Energetic campaigners have kept it off the European menu for the past decade, but the pressures of recession, climate change and population growth are forcing even sceptics to reconsider GM food. Not before time, says Andrew Saunders.
Just under 10 years ago, in July 1999, the fate of genetically modified (GM) food in the UK was sealed when 28 Greenpeace campaigners in white boiler suits descended on an anonymous-looking cornfield in Norfolk and began to chop down the trial crop of genetically modified maize that was growing there. They were all duly arrested and carted off to Norwich police station - observed, of course, by the all-seeing eyes of the assembled TV cameras.
It was not the first such protest. Indeed, public concern had been growing for months over the way so-called 'Frankenstein foods' were apparently being foisted on people whether they liked it or not. But it was this particular event, and the trial which followed (the jury acquitted the protestors of criminal damage), that marked the tipping-point where the public mood in the UK turned decisively in favour of the anti-GM campaigners.
That mood-shift culminated in the suspension of all GM crop regulatory approvals and an effective ban on their commercial cultivation across the entire EU. In the decade since, as other forms of new technology have progressed at breakneck speed (back then the internet was strictly dial-up, text messaging was the latest thing, and the i-Pod was but a twinkle in Steve Jobs's eye), our agricultural industry has been stuck in a non-GM groundhog day on which the 21st century never dawned.
But the combination of what looks like being the worst recession since the second world war, plus last year's alarming spike in the price of staple foods, not to mention the twin threats of climate change and global population growth, is prompting a review of the GM position. Even the EU Commission, hardly the fastest-moving of our governing institutions, seems to be on the verge of issuing its first regulatory approvals (for two varieties of GM maize) since 1998. Both industry and policymakers are taking another look at the long-neglected subject of our food supply, and finding that the status quo simply won't do.
So is it time for a GM food revival? There is certainly a pressing need both to grow more food more cheaply than we can at present, and to emit far fewer greenhouse gases in the process. GM researchers claim that their technology can help to achieve those goals. There are some legitimate concerns, they say, but they can be managed and are far outweighed by the potential gains. If it's true that crops like GM maize, soya and cotton can give the same or greater yield as their conventionally bred cousins, but using far fewer chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides, surely they are just what the world is looking for right now?
'People have woken up to the fact that food isn't easy to grow, and that we do rely on technology for the abundant, safe, high-quality and affordable food that we enjoy in the west,' says Dr Mike Bushell, chief scientist at Syngenta's laboratories at Jealott's Hill in Berkshire - the largest dedicated agricultural research centre in Europe. Swiss-based Syngenta is second in the GM seeds business to the US GM technology pioneer Monsanto, and it has just enjoyed some of its best financial results ever, with sales up by 21% across all its product lines, to $11.6bn for 2008.
One thing that has changed since the early days of the Frankenfoods furore is the weight of evidence in favour of the food safety of GM. Last year, 120 million hectares of GM soya, maize, cotton and oil seed rape (aka canola) were cultivated globally; there have been countless independently replicated safety trials; and 200 million North Americans have been eating the stuff for years. Not one instance of damage to anyone's health has ever been recorded.
'GM is safe and effective,' says Bushell, emphatically. 'Our industry is the most regulated in the world, bar none - even more so than pharmaceutical companies. They don't have to pay too much attention to the environmental impact of their products, whereas a lot of what we do is about the environment - not harming beneficial insect populations, for instance. You could argue that GM foods are the only foods you can really say are safe, because they are the only ones actually tested for safety.'
So why, if this stuff is so good, did public opinion take so violently against it? Perhaps it was as much to do with how GM was introduced, as why. 'The industry behaved incredibly badly, putting GM ingredients in food without telling consumers,' recalls Lord Melchett, the former Greenpeace boss, who led the charge on that fateful day back in July '99, piloting a large mechanical cutter several times around the field before he had his collar felt by the long arm of the law. 'GM was a volcano waiting to go off. There were real concerns that our agricultural system had become secretive and opaque.'
He thinks any attempt to revive GM is doomed to disaster. 'It would be like trying to reanimate a long-dead corpse. GM has been an abject failure. We were told that GM would be in all our food by now, but the fact is that there are still only the same four GM crops there were 10 years ago. Wheat is the most important food crop worldwide, but attempts to introduce GM wheat have failed because farmers don't want it.'
The fact that Melchett - now enjoying a rather quieter life as policy director of organic food champion The Soil Association - is a card-carrying aristocrat and spent a night in a police cell following the raid certainly didn't do the anti-GM campaign any harm when it came to gathering column inches and TV news headlines. Who could resist the tale of a member of the ruling classes prepared to face criminal damage charges and even go down in defence of his cause? It was all much more exciting than a load of boring boffins droning on about mutagenesis and gene flow.
'The pressure groups have been very effective,' concedes Bushell, who had to sack more than 100 GM research scientists when Syngenta shipped all its GM research and development overseas in response to the increasingly hostile climate here a few years ago. Protestors succeeded in portraying saying 'no' to GM as a no-brainer, a decision with no negative consequences, he says. It helped that, thanks to the Common Agricultural Policy, there was a superabundance of food in the EU at the time - grain and butter mountains, lakes of wine and olive oil. Even people who weren't against GM in principle were left wondering what the point was of growing more food when there was a glut of it already.
