Immoral maize?

March 14, 1997

How should government and the scientific community respond to public fears over genetically modified foods? Derek Burke says the establishment has learnt to listen to the consumer, but Robin Grove-White argues that Whitehall remains complacent and deaf.

Genetically modified foods have entered supermarkets as a result of decisions made by the committee I chair, the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP). These include genetically altered tomato paste and herbicide resistant soya.

To date, we have approved just over 50 products, 16 of which have been products of genetic modification. We used to think, we experts, that all we had to do was decide whether a novel food or process was safe and a grateful public would accept what we said. We should have known better. Food irradiation, for instance, a process I personally believe to be safe, is unusable because of fears connected with the word "irradiation'' - fears which can be traced back to the atomic bomb and which are fed by concerns about nuclear-power stations. When we started we did not grasp the very different way the consumer sees risk.

In late 1988 we were asked to approve the use of a genetically modified baker's yeast, developed by introducing two genes from a similar yeast, in order to increase the rate at which the bread rose. This seemed to us a good case with which to start. After all, the genetic change could have been brought about by the naturally occurring yeast mating process. We could not see any problem, and in early 1990 a press release announced that "the product may be used safely''. The press, however, was distinctly unenthusiastic. Comment varied from: "Genetic yeast passed for use'' in The Times, through "Man-made yeast raises temperature'' in The Independent, to "Bionic bread sales wrapped in secrecy'' in Today, and "Are the boffins taking the rise out of bread?'' in The Star. The Consumers' Association said: "We think all genetically altered foods should be labelled." A reaction so negative that the product has never been used.

As a result of this, a consumer representative and an ethical adviser were added to our committee. We also made the process more transparent, producing annual reports and holding press conferences. We have learnt that when decisions involve the public being exposed to any risk not of their own choosing, they must be taken as openly as possible.

About five years ago we were asked whether meat from genetically modified sheep could enter the food chain. These sheep carried the human gene for Factor IX, a protein needed for the treatment of haemophiliacs. However, it sometimes takes 100 animals to be reared before one animal is produced which can yield Factor IX in high quantities. We were asked whether the animals which either contained no gene, or only an inactive gene could be eaten. We could not think of any reason why animals without foreign DNA should not be eaten. But were newspapers going to run the headline: "Failures from genetic engineering in your supermarket''. What about the animals containing an inactive human gene? Was this just a stretch of DNA like any other? Or was it special, because it came from a human being? Would eating sheep meat containing a single human gene be regarded as cannibalism by some? Would Muslims or Jews be concerned about pork genes in lamb, and vegetarians about animal genes in plants? We did not know, but decided that it was probably a wider issue than one of pure technical safety, and suggested wider consultation to the Government.

We found that Christians were divided. Many had an uneasy concern, a feeling shared by others, which has been termed the "yuk'' factor. The Jewish reaction was more straightforward: "If it looks like a sheep, then it's a sheep'', was their comment. Muslims and Hindus were more opposed, as were the animal welfare groups and the vegetarians. All the groups were concerned by the "slippery slope'' argument. These sheep had only one human gene in 100,000 sheep genes. But what if it became 50:50? They were worried too, about labelling, and wanted consumers to have choice. There was obviously quite widespread unease. The result is that not even the animals with no foreign genes will enter the food chain. Consumer concerns, even if they do not appear to have a rational basis to scientists, must be taken seriously, and not brushed aside.

More recently, there has been concern about antibiotic resistance genes in transformed plants. Were such genes at all likely to be transferred to gut bacteria in humans, and if so, would it matter? We recommended approval of the genetically modified tomato, despite it containing an antibiotic resistance gene, because the gene was controlled by a plant promoter, and therefore could not work in gut bacteria, and because the antibiotic, kanamycin, was not of great clinical significance. In contrast, the Ciba-Geigy maize had a bacterial promoter in front of the penicillinase gene and the gene produced an active penicillinase. The technical risk was small; the consequential risk could have been large. We did not recommend approval but this decision was later overruled in Brussels. There is a real problem in weighing very low levels of risk when scientific knowledge is limited.

A different issue surfaced over the herbicide resistant soya. We had no safety concerns, and the Food Advisory Committee did not require the soya to be labelled to make clear the transformation it had undergone. The food advisory committee did, however, recommend the provision of information on a voluntary basis by the retailer; as was done in the successful launch of the paste from genetically modified tomatoes. Yet, with soya, and also with corn, the retailers have not been able to offer their customers the choice between a modified and an unmodified product. This is because it has proved impossible to segregate the genetically modified soya from "normal'' soya at the source. Despite the best efforts of the retailers, who have provided a range of useful information leaflets and of the Soya Bean Association which has set up a help line, there has been substantial consumer concern because of the absence of choice. Consumers want to make their own informed decisions.

One explanation for such conflicting views is that scientists and the public work from different value systems. Scientists and technologists see novel applications of new discoveries as logical and characterise all opposition as unreasonable. "If only the public understood what we are doing,'' they say "people would agree with us.'' Scientists are used to an uncertain world, where knowledge is always flawed. They can handle risk judgements more easily, and are impatient of those who cannot. The public's reaction is quite different. It is more likely to be characterised by outrage - "how dare they do this to us?" and dread - the way we would regard a nuclear power station explosion. As a result scientists are regarded as arrogant, distant and uncaring. That is not a good image for science or for scientists.

