England Swings … Against Genetically Engineered Foods

Grandmothers, schoolteachers, scientists and environmentalists have taken to the streets in London. Through massive letter-writing campaigns and the destruction of field test sites, British citizens have shown their displeasure at the prospect of eating genetically engineered (GE) foods. Though opposition to GE foods is growing all over Europe, it is especially acute in Great Britain.

“It isn’t safe for the environment or for human consumption,” said one grandmother, who showed up at a national rally to express her concern. “Putting animal genes into plant genes is crossing the border.” She fears for her home vegetable garden, which she thinks is under threat from cross-pollination contamination by neighboring GE crops.

Surveys show 77 percent of the British public oppose the growing of genetically engineered foods in England. Opponents include Prince Charles, a staunch supporter of organic agriculture; singer/songwriter Paul McCartney, who has removed genetically engineered ingredients from his vegetarian food line; and Body Shop owner Anita Roddick, who has recently vowed to remove all GE ingredients from her stores’ shelves.

Julia Guest

Supermarkets, some of which supported GE technology initially, have responded to consumers’ concerns and removed GE ingredients from their brand products. Major English food manufacturers are also adopting GE-free policies.

Dr. Mae-wan Ho, geneticist and author of Genetic Engineering: Dream or Nightmare?, has witnessed the groundswell of opposition build in England, likening it to the American civil rights movement. “People here feel that this is the last straw,” she says. “If you destroy life itself, then there is nothing to regenerate the Earth. People realize this, and that is why they’re so incensed.”

Genetic engineering is the process by which, quoting Prince Charles, “Material from one species of plant, bacteria, virus, animal or fish is literally inserted into another species with which they could never naturally breed.” The controversial technology requires the use of an antibiotic-resistant marker gene, which confers resistance to certain antibiotics in the people who eat GE foods. It also utilizes strands of viral DNA which are stripped of the protein sheath that normally restricts viruses from jumping the species barrier. Without this barrier, scientists fear that the DNA will combine with other viruses, creating superviruses.

In Britain, most GE ingredients are labeled, but many consumers feel greater precautions must be enacted. The Five-Year Freeze Coalition, an 86-member body representing 2.5 million people, has called for a moratorium on the growing and importing of all GE foods in England.

Geneticist Dr. Michael Antoniou conducts gene therapy research in London. He has spoken to Parliament about the potential hazards of using technology based on “unsound genetics.” The use of GE technology in agriculture, he says, “is imprecise and grossly sub-optimal. It is based on an understanding of genetics that is 15 years out of date. We need to step back and even withdraw these products until we’ve looked at them more carefully.”

In Britain, it is illegal for GE crops to be commercially grown. Currently, all GE plantings are part of field tests governed by the biotech companies. Yet in the U.S., 70 million acres of GE crops were grown last year alone. Estimates put 60 percent of the American diet consisting of genetically engineered foods, an alarming statistic when it’s considered that most Americans don’t know what GE food is.

“The European regulatory framework is not more or less safe than America’s,” asserts Jacklyn Sheedy, facilitator of the London-based Genetic Engineering Network. “It’s just that Americans put blind faith in the FDA and don’t question it enough.” Member of Parliament Norman Baker takes the blame one step farther, to the U.S. government. “Your current administration has been subject to regulatory capture. Because of the revolving door policy between the U.S. government and the biotech companies, the situation is out of control. There is no longer an independent arbiter; it’s in the hands of the people who stand to profit. The American government is acting as a marketing device for the biotech companies, Monsanto in particular.”

U.S.-based Monsanto has become the target of choice in England. Dan Verakis, St. Louis-based Monsanto manager of public affairs, says the backlash against his company is the result of an aggressive activist industry and a hostile media environment, coupled with recent food scares. “The reason we’ve seen controversy in Great Britain, unlike anywhere else in the world, is mad cow disease,” Verakis says. “I don’t blame them a bit, after that. We’ve been fortunate to never experience similar meat contamination in the United States.” Verakis adds, “We have an enormous self-interest that this technology be safe. If we ever hurt humans, we’d be out of business!”

Monsanto has bet its future on genetically engineered products, introducing such foods as Round-Up Ready soybeans, which are immune to applications of Monsanto’s own herbicide, Round-Up, and Terminator technology, so named for its ability to engineer plants to produce sterile seeds. The British are concerned with the Round-Up Ready technology because of the increased level of chemical spraying it will encourage. Bird and nature conservancy groups worry about the negative impacts increased spraying will have on bird populations.

“Twenty percent of our land is urban,” says Jonathan Curtoys of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) , the largest wildlife charity in Europe. “The other 80 percent is farmland, making farming concerns one of our most important issues.” The RSPB supports a moratorium and is calling on policy-makers to conduct extensive research on the long-term environmental effects.

Dr. Sue Mayer of GeneWatch UK echoes the concern for the countryside. “Our fields are much more a part of our environment in England,” she says. “We don’t have the Rockies or separate wilderness areas. Already this year there are less swallows on the line outside my house than last.”

In Britain, the press has played a pivotal role in bringing the important components of the issue before the public. The British daily The Guardian has been at the forefront, initiating media coverage of Monsanto and GE foods two years ago, sparking a print avalanche. Guardian Environmental Editor John Vidal sees U.S. media under pressure from biotechnology companies, namely Monsanto, to suppress important coverage. “No genetically engineered product has been successfully marketed in Britain as a result of the opposition here,” he says. “Perhaps five years from now, it will be the same in the rest of Europe. There is no reason why there shouldn’t be a similar grassroots movement in America, where the stakes are greater. You now have more to go on than we did.”