelves in 1996, some consumers bought it out of curiosity and kept buying it when they realized it tasted OK. Some stores reported they sold as much of it as they did of competing non-GM puree, and altogether Zeneca sold almost 2 million cans.

But since the Puztai Affair and the escalation of publicity about GM, most British grocery stores have banned the tomato paste from their shelves. In fact, tomato bins in some stores carry signs that assure shoppers the tomatoes are in no way biotech-altered.

"We always knew that the technology would raise issues," said Nigel Poole of Zeneca's plant science division. "We knew it would be bad here and particularly bad in France, but we didn't think it would be as bad as it has been."

Things have gone even worse for the American agricultural giant Monsanto, which gained a reputation as the evil empire of biotech when British consumers figured out that they had been eating GM soya and corn from Monsanto in many products without even realizing it.

Both products are sold as commodities -- with huge shipments mixed together and then used as ingredients in a majority of processed foods. And with the proportion of genetically modified American corn and soybeans rising sharply, it's impossible to tell the GM from the non-GM.

One reason that attacks on the Zeneca tomato were initially ineffective was that the tomato paste was clearly labeled, so consumers could buy non-GM if they chose. But the revelation that GM corn and soya was creeping into the British diet without notice created a field day for activist groups.

"Only two supermarkets sold (the tomato paste) and what they both promised was, 'We'll always give you a choice,'" Burton said. "Suddenly Monsanto comes along with the big grain importers and they said, 'Choice? You can't have it. You're not allowed to have it.'"

Earlier this year, Monsanto tried to ease the situation with a major public relations push. The company took out full-page ads in British newspapers to explain the technology and reduce consumers' fears. The ads only created resentment toward an American company that seemed to be ramming unwanted products down European throats.

Now the biotech companies are in retreat, arguing that they never tried to force anything on anyone.

Some suggest that the controversy won't go away until biotechs devise products with clearer benefits for consumers, such as better nutrition.

"Monsanto has said many times now that we got it wrong," spokesman Tony Combes said. "The feeling was that the truth will out. The science will win. But you've got to do a little more than just rely on science."

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