Genetic Engineering and Food Safety

by Teresa Acklin
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Genetically modified crops, such as Bt maize and Roundup Ready soybeans, may help feed the world, but some consumers question the wisdom of tinkering with Mother Nature. World Grain European correspondent Diane Montague examines the debate in Europe.

   The first genetically modified food crops began to move into the European food chain last year. They produced very mixed reactions from consumers, food manufacturers, retailers and even some scientists.

   Far from being universally welcomed as a new technical breakthrough and an important means of increasing food production, these crops caused protest marches, demonstrations and embargoes. In a food industry still reeling from the impact of "mad cow disease," they raised new questions about the ethics of food and farming.

   The genetically modified food crops also highlighted a growing dissatisfaction with the way food safety is handled in the European Union and increasing unease over the industrialization of food production and its implications for consumers and the environment. They exposed the very different attitudes to science and food production that have developed on opposite sides of the Atlantic — a difference that has certainly taken some multinational companies by surprise.

   Some indication of the gap in attitudes toward biosciences between the United States and Europe is the level of investment. According to the latest report on the industry by accountants Ernst & Young, expenditure on research and development in biosciences in the United States in 1996 was U.S.$7 billion. In Europe it was just U.S.$726 million or slightly more than 10% of the amount spent in the United States.

   As a result of the events of 1996, the European Commission is now considering a fundamental change in its responsibilities for food safety. New proposals under consideration involve transferring responsibility from the agricultural directorate to that of consumer affairs.

   E.U. Commission President Jacques Santer has also put forward plans for an independent agency responsible for food safety that would report directly to the Commission rather than its agricultural directorate. Among its responsibilities would be the assessment of novel foods.

   Genetic engineering of food crops is seen by many as the only way to produce enough for the world's rapidly expanding population, which is predicted to rise to 7.9 billion by 2020 from 5.3 billion in 1990. Supporters argue that conventional breeding methods and cultivation techniques have almost reached the limit in yield potential for conventional crops.

   Genetic modification offers the opportunity to adapt plants to grow under inhospitable conditions where water is scarce or the soil is poor and to cut back on the use of pesticides, supporters say. The technique also offers exciting opportunities to use crops as renewable resources for industrial raw materials to manufacture pharmaceuticals and as an alternative to fossil fuels.

   Vast sums of money have been poured into research projects in the race to develop and market the first products of this new technology. For instance, genetically engineered foods are predicted to earn U.S.$15 billion in the United Kingdom alone by 2000.

Tomatoes, Soybeans and Maize

   The first food product made from genetically modified crops to be launched in Europe was tomato paste, which went on the market in Britain in spring 1996. It was made from tomatoes, bred by Zeneca, in which the enzyme that causes the tomato to rot was switched off so that the fruit deteriorated more slowly. The tomatoes contain less water and so produce a thicker paste which is claimed to improve the production process and the taste of the end product.

   Launched through two leading supermarket chains, the cans in which the tomato paste was packed carried labels explaining that the product contained genetically modified material and why it was different. The product was displayed alongside the conventional paste and initially sold at a lower price.

   The introduction caused few problems because supermarkets were able to follow the guidelines agreed by the industry that food containing genetically modified crops would be clearly labeled, giving consumers the opportunity to choose whether or not to buy it.

   A few months later, the first shipments of new crop U.S. soybeans began to reach Europe, some of which could have contained a very small percentage of genetically modified soybeans. About 2% of the soybeans grown in the United States in 1996 were harvested from plants modified to make them resistant to Monsanto's broad action herbicide, Roundup. Roundup's active ingredient glyphosate is a very effective weed killer that acts on all green tissue but becomes harmless when it touches the soil. This is claimed to make weed control easier, cheaper and safer.

   In complete contrast to the tomato paste, the soybeans sparked strong protests from consumer groups and environmental organizations across Europe. EuroCommerce, which represents retailers and wholesalers in 20 countries, demanded that the new soybeans be segregated.

