27 February 1999

INFORMATION KEY TO GMs

Genetic engineering drew both sharp criticism and

blunt praise at a Birmingham conference for growers and advisers, reports Mike Stones.

FROM salvation to damnation there is a full spectrum of views on genetic engineering but everyone agrees information is king.

"More data less dogma," pleaded Prof Ian Crute, director of IACR Rothamsted, at the Genetic Modification Path to Profit or Road to Ruin? conference, organised by Crops sister magazine Farmers Weekly. Prof Crute acknowledged GM science had the potential to create new weed and disease problems, but he also saw powerful benefits.

"Genetics, in general, and GM crops, in particular, can play a significant part in delivering agricultural production that is economically and environmentally socially sustainable."

Chairman of the National Consumer Council, David Hatch, drove home the need for information. "Consumers need and deserve full information about GM products in order to make informed choices," he said. "Bulldozing GM science into commercialisation threatens to destroy the science root and branch," he warned.

NCC does not support a freeze on GMO development but its view might change if companies rush into commercialisation. Experience showed when consumers were given information about GM products, such as genetically modified tomato paste, these foods encountered little or no opposition. Full segregation of GMO and GMO-free foods and clear labelling should be given priority, he said.

But segregation would be impractical, according to US agricultural attaché in Brussels, Ralph Gifford.

"A big Mid-Western corn farmer may plant eight different varieties, so segregation would be very costly. It would have to begin at farm level with separate storage bins and continue with separate facilities through the supply chain," he said.

GMO pioneer Monsanto claimed the technology was a vital weapon in the war to end world hunger and to safeguard the environment. Following generations of GMO plants would improve human diets by offering modified oils and carbohydrates and allow plants to produce pharmaceutical proteins. But Robin Maynard, Friends of the Earth, scorned suggestions that genetic modification offered a breadbasket to feed the world. Famines occur not because the world is short of food but because it is badly distributed, he argued.

FOE favoured a five-year freeze on GM science while unanswered questions are resolved.

More vehement opposition came from the Soil Associations Patrick Holden. "If the farming community goes ahead with GM crops, it will be shooting itself in the foot on a massive scale." Once released in the environment, the technology is unrecallable," he warned.

Michael Antoniou, of London University, disputed suggestions that GM science was similar to conventional plant breeding. "Genetic engineering disrupts the natural genetic order of hosts and may have unpredictable outcomes."

Two large-scale farmer speakers offered GM technology a cautious welcome. According to James Townshend of Velcourt: "UK farming needs both customers and technology to compete in an increasingly competitive market," he said.

John Chapple, CWS Agriculture, feared farmers could become a football kicked between GM enthusiasts and opponents.