21 February 1997

Woo consumer or GMO benefits could be lost

By Charles Abel

FARMERS will not reap the full benefits of genetically modified crops unless the multinational companies introducing the technology show more interest in public perceptions.

"Havent these manufacturers learnt anything from the BSE scare," asked Ulster Farmers Union grain and seeds committee spokesman John Gilliland at last weeks Ulster Arable Society conference at Greenmount College, Antrim.

Feed compounders and meat producers in the province are already coming under pressure from supermarkets who want written undertakings that no GMOs are included in rations fed to poultry destined for their stores, he said.

"Because manufacturers have not sought consumer support weve had a lot of negative reaction to GMOs. The companies have a lot to answer for in the way this has been handled.

"We believe GMOs represent technical progress for the industry and should be supported," said Mr Gilliland. But clear undertakings from GMO companies are needed. Manufacturers should make every endeavour to educate and inform the public before genetically modified crops are introduced, he said. GM product must also be labelled properly and segregated from non-GMOs and supplied with full traceability, he argued.

Unless manufacturers win public support Europe could ban the science, Mr Gilliland feared. That would leave other countries to reap the benefits, disadvantaging UK growers on world markets.

He also argued that anti-biotic marker genes were undesirable and unnecessary. "We are totally opposed to them."

Dr Simon Bright for Zeneca agreed that public perception was a crucial issue. Zeneca invested much time and money explaining its genetically modified tomatoes to the public, he said. The result was appreciable sales over the past year, even during the recent concerns about modified maize and soya from the US.

But while antibiotic resistance genes prompt public concerns, they have no scientific basis, he said. "A third of the bacteria in our gut are resistant any way. There are bigger issues surrounding the use of anti-biotics in animals than this resistant marker gene."

He also argued against permanent labelling and segregation of GMO produce. Traceability made sense for all products, particularly those from new techniques, he agreed. But there was no justification for segregation in the long term.

&#8226 Steve Smith for Novartis Seeds, which sells herbicide-resistantcrops containing an anti-biotic resistant marker gene in the USA, agrees that the technology must be acceptable to all in the food chain. "We are acutely aware of the need to support the technology and are working to build stronger links, especially with retailers and processors."

Unless manufacturers move to reassure consumers, UKgrowers could miss out on the benefits of genetically modified crops, says UFUspokesman John Gilliland.