Memorandum by Professor Derek Burke former
Vice-Chancellor, University of East Anglia and former Chairman
of the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP)
THE 1998 ANNUAL
2. Over the last year, genetically modified
foods have been entering supermarkets in Britain. The outcome
has been mixed; for some have been accepted without hesitation
by the public; for example, "vegetarian cheese" and
the paste made from genetically modified tomatoes. But others,
notably the flour from genetically modified soya beans and an
insect resistant corn have caused considerable controversy. Why
is this, and what will be the effect on the farmer?
3. I do not need to remind you how much change
your industry is going through. First, there have been massive
changes in the agrifood business, with substantial consolidation
so that only a handful of companies are left, all operating world-wide.
The seed companies have also been caught up in this rationalisation,
as have the plant biotechnology companies. Then too, major changes
have taken place in the food industry over the last 20-30 years,
in particular in the role of the big supermarket retailers. The
food retailers, with their formidable buying power, control the
food chain. The consumer now expects a very wide choice of foods
at ever decreasing prices and constantly improving quality. Then
there is a third agent for change, for the development of biotechnology
can provide products which are cheaper, healthier or last longer.
4. Biotechnology depends on our capacity to
move any gene from one species to another, and to get it to work
in the new host. The old species barriers have gone. So materials
made by humans can now be made in bacteria, and substances made
by bacteria plants. Some of the applications of biotechnology
are obvious; the supply of insulin for diabetics is no longer
limited. Farmers will be able to use less herbicide in raising
crops such as soya, and lose less of their corn crop to insects.
Recently too, other genes, genes that control plant development
have been isolated: for example, the genes that control flower
shape and colour in the snap-dragon so that we can start to manipulate
flower shape, and control colour for the horticultural industry.
More importantly, the genes that control the plant's response
to day length have been isolated, so that it may be possible,
by modifying these genes, to produce plants that come to maturity
more quickly, with a huge economic impact.
5. What is Biotechnology likely to produce?
It offers the food industry new processes and new products. The
most straightforward developments will be a whole series of new
and improved enzymes for food processing, for example, the enzyme
chymosin used in cheese curing and now largely made in bacteria.
Biotechnology will also be used for the modification of existing
foods, for example, the introduction of unsaturated fatty acids
or production of fats yielding fewer calories. The science is
straightforward, and there seems to be little consumer concern.
A Mars bar which claims to yield fewer calories is already on
sale in the US.
6. Then there will be many new plant products,
of three general types;
Modifications of the genetic material
of plants to extend their shelf life by slowing down the enzyme
responsible for the breakdown of the plant cell walls, for example
the new tomato, and a melon to come; this will affect quality.
Modification of the genetic material
of plants to produce novel parental lines for the production of
new F1 hybrids, for example rape, affecting yield.
Modification of the genetic material
of plants to introduce resistance to herbicides or pests, for
example, both soya and corn, also affecting yield.
7. Then some suggestions, roughly in a time
sequence, for plants, for both speciality and commodity crops:
Continued development of rapid genetic
typing methods to speed conventional plant breeding systems, leading
to the identification of genes responsible for desirable traits,
and their transfer to other species, for example between the cereals.
Continued development of genetic
manipulations, along the lines of herbicide resistance, involving
one or more genes, with the production of plants resistant to
many herbicides, and a wide variety of pathogens, including viruses,
bacteria and fungi, thus greatly reducing or eliminating the hugh
losses due to these agents.
Continued development of novel fertility
systems, leading to the production of new F1 hybrids, with increased
Continued development of fruits and
vegetables with longer shelf lives and better shipping characteristics.
Modification of fatty acid synthetic
pathways to produce oils containing different, and more suitable,
fats and to produce starches for either dietary or industrial
Genetic modification of fruits and
vegetables with the aim of improving flavour, texture and nutritional
content. Conversely, elimination of genes for toxicants and allergens.