But there have been negative consequences, and they are significant. All the GM R&D that isn't being done in the UK for a start; the new, more productive crop varieties customised for UK growing conditions that we haven't got; the hundreds of millions in extra revenue our arable farmers could have been making, during a period where their margins have narrowed almost to vanishing point.
What's more, those food mountains have shrunk dramatically, and although there may in theory be enough food in the world to feed everyone now, there soon won't be. 'The world population will have grown 50% to 9 billion by 2050,' says Bushell. Most of that growth will be in Africa and Asia, where vast tracts of land are unsuitable for growing currently available crops. 'You can pontificate all you like, but those people will need to be fed. Without technology to boost yields, half of them will be starving.'
The problem of how to help Africa feed itself is not a new one, and it has defied previous attempts to tackle it. Can GM technology succeed where so many others have failed? And is it likely to do so propelled purely by the private sector and the profit motive? Its opponents think not. 'What Africa has in abundance is sunshine and labour,' says Melchett. 'It can't afford to buy expensive technologies.'
Organic farming is the answer, he believes, and not only in Africa. But other things will have to change too. 'We will have to eat less meat,' he says. 'It's nonsense to assume that we can go on as usual. With only one planet to feed ourselves from, we cannot all eat like we do in the west.'
Bushell disagrees. 'There's no evidence that organic is any better for you, despite what people say. What is beyond doubt is that organic yields are much lower, so if you are using good arable land to grow food organically then you are using it very inefficiently. Surely, if we want to stop cutting into places like the rainforest, we should use our best farmland in the most efficient way possible?'
Other organic protagonists - Prince Charles included - who have criticised GM for being 'unnatural' rather miss the point that humanity has been shaping its environment in similarly unnatural ways for millennia. There is some environmental risk associated with GM, but then there is with any form of agriculture that is productive enough for our current and future needs. It's far too late to put that particular genie back in the bottle.
In the UK, organic has certainly gone down well with food retailers, which have enjoyed, if nothing else, the substantially greater margins chargeable on it. But as a luxury product that accounts for only some 3% of the UK food market, it's hard to see how it can play anything other than a bit part in the wider food supply debate. Sales of the more costly organic produce have also dropped markedly since the onset of the economic downturn.
But if the economic and political climate is shifting in favour of GM, the industry itself still has a mountain to climb in terms of PR. Once installed in the public consciousness, those colourful images of mad scientists playing God, bankrolled by sinister megacorps intent on owning the global food chain, are hard to shift.
And if there's one thing that the GM industry has proved it can't do very well, it's PR. Just look at how it reacted to the anti-GM campaign. 'The industry tripped up again and again,' says one former Greenpeace campaigner who chose to remain anonymous. 'The key weakness in its case was the lack of benefit to consumers. GM was sold to farmers and farmers only - but the fact that it was going to help them make more money wasn't much of a draw to the rest of us.'
Fuelling the flames was the fact that the major protagonist at the time was US agribusiness giant and original eco-baddie Monsanto, the first company to get a GM crop to market. Its name has been a red rag to Green campaigners since the days of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and the Agent Orange and DDT controversies of the '60s and '70s. When its assumptions that Europe would swallow GM as readily as the US had were challenged, it was caught with its trousers round its ankles.
'Looking back, we were an easy target,' says Colin Merritt, head of new business development for Monsanto in the UK. 'There was nothing in the science to justify such a reaction, but there has been a woeful lack of good communications from this industry on just how important what we do is to modern life'
Another business equally important to modern life - but with a substantially better track record of talking to consumers - is the supermarket sector. But even these consummate communicators have shown little appetite for re-entering the debate since abandoning support for GM and retiring hurt to the sidelines nearly a decade ago. 'When the supermarkets said no to GM, we knew we had won,' recalls our Greenpeace campaigner with evident relish. 'How could they row back from that?'
Well, they may soon have to. While the EU has been sitting on its hands, the rest of the world has been eagerly embracing GM. In India, South America and the Philippines, GM plantings have been booming.
More GM inevitably means less non-GM. 'The supermarkets simply won't be able to satisfy customer demand from non-GM sources for much longer,' says Merritt at Monsanto.
It seems that no less a figure than Tesco CEO Sir Terry Leahy agrees with him. Speaking at an industry event last month, Leahy quietly offered what looks very like an olive branch to GM. 'It may have been a failure of us all to stand by the science,' he said in answer to a question about why the supermarkets had backed down in the first place.
'Maybe there is an opportunity to discuss again these issues, and a growing appreciation by people that GM could play a vital role (in feeding the world's population in the face of climate change).'
Never mind feeding the world; if they don't address the issue it's going to cost them a lot of money, warns independent consultant Graham Brookes of PG Economics. At present, it is the food industry that is meeting the cost of supplying the supermarkets with the non-GM ingredients it requires - lecithin for chocolate, soya oil and so forth. 'GM is cheaper,' he says. 'It reduces costs because it reduces the inputs (of pesticide and fertiliser) required.'
