Bio-tech boons blemished by pesticide link

3 December 1999

Bio-tech boons blemished by pesticide link

Genetically modified crops

offer great potential for UK

farmers and the public in the

next millennium, claims a

spokesman for one of the

leaders in the field.

Andrew Blake investigates

further in our latest Michelin-

sponsored Fit for the

Millennium article

WERE it not for its perceived link to pesticides, modern genetic engineering technology and the public benefits it can convey would have a much better Press, claims a leading player.

Des DSouza, biotech communications manager at AgrEvo, says many people are surprised to learn GM technology has long been used in the pharmaceutical industry. "It has been used to produce human insulin since 1983, and more recently the cancer drug interferon and factor S for haemophiliacs.

"Biotechnology techniques are widely used within the food industry regarding traceability, and in other areas of diagnostics such as DNA finger-printing and disease detection. And they are about to applied in bacterial bio-remediation of soils contaminated by heavy metals."

Enzymes available

Cheese-making enzymes produced using GM have been available since 1991 and brewers have used yeasts derived from GM for even longer, adds Mr DSouza.

GM crops beyond those resistant to herbicides will have much to offer, he says. "If we look at crops of the future the Chinese are developing vitamin-A enriched rice which may be grown commercially next year."

Conventional rice, the main diet of millions, is naturally low in vitamin-A, shortages of which can leave children blind. "Scientists have managed to enrich the beta-carotene in the rice through GM and it may be grown commercially next year. It offers direct consumer benefit in a staple food."

GM will allow oils to be modified for use in low cholesterol or cholesterol-free diets, he adds.

A low calorie sweetener has already been produced by Dutch scientists using such methods, says Mr DSouza. "They have taken an artichoke gene and put it into sugar beet to increase the fructan content at the expense of sucrose levels, so you get the sweetness without the calories."

There is also plenty of work going on to genetically increase and modify the starch content of potatoes. That could help reduce oil absorption during frying. AgrEvo is directly involved with one project to produce plants with starches modified for use in specific plastics, textiles and paper. "It may eventually allow us to produce the totally disposable and biodegradable nappy."

Ideas further off include getting potatoes to produce their own medicines to ward off diseases like E coli where access to food refrigeration is poor, he says. "Broader still it should be possible to create naturally coloured cottons, for example blue strains to make jeans. Conventional dyeing is an environmentally aggressive process, and the use of GM could help reduce its impact."

The possibility of finding genes which code for health-giving substances that counter ailments like heart disease and cancer is even further away.

"That is at least 10 years off. But if we can find them, GM gives us a means of enhancing them in foodstuffs."

Public meeting

A recent meeting with the firms own production staff at its Widnes factory highlights the challenges facing GM advocates, says Mr DSouza. "We treated it as a general public meeting, outlining what we are trying to do with GM and explaining its potential. The amazing thing was that they nearly all said: Why havent you told us about all these benefits before, and why dont the media cover the positives?

"It just shows we have got to find better ways of telling the public more about the benefits of this technology."

GM goodies

&#8226 Insulin, interferon & factor S.

&#8226 Bacterial cleaning of soils.

&#8226 Vitamin-enriched rice.

&#8226 Natural textile dying.


&#8226 Insulin, interferon & factor S.

&#8226 Bacterial cleaning of soils.

&#8226 Vitamin-enriched rice.

&#8226 Natural textile dying.

See more