   The environmental organization Greenpeace held demonstrations in Hamburg, Germany; Liverpool, U.K.; Rotterdam, the Netherlands; and other European ports where ships carrying cargoes of U.S. soybeans were arriving. Protests were staged outside the European Commission's office in Brussels, Belgium, and at factories owned by companies such as Nestle and Unilever known to process soybeans. Activists claimed to have contaminated a shipment of soybeans destined for Cargill's U.K. processing plant in Liverpool, although exhaustive tests failed to find any traces of contamination.

   The protests arose despite the fact that the European Union on the recommendation of the Commission's scientific committees had approved the genetically modified soybeans earlier in the year. Approval was based on the argument that processing the soybeans into oil and meal effectively destroyed any trace of novel genetic material.

   The objections, however, focused on the fact that the genetically modified soybeans were not segregated from conventional soybeans. That situation undercut the labeling policy developed by the European food industry designed to give consumers a choice.

   Soy products are used in an estimated 60% of processed foods, and consumer organizations argued that it was wrong to make it impossible for food manufacturers and retailers to identify those products containing the new soybeans. The environmental groups were concerned that new genetic material would escape into the environment and cause as yet unforeseen problems.

   Two of Switzerland's largest food retailers, Migros and Co-op Schweiz, demanded that U.S. producers separate the new soybeans from conventional soybeans. Some European companies decided to suspend the use of U.S. soybeans altogether until the problem could be solved. These included Unilever and Nestle plants in Germany, while the Dutch food manufacturer Nutricia announced it would not use genetically modified soybeans in its baby food. These actions effectively suspended the use of U.S. soybeans until they could be segregated.

   Even more controversial is Ciba Seed's new maize, which has been genetically modified to resist the European corn borer. Objections to the genetically modified maize are based on the use of an antibiotic as a marker gene to introduce the bacillus thuringienis (Bt) toxin insecticide that provides the corn borer resistance.

   Among others, the U.K.'s Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes warned there was a risk that the antibiotic might build up in livestock and aggravate the increasingly serious problem of antibiotic resistance in humans. It advised against the use of unprocessed genetically modified maize in animal feeds.

   Initially, the European Commission decided to grant the product an import license because it had been declared safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. However, after pressure from all sides, the Commission instructed three specialist scientific committees covering food, animal nutrition and pesticides to reassess the product and any potential risks.

   The committees reported at the end of last year. They determined that the modification was unlikely to harm people or animals and recommended that the maize should be licensed — a recommendation accepted by the Commission.

   The decision to license the maize, however, proved even more controversial than the soybeans. Austria and France temporarily halted all U.S. maize imports until regulations covering labeling were introduced. In the United Kingdom, several large supermarket groups banned unprocessed genetically modified maize as a feed ingredient in their meat supply chains; they did, however, accept the use of processed maize in the form of corn gluten feed.

   An increasing number of scientists have started to express concern about the possibility of resistance. Dr. Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists told a conference in the United Kingdom in January that U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists had missed the presence of the antibiotic marker gene. As a result, the U.S.D.A. and other advisory committees had cleared the genetically modified product without knowing about the marker gene. Since then, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has called for more evidence on the possible effects of antibiotic-resistant marker genes.

   Both Monsanto and Ciba Seeds have come under heavy criticism for their handling of the launch of these new crops and their apparent unwillingness to acknowledge the risks — either actual or perceived — seen by some scientists and consumers.

Skeptics and Science

   The problem has highlighted many of the concerns that are simmering in Europe about food production systems and increasing skepticism of scientific assurances. An earlier attempt to launch the cattle hormone bovine somatotrophin, which increases milk yields in dairy cows, has been halted until the end of the century. This is partly because consumers are concerned about the effect on dairy cows and partly because no preparations were made to separate milk produced using B.S.T. from that produced conventionally.

   The nightmare of the cattle brain disease bovine spongiform encephalopathy, known as mad cow disease, is thought by some to have been caused by animal nutritionists 60 years ago searching for new sources of protein to feed to dairy cows to increase milk and meat production. At that time, protein sources were scarce, and meat and bone meal were high protein materials that appeared to provide an ideal solution.