But supplies of many non-GM ingredients are tightening. Even in the EU, 90% of the 35 million tonnes of soya consumed annually is GM (because it goes into animal feed and other products that are not for direct human consumption). Prices of non-GM ingredients are rising as a result, and food manufacturers will not be able to continue absorbing this cost-differential for much longer.
Retailers will face three options: pay more and take a hit on their margins; raise the price to the consumer; or change their stance on GM ingredients. In the teeth of a recession, option one is unthinkable and option two undesirable, says Brookes. The last of the three may well turn out to be the best available solution.
What's more, he says, some of the claims already made by supermarkets are disingenuous. Take eggs and poultry, for example. 'Claims that these are GM-free are misleading, I believe. Retailers may be within the letter of their own rules but not the spirit.' Why? Because while the animal feed - the cereal that they eat - is not GM, many of the dietary supplements they also receive are. 'One of the most popular dietary supplements for poultry is the amino acid, lysine. And all lysine supplements are manufactured using micro-organisms grown in a substrate derived from GM maize.' Oops.
It's a time bomb and the ticking is getting louder. No wonder none of the major food retailers wanted to talk to MT about it. They are probably all furiously trying to figure out how to sell such a dramatic volte face to their customers.
In the end, the supermarkets are likely to do as they did before, and go with pragmatism rather than principle. They have their shareholders to consider, after all. And even its most fervent supporters know that GM is not going to feed the world or solve the climate crisis single-handed. But it is a powerful technology that could play a significant part in tackling some of the biggest issues that face us - and boost our economy and skills base to boot. It deserves another hearing.
By the same token, the industry urgently needs to learn a few more lessons in how to appeal to the emotions of the consumers it must persuade to endorse its activities, rather than to their intellects. Selling science by offering detailed explanations is preaching to the choir and will only ever have a limited impact. Most journalists and a big chunk of the public simply don't understand scientific principles and aren't that interested in learning them. And although much current GM research still addresses the needs of agriculture rather than the desires of the consumer, there are some signs that the industry is slowly learning the importance of end-user appeal.
New varieties of maize engineered to significantly improve the yield of ethanol could change both the financial and carbon economics of biofuels dramatically for the better. And vegetable oil with enough Omega 3 content to cut rates of heart disease by up to 50% (and help preserve dwindling fish stocks too) will soon be available, thanks to GM soya containing a gene derived from fish.
But much more can and should be done. After all, how many people do you know who can give you a full technical rundown of how the internet, an i-Pod or a mobile phone actually work? But it hasn't stopped them from being three of the most popular technologies of all time.
WHAT IS GM? HERE COMES THE SCIENCE ...
Four key GM food crops are currently cultivated: maize, soya, oil-seed rape (canola) and cotton (for cotton-seed oil as well as fabric).
All of these plants have had a single gene derived from another organism (often a bacterium) inserted into their DNA to impart a useful but not naturally occurring trait. A gene is a short piece of DNA that is a blueprint for the production of a particular protein. So a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, which is the blueprint for a protein toxic to key pests of the cotton plant, is inserted into GM cotton to increase its pest resistance and reduce the need for pesticide sprays. Or a gene that imparts resistance to the herbicide glyphosate is inserted into GM maize, soya or oil-seed rape, enabling farmers to spray entire fields for weeds without harming the crop.
Fewer weeds means a better-yielding crop, and the use of biodegradable glyphosate is preferable to old-fashioned and much more toxic classes of chemicals.
The genes are inserted into the plants using laboratory-synthesised rings of DNA called plasmids, which contain the requisite gene, plus chemical instructions to make sure it goes where it is supposed to.
Plasmids can be injected into plant cell nuclei, or even shot at them by coating tiny tungsten particles with plasmid solution and 'firing' these particles out of a gene gun (the first gene gun was actually a modified air pistol). It's a hit-and-miss affair, but it works for any species.
Plasmids can also be introduced via a micro-organism called Agrobacterium tumefaciens. In the wild, this causes Crown Gall disease, a kind of plant 'cancer', by hijacking its host's DNA with a tumour-forming gene. This characteristic can be exploited in the laboratory to insert plasmids instead. It is more efficient, but suitable only for plants that are naturally susceptible to A. tumefaciens.
Second-generation GM crops that are just becoming available have multiple gene insertions to create what is called a 'stacked' effect - resistance to both glyphosate and key pests in one seed, for example.
Drought-resistant crops have long been promised by the industry but remain some years off. Engineering a better response to water stress is more complex, as it involves multiple genes interacting to switch one another on and off under different conditions and at different parts of the plant's life-cycle.
GM has also been used to produce Golden Rice, a variety of rice with much higher levels of beta-carotene (the precursor to vitamin A), to combat infant death and blindness from vitamin A deficiency in the developing world, and low-lignin varieties of grass, which reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the farts of cattle that graze on them.
'The world population will have grown 50% to 9 billion by 2050...Most of that growth will be in Africa and Asia, where vast tracts of land are unsuitable for growing currently available crops'