I believe that as regulators, we have to answer to three stakeholders - industry, government and the consumer. We must work efficiently with industry, advise governments wisely and be as open as we can with the consumer, if we are to retain the trust of all three parties. That means using a case by case approach and involving representatives of all three groups. This has been the approach of the "consensus'' conferences that have considered issues in both plant and food biotechnology. This has also been the approach that we are using in the ACNFP.

Professor Derek Burke is chairman of the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes.

To understand the deepening troubles surrounding the use of scientific knowledge for public policy in Britain, we need look no further than to the tensions crystallising around genetically modified foods.

Over the past 12 months, such products have begun to appear on supermarket shelves. Initially, there was Sainsbury's genetically modified tomato puree and the rennet-free vegetarian cheese. Crowding in the wings now are Monsanto's genetically modified soya (already the subject of environmental protest), Ciba-Geigy's "improved" maize, Zeneca's promise of genetically modified canned tomatoes, pork from faster-growing pigs with a human gene, and who knows what else.

Genetically modified household products are becoming a reality for the population at large - the commercial fruits of immensely dynamic research advances in molecular biology over the past 20 years. Manufacturers, and their advocates within government, are bullish about the prospects.

However, beneath the surface tensions are bubbling. Recently published research points to a range of thoroughly reasonable public concerns, now being neglected by the UK's avowedly "scientific" frameworks of regulation and political supervision. This research suggests the prevalence of deep, if still largely latent, public unease. But it is accompanied by a pronounced fatalism about the supposed inevitability of the future pervasiveness of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in foods. Though many people appear to expect to buy and use modified foods ("there'll be no choice"), there is cynicism about the commercial impetus driving their introduction, and deep scepticism about the regulations designed to protect the public.

To senior Whitehall officials, such anxieties appear captious when set against the supposedly "real" evidence of people's purchasing behaviour at supermarket counters (Sainsbury's tomato puree has been a runaway success, we are told). They point to the panoply of expert ministerial advisory committees which provide safeguards, in the form of detailed scientific assessments for individual genetically modified products, before authorisations are granted for commercial release. In such a context, it is claimed, there is no rational basis for concern.

But there are disturbing echoes here of other recent risk crises in Britain. Whitehall's confidence that its own restrictive view of science is best has been leading it astray increasingly in recent years.

Take the 1995 Brent Spar oil storage platform case for example. There too, there was emphatic insistence that the Government's (and Shell's) framing of the issue should be sovereign. Greenpeace campaigned for a different, wider, framing of the issue - as a precedent for the sequence of further rig dumpings that would follow, were this initial one sanctioned. The proper issue for scientific assessment, Greenpeace implied, was the cumulative impact of a host of such dumpings over time. In the event, the public endorsed Greenpeace's view of what was at stake. Shell backed down. Ministers were left spluttering about the defeat of "rational objectivity" by "emotionalism" and "irrationality".

But such a reaction missed the point. In the real world, all scientific facts are the products of prior social commitments, which predetermine the boundaries of what is held to be at issue in any particular case. Ministers' (and Shell's) insistence on the unique rationality of their own restrictive framing of the issue, so at odds with wider cultural perceptions (and indeed with contemporary scholarly understanding of the nature of science itself) simply rebounded on their own credibility.

There are signs that the Government may now be getting itself into a similar position with genetically modified foods. Here too official advisory committees (in this case the Advisory Committee for Releases into the Environment, and the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes) evaluate individual products on a reductionist case-by-case basis, leaving wider issues such as the cumulative trajectories of such developments for others, namely Parliament, to address.

But our new research suggests that people generally are well aware of Parliament's chronic limitations in issues of this kind. So they put their trust in organisations like Greenpeace, to reflect their concerns about the wider potential ecological or public health hazards of the technology of genetically modified organisms.

Disturbing as this is, it is hardly surprising. Eighteen months ago, a report published by the Economic and Social Research Council found that "There is immense pressure on the (GMO) regulatory mechanisms, which are presently legally defined in narrow technical terms, to take responsibility also for wider issues. (But) the mechanisms in question are not appropriate for addressing such issues adequately, and there are no other fora for addressing these dimensions." Official insistence that the framework of controls is adequate, and that those who think otherwise are silly and misinformed, simply compounds public mistrust, with potentially dangerous consequences when something serious goes wrong with GMOs (as Murphy's law suggests is inevitable).

The BSE farrago has provided further grounds for popular scepticism. The authority of official scientific reassurance ("no evidence of harm") has been deeply damaged. Our research suggests that this is now having a corrosive effect on confidence in equivalent assurances in the sphere of genetically modified foods - all in all, a deeply unpropitious climate in which to introduce a technology likely to be reaching deeply into people's everyday lives before long.

As leading sociologists have been pointing out for some years, modern societies are now spawning new patterns of industrially generated risk and corresponding public anxieties of entirely rational kinds on lines unrecognised in the conventional political world. Far from being side issues, these are matters of fundamental importance to people's daily lives - affecting the food they eat, the air they breathe, and the nature in which they subsist.

Unilateral insistence on narrow official framings of risk issues, reinforced by the assumption of a unique scientific rationality, is undermining the authority of public institutions in ways that continue to be unacknowledged in Whitehall and Westminster. There is an urgent need for new patterns of institutional experiment, aimed at encouraging the wider sharing of the uncertainties which surround present patterns of development in such domains as genetically modified food. The alternative is a continued attrition of public trust in officialdom, at a time when we can ill afford it.

Robin Grove-White is director of the Centre for the Study of Environmental Change, University of Lancaster.

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