Select Committee on European Communities Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by Professor Derek Burke former Vice-Chancellor, University of East Anglia and former Chairman of the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP)


  1. Courtesies.

  2. Over the last year, genetically modified foods have been entering supermarkets in Britain. The outcome has been mixed; for some have been accepted without hesitation by the public; for example, "vegetarian cheese" and the paste made from genetically modified tomatoes. But others, notably the flour from genetically modified soya beans and an insect resistant corn have caused considerable controversy. Why is this, and what will be the effect on the farmer?

  3. I do not need to remind you how much change your industry is going through. First, there have been massive changes in the agrifood business, with substantial consolidation so that only a handful of companies are left, all operating world-wide. The seed companies have also been caught up in this rationalisation, as have the plant biotechnology companies. Then too, major changes have taken place in the food industry over the last 20-30 years, in particular in the role of the big supermarket retailers. The food retailers, with their formidable buying power, control the food chain. The consumer now expects a very wide choice of foods at ever decreasing prices and constantly improving quality. Then there is a third agent for change, for the development of biotechnology can provide products which are cheaper, healthier or last longer.

  4. Biotechnology depends on our capacity to move any gene from one species to another, and to get it to work in the new host. The old species barriers have gone. So materials made by humans can now be made in bacteria, and substances made by bacteria plants. Some of the applications of biotechnology are obvious; the supply of insulin for diabetics is no longer limited. Farmers will be able to use less herbicide in raising crops such as soya, and lose less of their corn crop to insects. Recently too, other genes, genes that control plant development have been isolated: for example, the genes that control flower shape and colour in the snap-dragon so that we can start to manipulate flower shape, and control colour for the horticultural industry. More importantly, the genes that control the plant's response to day length have been isolated, so that it may be possible, by modifying these genes, to produce plants that come to maturity more quickly, with a huge economic impact.

  5. What is Biotechnology likely to produce? It offers the food industry new processes and new products. The most straightforward developments will be a whole series of new and improved enzymes for food processing, for example, the enzyme chymosin used in cheese curing and now largely made in bacteria. Biotechnology will also be used for the modification of existing foods, for example, the introduction of unsaturated fatty acids or production of fats yielding fewer calories. The science is straightforward, and there seems to be little consumer concern. A Mars bar which claims to yield fewer calories is already on sale in the US.

  6. Then there will be many new plant products, of three general types;

    —  Modifications of the genetic material of plants to extend their shelf life by slowing down the enzyme responsible for the breakdown of the plant cell walls, for example the new tomato, and a melon to come; this will affect quality.

    —  Modification of the genetic material of plants to produce novel parental lines for the production of new F1 hybrids, for example rape, affecting yield.

    —  Modification of the genetic material of plants to introduce resistance to herbicides or pests, for example, both soya and corn, also affecting yield.

  7. Then some suggestions, roughly in a time sequence, for plants, for both speciality and commodity crops:

    —  Continued development of rapid genetic typing methods to speed conventional plant breeding systems, leading to the identification of genes responsible for desirable traits, and their transfer to other species, for example between the cereals.

    —  Continued development of genetic manipulations, along the lines of herbicide resistance, involving one or more genes, with the production of plants resistant to many herbicides, and a wide variety of pathogens, including viruses, bacteria and fungi, thus greatly reducing or eliminating the hugh losses due to these agents.

    —  Continued development of novel fertility systems, leading to the production of new F1 hybrids, with increased yields.

    —  Continued development of fruits and vegetables with longer shelf lives and better shipping characteristics.

    —  Modification of fatty acid synthetic pathways to produce oils containing different, and more suitable, fats and to produce starches for either dietary or industrial use.

    —  Genetic modification of fruits and vegetables with the aim of improving flavour, texture and nutritional content. Conversely, elimination of genes for toxicants and allergens.

    —  Isolation, and utilisation of more complex genetic systems such as those controlling salt tolerance, drought resistance and response to day length, making possible the production of plants which can be grown in a much wider variety of habitats.

    —  Isolation of the genes that control development means that we can start to manipulate flower shape, and colour for the horticultural industry.

    —  Similar isolation of the genes that control the plant's response to day length means that it may be possible, by modifying these genes, to produce plants that come to maturity more quickly, and so push North, for example the Northern limit for growth of rape in Canada.

    —  Production of drugs and vaccines in plants.

  8. Developments in animals, apart from those leading to the production of high value/low volume drugs from transgenic animals will be slower; for here there is greater public concern. But some predictions are possible:

    —  Development of rapid genetic typing techniques will revolutionise animal breeding, enabling the identification of the genes critical for elite stocks and their transfer, using cattle, pigs and horses or poultry.

    —  Similarly, the identification of genes for undesirable traits will accelerate our ability to remove them from breeding stock.

    —  Better understanding of infectious disease pathogens should lead to the ability to breed animals with increased disease resistance.

    —  Genes could be introduced to enable cows to produce milk that is much closer in its composition to human milk for feeding to babies.

    —  A similar approach could be used to produce transgenic animals with, for example, less body fat. However it will, I think, be some time before such animals are acceptable for food.

  9. How far have these developments got? It is well known that Monsanto's herbicide-resistant soya "Roundup Ready" is already on the European market, and there are many more such crops coming through. One way of finding out is to look at the list of those genetically modified crops that have been registered and are now deregulated for field testing in the United States. Sixteen new products in six crops were deregulated in the last year and a half, joining seven previously deregulated products, a total of 23. The crops include soya, cotton, rape, potato, corn, tomato and squash.