Isolation, and utilisation of more
complex genetic systems such as those controlling salt tolerance,
drought resistance and response to day length, making possible
the production of plants which can be grown in a much wider variety
Isolation of the genes that control
development means that we can start to manipulate flower shape,
and colour for the horticultural industry.
Similar isolation of the genes that
control the plant's response to day length means that it may be
possible, by modifying these genes, to produce plants that come
to maturity more quickly, and so push North, for example the Northern
limit for growth of rape in Canada.
Production of drugs and vaccines
8. Developments in animals, apart from those
leading to the production of high value/low volume drugs from
transgenic animals will be slower; for here there is greater public
concern. But some predictions are possible:
Development of rapid genetic typing
techniques will revolutionise animal breeding, enabling the identification
of the genes critical for elite stocks and their transfer, using
cattle, pigs and horses or poultry.
Similarly, the identification of
genes for undesirable traits will accelerate our ability to remove
them from breeding stock.
Better understanding of infectious
disease pathogens should lead to the ability to breed animals
with increased disease resistance.
Genes could be introduced to enable
cows to produce milk that is much closer in its composition to
human milk for feeding to babies.
A similar approach could be used
to produce transgenic animals with, for example, less body fat.
However it will, I think, be some time before such animals are
acceptable for food.
9. How far have these developments got? It is
well known that Monsanto's herbicide-resistant soya "Roundup
Ready" is already on the European market, and there are many
more such crops coming through. One way of finding out is to look
at the list of those genetically modified crops that have been
registered and are now deregulated for field testing in the United
States. Sixteen new products in six crops were deregulated in
the last year and a half, joining seven previously deregulated
products, a total of 23. The crops include soya, cotton, rape,
potato, corn, tomato and squash.
10. The first recorded field trials of transgenic
crops were carried out in 1986; and by the end of 1995, over 3,600
field trials had been carried out across 34 countries with at
least 56 crops. This year a total of about 30 million acres have
been planted with transgenic crops, mostly in the USA and China.
This year, nearly 15 per cent of the US soybean harvest has been
grown from genetically modified seed, up from 2 per cent in 1996.
China is thought to be growing over four million acres of genetically
modified tobacco and tomatoes. The scene is very different in
Europe; the EU's approval process for novel crops is slow, causing
tensions with the US over the delay in permitting imports of genetically
modified food supplies. There have also been difficulties in defining
what has to be labelled and how.
11. What problems may be encountered with the
introduction of these new crops? First environmental issues. Will
transgenes escape to wild or weedy species, how far will the pollen
from genetically modified rape spread, what will be the effect
of volunteers on the next year's crop, will the cultivation of
large acreages of insect resistant plants alter the insect ecology,
will there be changes to plant associated microbes in the soil,
will antibiotic-resistance genes transfer from plants to man through
gut bacteria? The environmental issues are being carefully regulated
by a committee, called ACRE. It is being careful and cautious,
insisting on a series of controlled trials; and the pollen dispersal
and the adjacent flora are being monitored to see if there is
any spread of the GM crop. So far, GM crops behave in the same
way as the unmodified crop.
12. The concerns arising from the widespread
growing of GM has led the NFU to develop proposals for post-release
monitoring, and very recently, the EC stated that they have now
adopted the principle of post-release monitoring to "verify
the non appearance of any harmful effects on human health and
the environment". The details of this monitoring process
are not yet available.
13. Then, as you know, segregation and labelling
of soya and maize have raised major problems in Europe. Herbicide
resistant soya was genetically modified by the introduction of
a gene from a soil bacterium to make the soya resistant to the
herbicide glyfosate. The ACNFP had no safety concerns, and labelling
was not required. It did, however, recommend the provision of
information on a voluntary basis by the retailer, the practise
followed in the case of the successful launch of the paste from
genetically modified tomatoes earlier in the year. In the case
of maize, the ACNFP recommended against authorisation of this
product for use in the UK because of the perceived risk of the
transfer of an antibiotic resistance gene in the maize to the
bacterial flora in the gut of livestock that had been fed the
maize, with the eventual possibility of transfer to humans. This
recommendation was overruled by the EC on a majority vote, but
a number of EU members would not accept this decision, because
of consumer pressure, and the situation has not yet been resolved.
