Select Committee on European Communities Second Report

Key events

22.  Biotechnology was probably first used by the Egyptians from 2000 BC, when they developed techniques such as fermentation (see paragraph 7). It was Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) who first described the particulate nature of inheritance[33] that we now describe as genes. William Bateson[34] coined the word genetics in 1905 and Wilhelm Johannsen attached the name "genes" to the Mendelian units of heredity in 1909. In 1903 Walter Sutton recognised the chromosomes as the carriers of Mendel's units of heredity[35], but it was only in 1944 that Avery, MacLeod and McCarty identified DNA as the "genetic material". The real breakthrough in modern molecular biology was the Cambridge elucidation of the structure of DNA in 1953 by Watson and Crick. Two chains, complementary to one another, built into the molecule were discovered to be the key to heredity. The following half century has seen a revolution in our understanding of the manner in which genetic information is expressed within cells and passed between cells and generations. It is only now, after this half a century of learning, that commercial applications of these discoveries are appearing. While the early products of genetic modification (such as human insulin) were in use from the early 1980s, the first release of a GMO into the environment of the United Kingdom was not until 1986[36]. The first GMO which could have been used in food, a modified yeast for bread, was approved in 1990 and the first plant (a delayed ripening tomato) in 1995, but while this product may be imported into Europe and used for food it still awaits approval to be grown within the Community. As well as developing and regulating the science, the United Kingdom has also explored the ethics of genetic modification through the reports of the Polkinghorne[37] and Banner[38] committees.

23.  Currently, no GM crop is being grown on a commercial scale in the EC, though some permits have been issued and many applications are in progress (see Appendix 4). Permits exist for a variety of maize produced by Novartis to be grown commercially[39] and to be used for animal feed. It is this particular variety which is the subject of a lawsuit in France, the Member State which issued the marketing consent at the successful conclusion of the EC process. In February 1998 Greenpeace applied to the French courts to overturn the issuing of the consent. The Conseil d'etat issued an injunction preventing the marketing of the maize until the case put by Greenpeace had been resolved. GM tomatoes are on trial in Spain, but a commercial permit has not yet been issued. Chymosin (used in vegetarian cheese) is an enzyme and is produced in laboratories, a release permit is not thus required.

24.  GM varieties of maize and soya, two major commodity crops, are being grown on an increasingly large scale in north America. These varieties have been modified for herbicide tolerance, insect resistance or both. GM tomatoes are also being grown. The crops which are imported into the EC have all had to be approved for the uses (food or animal feed), to which they are put. The tomatoes have been approved for use as paste; soya and its derivatives for food use and maize for use as an animal feed. If the crop has been sufficiently processed to mean that it poses no environmental risk, a release permit is not required for import[40].

25.  Varieties of GM soya and maize have not been segregated from their unmodified equivalents and are thus entering Europe in "co-mingled" shipments (see paragraphs 129-134).

33  That characteristics, rather than parts of characteristics, are inherited from each parent. Back
34  The first Director of the John Innes Institute. Back
35  T.H. Sutton, "The chromosomes in heredity", 1903, Biological Bulletin 4, pp 231-251. Back
36  An oilseed rape. Back
37  Report of the committee on the ethics of genetic modification and food use, HMSO 1993. Back
38  Report of the committee to consider the ethical implications of emerging technologies in the breeding of farm animals, HMSO 1995. Back
39  The application was the subject of controversy as the maize contains an ampicillin resistance gene (see paragraph 75.)  Back
40  Thus soya beans require a release permit but soya flour or oil does not. Tomatoes do but tomato paste does not if it contains no viable seeds. Back

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