   For 50 years, few people questioned the wisdom of feeding animal material to animals whose metabolism was designed to cope only with vegetable products. Those who did were branded as fusspots or cranks.

   Even now, the causes of B.S.E. are uncertain, and the link with the human brain disease Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease is, to some extent, theoretical. The present theories point to a rogue protein called a prion which is thought to have developed as a reaction to infected feed.

   Some scientists think the infection was the result of a change in processing technology for meat and bone meal. But there is another theory gaining credence that suggests the reaction has been triggered by the use of organophosphorus pesticides, which have affected cows' immune systems. In their latest report to the European Commission, scientists say they have no idea how far the problem has spread and how many people — a few hundred or many thousands — will develop C.J.D. as a result.

   B.S.E. is at the moment by far the most prominent of several instances where scientific assurances of safety have subsequently been proved wrong. D.D.T., fluorocarbons, asbestos, Gulf War Syndrome and the catastrophic effects of thalidomide are just a few more.

   It is perhaps not surprising that new scientific developments are coming increasingly into question. The potential to genetically modify pigs so that they can be used to provide organs — particularly hearts — for human transplants offers hope to many people.

   But the implications of this technology and the potential to introduce new viruses into humans are now being questioned. In the United Kingdom, a government ethical committee has said that transplants into humans will not be allowed until more research has been carried out on these possibilities and, in fact, may never be allowed.

   Although consumer research shows that genetic modification of livestock — certainly for food production — is far less acceptable than making changes to crops, the central technology and with it the advantages and risks are similar. They all involve introducing into organisms alien proteins that would not be possible naturally.

   According to Dr. Mellon, the problem with the new technology is the unknown effects, which means that every new development has to be evaluated on a case by case basis. The positive side of introducing pest resistance into crops, for instance, needs to be balanced against the downside risk involved in introducing new proteins into the plant, which could produce new allergies in the food chain. There is also the risk — even the certainty — that the modified plants will take root in the wild and provide the trigger for new sources of plant and insect resistance.

Future Products

   As the controversy continues over Monsanto's Roundup Ready soybeans and Ciba Seeds' Bt maize, the next group of genetically modified plants is coming up for approval by the European Union. These include herbicide tolerant oilseeds, cotton and hybrid chicory. Zeneca Plant Science is nearing the late stages of development of a genetically modified poplar tree with lower levels of lignin, which will make the tree more suitable for paper making.

   Apart from the genetically modified tomatoes, most of the genetic modifications coming up for commercialization are related to herbicide tolerance. This, says Professor Ben Miflin, research director of the Institute of Arable Crops Research in Reading in the United Kingdom, is because it is commercially attractive.

   "Companies can directly link that trait to increased sales of agrochemicals and see a chance of making money," he says, adding that after investing millions of pounds in research and development, the companies need to recoup that money quickly to satisfy shareholders.

   The investment in plant biotechnology is immense, but so far no one is making any money on it. This is why characteristics such as yield and quality are less attractive, Mr. Miflin points outs.

   At this stage, major developments in cereal crops like wheat and barley are still some years away, although some disease-resistant wheat strains are in the research pipeline. But the main areas of cereal crops research focus on quality and adaptation for different end uses, particularly breadmaking and brewing.

   For industrial uses, scientists are finding new ways of changing the structure of starch molecules to produce different types of starch suitable for a range of manufacturing processes. These changes are more difficult to make partly because the genetic structure of wheat is more complex and partly because quality characteristics are more difficult to isolate.

   Nevertheless, progress is being made in these areas. Scientists at the U.K.'s Institute of Arable Crops Research, for instance, have identified the gluten proteins that affect breadmaking quality and the technique for manipulating the genes.

   They are confident that they can move on to the next step, which is to fine tune the gluten properties for a range of end uses, including breadmaking, pasta, noodles, cakes and biscuits. These developments are expected to reach commercialization within the next five to 10 years.