  10. The first recorded field trials of transgenic crops were carried out in 1986; and by the end of 1995, over 3,600 field trials had been carried out across 34 countries with at least 56 crops. This year a total of about 30 million acres have been planted with transgenic crops, mostly in the USA and China. This year, nearly 15 per cent of the US soybean harvest has been grown from genetically modified seed, up from 2 per cent in 1996. China is thought to be growing over four million acres of genetically modified tobacco and tomatoes. The scene is very different in Europe; the EU's approval process for novel crops is slow, causing tensions with the US over the delay in permitting imports of genetically modified food supplies. There have also been difficulties in defining what has to be labelled and how.

  11. What problems may be encountered with the introduction of these new crops? First environmental issues. Will transgenes escape to wild or weedy species, how far will the pollen from genetically modified rape spread, what will be the effect of volunteers on the next year's crop, will the cultivation of large acreages of insect resistant plants alter the insect ecology, will there be changes to plant associated microbes in the soil, will antibiotic-resistance genes transfer from plants to man through gut bacteria? The environmental issues are being carefully regulated by a committee, called ACRE. It is being careful and cautious, insisting on a series of controlled trials; and the pollen dispersal and the adjacent flora are being monitored to see if there is any spread of the GM crop. So far, GM crops behave in the same way as the unmodified crop.

  12. The concerns arising from the widespread growing of GM has led the NFU to develop proposals for post-release monitoring, and very recently, the EC stated that they have now adopted the principle of post-release monitoring to "verify the non appearance of any harmful effects on human health and the environment". The details of this monitoring process are not yet available.

  13. Then, as you know, segregation and labelling of soya and maize have raised major problems in Europe. Herbicide resistant soya was genetically modified by the introduction of a gene from a soil bacterium to make the soya resistant to the herbicide glyfosate. The ACNFP had no safety concerns, and labelling was not required. It did, however, recommend the provision of information on a voluntary basis by the retailer, the practise followed in the case of the successful launch of the paste from genetically modified tomatoes earlier in the year. In the case of maize, the ACNFP recommended against authorisation of this product for use in the UK because of the perceived risk of the transfer of an antibiotic resistance gene in the maize to the bacterial flora in the gut of livestock that had been fed the maize, with the eventual possibility of transfer to humans. This recommendation was overruled by the EC on a majority vote, but a number of EU members would not accept this decision, because of consumer pressure, and the situation has not yet been resolved. The maize is only to be used as an animal feed, and as a source of starch for food ingredients, and has yet to be imported or grown in Europe, though France has just been given clearance for Bt maize to be grown in 1998.

  14. However, soya is now entering the UK, and the retailers have not been able to offer their customers choice between a modified and an unmodified product, because of the lack of segregation in the United States of the soya crop. This has meant that choice is effectively no longer available to the consumer in the UK, and soya is included as an ingredient in the majority of processed foods. It is not surprising that North American farmers are unwilling to segregate their GM crops, since there seems to be little demand for segregation in North America, while the costs of segregation would be considerable and would counter any benefit of growing them. The US government has supported the farmers in this stance by clearly stating that any attempt to ban the import of soya or maize would be considered as a breach of WTO agreements.

  15. So despite the best efforts of the retailers, who have provided a range of useful information leaflets and a help line, there has been substantial consumer concern because of the absence of choice. It is therefore good news that the NFU has recently launched two complementary codes of practise for the growing of GM crops in the UK. The codes lay out guidelines to ensure traceability, via a seed package identifier plus accompanying information appropriate for on-farm record keeping, segregation, and the post-harvest documentation that accompanies each crop consignment. These procedures should ultimately allow foods that contain the material that was derived from GM crops to be labelled to ensure consumer choice. In the absence of segregation, a number of companies are developing tests to detect transgenic material so that foods that contain modified soya can be labelled. Experience with the modified tomato paste in the UK shows that consumers will buy a clearly labelled product, especially when it is cheaper than the conventional can sitting alongside it on the supermarket shelves.

  16. However, the situation over labelling is still unsatisfactory. No doubt stirred by the public dissatisfaction earlier this summer, the European Commissioners proposed a labelling framework for products from GM crops. There were to be three categories. The first, which is voluntary labelling was negative; e.g., "This does not contain material of GMO origin", while the other two were mandatory and were either "This contains material of GMO origin", or "This may contain material of GMO origin". Then on 31 July 1997, the EU agreed that the rules should also apply to GM products that had already been approved for use in the EU, such as soya and maize. The exact labelling requirements for such products were to have been outlined by the EC in early November, but this has not yet happened. Mainly because of this confusion and delay, the IGD announced, on 20 November 1997, that their members were to introduce voluntary labelling guidelines for 1998 for products containing soya. They have decided that products containing soya should be labelled as "containing" GM soya. The "may contain" label is not to be used.

  17. So, given these problems, why is the cultivation of genetically modified crops growing so quickly, as the figures I quoted earlier show? Herbicide-resistant soya has real advantages for the farmer. In the US, where Spring sowing is normal, the use of a post-emergent herbicide means some changes in agronomic practise, leading to retention of more moisture in the soil, and partly because of this, and partly because of the slightly longer growing season, and partly because of the effectiveness of the herbicide Roundup, the yields are significantly higher.

  18. The introduction of these new crops will mean changes in the way farmers work. Monsanto are asking for, and obtaining, an increased price for the genetically modified seed, and also an agreement making it impossible to sell or sow seed from the harvest. The Company will also supply the farmer with a card that enables him or her to buy Roundup at a reduced price for use on the crop.

  19. So, in summary the farmer in the US will soon be planting genetically modified crops on a wide scale, and it is inevitable that Europe will follow, although I cannot predict how much of a delay there will be. These new crops will however bring a much closer relationship between the farmer and the agrifood company, who will sell both seed and herbicides, and also a similar closer relationship between the farmer and the retailer, for complete traceability will be essential. There may also be a need for a licensing system of some sort to monitor, and, if necessary, control environmental issues.

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