I was surprised by Gordon Fuller’s letter, headlined “GM safety and efficacy unproven” (February 2001, pp. 77–78). For scientists, safety (in anything) can never be proven. As for efficacy, farmers are not the idiots they are sometimes taken to be, but usually hard-headed realists who will only use a practice if it pays them to do so.
I agree with some (not all) of what Fuller writes. He is correct that public policy requires involvement of the public, but it was misconceived to criticize IFT’s Past President Mary Schmidl’s remarks reported by Mary Helen Arthur (August 2001, p. 54). At the IFT Chief Research Officers Program at the 2001 IFT Annual Meeting, as Arthur made clear, Schmidl was addressing the role of IFT in bringing together “academia, government, and industry” in promoting food science and technology research and education. IFT does try to interact with the public through the activities of its volunteer Food Science Communicators. However, the principal role in involving the U.S. public falls to FDA, USDA, and EPA in their respective spheres, discharged though their public statements and hearings. This does leave open to question how far the “real” public is involved, and how far the title of “the public” is monopolized by small but vocal activist groups.
Fuller leaves out of the equation the main reason why European Union consumers (the public) became concerned about genetic modification (GM). It did not happen, but was cleverly engineered—skillfully planned in the fall of 1998, and brilliantly organized from January 1999 by a consortium of “fundamentalist” anti-GM organizations, using a complex network of dedicated listservs. Nothing that “industry, government, and academe” or scientists or the biotech companies could have said or done differently would have prevented it—and contrary to Pierce Hollingsworth’s column (October 2001, p. 20), it is the resulting consumer attitude, plus the philosophy of informed consumer choice, that drives the EU regulatory position.
Reasons often quoted (and quoted by Fuller) for the European and especially UK public concern, are merely the underlying factors that made the public susceptible to manipulation by the propaganda campaign. These were:
• Neophobia—the fear of the new.
• That in Europe voluntary labeling at first and then regulations mandating distinctive labeling of GM foods and ingredients made many consumers aware of eating GM foods.
• That the public, as a result of BSE and various food scares, was and is distrustful of governments, wary if not distrustful of science and scientists, and susceptible to suggestions of new food scares.
• That the “first generation” of GM foods were those that were relatively easy to do, and that would commend themselves to the biotech companies’ immediate “customers”—farmers—thus enabling the companies that developed them to obtain a rapid commercial return on their research investment; however, the products did not offer consumers a readily perceivable benefit (reduced pesticide and herbicide use is in fact a benefit, but not readily perceivable to the consumer at the point of purchase).
None of these factors changed significantly between January and May 1999, yet public attitude was dramatically changed. I was there and in the thick of it. I often say, and sincerely believe, that if the fanatical activists who opposed the legalization of milk pasteurization early in the 20th century had had the Internet at their disposal, they would have succeeded.
The plan, capitalizing on the above factors and amplified by the media, highlighting problems and uncertainties, some real, some pure speculation, some spin-doctored, and some just urban myths, combined with vandalizing of experimental crop trials and with intimidation and threats to companies and major retailers (picketing, organized bombarding of companies and named individuals therein with letters and phone calls, and activists in white “space suit”–simulated protective clothing invading supermarket aisles). The purpose was to get GM legally banned; and if that failed, the fallback aim was so to scare the public and intimidate industry that the result would be the virtual equivalent of a ban. A similar campaign is now under way in the U.S.
In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that by mid-1999 the European public became turned against GM and that, reacting to their customers’ views and “pressure” from these organizations, major retailers and manufacturers decided to exclude GM foods and ingredients; and their announcements, headlined by the media, gave a further message to the public that GM foods and ingredients were “bad.”
Some observers, like Hollingsworth, mainly in the U.S., blame EU protectionism and a trade barrier. Well, of course every government wants to protect its own industry and will ingeniously find ways of creating trade barriers, and the EU Member States’ governments are no different in that respect. Interestingly, the EU Commission expresses an opposite concern. A 30-p strategy paper entitled “Life Sciences and Biotechnology: A Strategy for Europe,” issued as a consultative document in September 2001 (http://europa.eu.int/eur-lex/en/com/cnc/2001/com2001_0454en01.pdf), states that the EU is in serious danger of lagging behind the U.S. in biotechnology industries because public concern over biotechnology was holding back its evolution in the EU: “Uncertainty about societal acceptance had stifled our competitive position, weakened our research capability and could limit our policy options in the longer term.” On January 23, 2002, the EU Commission adopted a strategy based on that document.
I suggest that the real driving force is something quite different—that the Commission, the European Parliament, and European retailers and manufacturers are all highly sensitive to an extremely strong anti-GM attitude by European consumers, who “frankly don’t gave a damn” about protectionism, any more than do the anti-GM activist organizations that engineered that consumer attitude. So in that respect, Hollingsworth, who responded “I stand by (my) assertion 110%,” is 110% wrong.
Finally, I do not agree with Fuller in attributing rose-colored glasses to many of his (and my) colleagues. It is of course difficult, when rebutting the claims of the fundamentalist anti-GM activists, to avoid appearing to be at the opposite end of the spectrum, but it is a danger that one needs to be aware of and avoid. Food scientists should not be “root-and-branch” for or against—in fact should not be “root-and-branch” anything except for our science. However, we are members of society as well as scientists, and have a responsibility toward future generations. Where we see a technology with the potential to help, we must not be disinterested observers standing on the sidelines and merely observing potential problems or hazards, but have a responsibility to help solve the problems, and recommend the appropriate HACCP to deal with any hazards.
Most food scientists (and certainly the whole profession in the UK as represented by the Institute of Food Science and Technology) support the position that I have stated publicly many times: “Genetic modification (GM) has the potential to offer very significant improvements in the quantity, quality and acceptability of the world’s food supply” and “Food scientists and technologists can support the responsible introduction of GM techniques provided that issues of product safety, environmental concerns, information and ethics are satisfactorily addressed. IFST considers that they are being addressed, and need even more intensively to continue to be so addressed. Only in this way may the benefits that this technology can confer become available, not least to help feed the world’s escalating population in the coming decades.”
—J. Ralph Blanchfield, MBE, Consultant, Chingford, London, UK