   The problem will be finding ways of getting a realistic return from the market. In the view of Mr. Miflin, the money will have to be raised from seed royalties, which means developing hybrid crops that cannot be grown from farm-saved seed. Unfortunately, wheat is difficult to hybridize, so the cost of developing the technology may be out of proportion to the return.

Perceptions and Communication

   The fact that these developments are still some way off is in many ways a relief to European millers and bakers. They have been following the developments in maize and soybeans very closely, aware that consumers are even more sensitive about bread.

   In fact, one of the first genetically modified products to go through the approval system in Britain was a bakers yeast, which was cleared in 1990. So far, it has not been used in bread-making, and the U.K. milling and baking industry believes it is unlikely that genetically modified products will be used in bread for some years.

   Tony Castagli, director of the Federation of Bakers, says the food industry has come to realize that regarding changes in food, it is not just a question of science and law, but much more of consumer perception.

   European attitudes toward food production are very different from other parts of the world and are becoming more so. Good communication is essential.

   Both Dr. Mellon and Professor John Durant, head of science communication at the Science Museum in London, believe that people are confused about the difference between biotechnology and genetic engineering. In order to try to make genetic engineering less worrying, some people use the argument that it is simply an extension of biotechnology.

   But Dr. Mellon and Mr. Durant explain that biotechnology involves using micro-organisms for industrial processes and has been in use for thousands of years in wine, beer, bread and cheese-making. Most present-day systems of plant and animal breeding are an extension of natural processes. In the medical field the technologies being developed in diagnostics that use genes as therapeutic agents are also using biotechnology.

   Genetic engineering, modification or manipulation is, they say, quite different. It involves changing genes and the way they are combined together, turning them on or off or transferring them between totally different species in ways that would not occur in nature. There are, theoretically, no limits to the combinations that genetic engineering can make.

   That tremendous power on the one hand is fueling the spectacular growth of gene science industries and on the other is arousing public concern as well as raising complex moral and ethical questions.

   As Dr. Mellon explains, "When we make new combinations of genetic material, we are putting them into organisms which can reproduce. These new organisms will move into nature with unknown consequences. Once out there, we have no control over them and we almost certainly won't be able to get them back."

   Dr. Mellon says this does not mean that the technology should be discarded, simply that it must be monitored very carefully, with each new organism considered on a case by case basis. And along with other academics, she questions the need for huge increases in crop production.

   Professor Tim Dyson, professor of population studies at the London School of Economics, calculates that crop yields will increase from the present world average of 2.83 tonnes per hectare to 4 tonnes per ha by 2020 and that this increase will be sufficient to keep pace with population growth until that point. Larger harvests can be achieved by increasing the use of fertilizers, by irrigation and by bringing back land taken out of production for economic reasons, he says.

   There are some scientists who now question the theory that the world's population will continue to grow, given recent indications that the birth rate is just starting to show signs of slowing down.

   And finally there is the question of the very uneven distribution of food. Half the population of the United States is estimated to be clinically overweight, generating expenditure of U.S.$13 billion a year on diet foods. A similar situation exists in Europe.

   Genetically engineered crops will certainly provide some exciting developments in the next decade, but in Europe, at least, they seem likely to be treated with more caution than enthusiasm.

   Above:Herbicide-resistant transgenic tritordeum plants containing the wheat 1DX5 HMW glutenin subunit gene. Left: A tomato paste was the first food product made from genetically modified crops to be launched in Europe.

   The maize plant on the right has been geneti-cally modified to resist the European corn borer, which devastates maize as seen on the left.

Genetic modification of major crops — summary of current developments


Potential benefit


insect resistance,


herbicide tolerance


virus resistance,


insect resistance,


higher starch content


virus resistance,


improved nutritional




herbicide tolerance

Oilseed rape

modified oil




herbicide tolerance


herbicide tolerance,


modified starch




modified oil



Source: Food & Drink Federation