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Why the West must swallow gene foods
They're boycotted by British shoppers, and this week an international
conference will decide if trade in GM organisms should be controlled. But
many scientists believe they are the solution to starvation in the Third
World, reports Robin McKie
GM food: special report
Sunday January 23, 2000
Consider the tomato - so much a part of everyday life that we hardly
notice it. Yet it has a murky past, and it is one that scientists should
In the nineteenth century, the tomato was known as the wolf's peach, and
Europeans and Americans believed it was deadly poisonous. In 1820, New
York forbade its consumption and only relented when Colonel Robert
Johnston announced that he would eat an entire bag of them outside the
courthouse in Salem, New Jersey. Two thousand people turned up to watch
him die, while a band played a funeral march. But Johnston ate the lot and
announced: 'This luscious, scarlet apple will form the
foundation of a great garden industry.'
For such prescience, Johnson deserves canonisation as the patron saint of
hothouses, though his story has far more than historical importance, for
it shows there is nothing new in misplaced hysteria about food.
As David Aaron, US Under-Secretary for Commerce, warned a conference on
'Biotechnology: The Science and the Impact' in The Hague last week: 'Last
century it was the tomato, this time it is biotech food.'
But there is a crucial difference today. We no longer have the time to
indulge in fantasies and misconceptions about food, and in particular
about gene foods. One billion people - more than the combined population
of the United States and Europe - now survive on $1 or less a day, and are
The UN has pledged to halve that number by 2015, a startlingly ambitious
goal - for it means farmers will have to match mankind's entire food
production of the past 10,000 years in the next one and a half decades.
There is only one way to achieve this dramatic goal, experts warned
delegates, and that is by exploiting biotechnology, the science of
anipulating the genes of living organisms.
However, this route is now being seriously hindered by Western consumers
who, with increasing vehemence, are rejecting biotechnological products,
mainly GM foods, and blocking their testing and funding.
These are the killer tomatoes of today, they claim. 'Unfortunately,
consumers think products like genetically modified foods pose risks and
offer no benefits,' said Sir Robert May, the Cabinet's chief scientific
adviser. 'It is the attitude of a privileged Úlite who think there will be
no problem feeding tomorrow's growing population.'
Such prejudices form the background for this week's international talks in
Montreal when nations will discuss imposing limits on the safe handling,
transfer and use of genetically modified organisms that could have an
adverse effect on the environment. At issue is the fear that the US and
its partners are trying to monopolise trade in GM
crops, a bid that has made many other countries, includ ing Third World
nations, suspicious of such products.
The irony is that without biotechnology, there will be no salvation for
developing nations, delegates heard. To save 500 million people from
starvation, they will have to increase meat production by an estimated 114
per cent, and milk output by 133 per cent.
For mighty conglomerates, that would be a tall order. For poor
smallholders, the main providers of Third World crops, it would be
impossible without the geneticist.
The aim is to develop techniques best suited to the Third World, ideas
that include modifying crops so that their stems, used as animal feed in
developing nations, are more nutritious, thus boosting livestock quality,
or adding genes that will improve the vitamin content of maize or rice.
A perfect example of this type of technology was provided by Tony Irvin,
of the International Livestock Research Institute, who has discovered a
breed of sheep called the Red Masai, herded by East African nomads.
'These animals have developed a unique resistance to parasitic worms,' he
said. Such parasites take a terrible toll of sheep in farms throughout the
world, and Irvin and his colleagues believe they can develop techniques to
transfer resistance to other breeds.
But this raises other headaches. How can politicians ensure the Masai
people will benefit? Will they not suffer the fate of other indigenous
peoples whose products have been pilfered and exploited without financial
Consider another fruit: the Chinese gooseberry, grown for centuries by
Chinese farmers. Then a group of wily New Zealanders adopted, marketed and
renamed it: the Kiwi fruit. They made a fortune. Chinese farmers got
There are scores of other examples, with developing countries accusing
Western corporations of trying to patent the genetic codes of dozens of
their native plants, including basmati rice, turmeric, black pepper,
cotton - even the 'sacred' neem tree.
And such cases worried Irvin, as well as the World Bank vice-president
Ismail Serageldin. 'We have got to make sure this does not happen with the
Red Masai,' said Serageldin. 'Perhaps we will have to license the gene and
use the proceeds to set up a trust fund for the Masai. Whatever else, we
have a moral obligation to these people.
'Essentially, we are seeing a scientific apartheid being established
between the Northern and Southern nations. It is not the science that
divides them but the intellectual property rights that underpin products.
We have got to find ways to make these available - perhaps by shortening
the lifetime of patents from 17 to five years, or only asking for low,
flat fees for access to technologies.
But there were encouraging signs, the delegates heard. Pharmaceutical
giant Merck recently gave away its river blindness drug to the Third
World, as did Novartis with its leprosy medicine.
Far more important for the question of feeding the world, however, has
been the development of 'golden rice', a genetically modified strain that
can impart doses of vitamin A, which standard rice lacks. 'Four hundred
million people suffer from serious vitamin A deficiency, of whom one
million die every year,' geneticist Chris Somerville of
Stanford University told delegates. 'However by using genes from the
daffodil, we have created rice that is not only yellow, but contains
vitamin A. That crop was created with Rockefeller Foundation cash and will
be distributed throughout the Third World in the next couple of years.'
But Somerville added that it took 12 years to develop golden rice. In that
time, the world's population increased by another billion to its current
'In other words, if we want to make breakthroughs we are going to have to
develop a lot more products like golden rice and do it a lot more quickly
than we are doing at present.'
Yet the West, and in particular Europe, is now dragging its heels more and
more in the face of intense customer hostility to genetically modified
foods, the continent's killer tomatoes.
'I think Europeans are going to have to carry a very heavy moral burden
over their attitude to biotechnology,' Somerville added.
In the end, what is needed is a glamorous GM product that would change the
image of biotechnology, May concluded. 'We need a GM apple that will make
you thin and wicked. I suspect that would do the trick.'