The maize is only to be used as an animal feed, and as a source
of starch for food ingredients, and has yet to be imported or
grown in Europe, though France has just been given clearance for
Bt maize to be grown in 1998.
14. However, soya is now entering the UK, and
the retailers have not been able to offer their customers choice
between a modified and an unmodified product, because of the lack
of segregation in the United States of the soya crop. This has
meant that choice is effectively no longer available to the consumer
in the UK, and soya is included as an ingredient in the majority
of processed foods. It is not surprising that North American farmers
are unwilling to segregate their GM crops, since there seems to
be little demand for segregation in North America, while the costs
of segregation would be considerable and would counter any benefit
of growing them. The US government has supported the farmers in
this stance by clearly stating that any attempt to ban the import
of soya or maize would be considered as a breach of WTO agreements.
15. So despite the best efforts of the retailers,
who have provided a range of useful information leaflets and a
help line, there has been substantial consumer concern because
of the absence of choice. It is therefore good news that the NFU
has recently launched two complementary codes of practise for
the growing of GM crops in the UK. The codes lay out guidelines
to ensure traceability, via a seed package identifier plus accompanying
information appropriate for on-farm record keeping, segregation,
and the post-harvest documentation that accompanies each crop
consignment. These procedures should ultimately allow foods that
contain the material that was derived from GM crops to be labelled
to ensure consumer choice. In the absence of segregation, a number
of companies are developing tests to detect transgenic material
so that foods that contain modified soya can be labelled. Experience
with the modified tomato paste in the UK shows that consumers
will buy a clearly labelled product, especially when it is cheaper
than the conventional can sitting alongside it on the supermarket
16. However, the situation over labelling is
still unsatisfactory. No doubt stirred by the public dissatisfaction
earlier this summer, the European Commissioners proposed a labelling
framework for products from GM crops. There were to be three categories.
The first, which is voluntary labelling was negative; e.g.,
"This does not contain material of GMO origin",
while the other two were mandatory and were either "This
contains material of GMO origin", or "This may
contain material of GMO origin". Then on 31 July 1997, the
EU agreed that the rules should also apply to GM products that
had already been approved for use in the EU, such as soya and
maize. The exact labelling requirements for such products were
to have been outlined by the EC in early November, but this has
not yet happened. Mainly because of this confusion and delay,
the IGD announced, on 20 November 1997, that their members were
to introduce voluntary labelling guidelines for 1998 for products
containing soya. They have decided that products containing soya
should be labelled as "containing" GM soya. The
"may contain" label is not to be used.
17. So, given these problems, why is the cultivation
of genetically modified crops growing so quickly, as the figures
I quoted earlier show? Herbicide-resistant soya has real advantages
for the farmer. In the US, where Spring sowing is normal, the
use of a post-emergent herbicide means some changes in agronomic
practise, leading to retention of more moisture in the soil, and
partly because of this, and partly because of the slightly longer
growing season, and partly because of the effectiveness of the
herbicide Roundup, the yields are significantly higher.
18. The introduction of these new crops will
mean changes in the way farmers work. Monsanto are asking for,
and obtaining, an increased price for the genetically modified
seed, and also an agreement making it impossible to sell or sow
seed from the harvest. The Company will also supply the farmer
with a card that enables him or her to buy Roundup at a reduced
price for use on the crop.
19. So, in summary the farmer in the US will
soon be planting genetically modified crops on a wide scale, and
it is inevitable that Europe will follow, although I cannot predict
how much of a delay there will be. These new crops will however
bring a much closer relationship between the farmer and the agrifood
company, who will sell both seed and herbicides, and also a similar
closer relationship between the farmer and the retailer, for complete
traceability will be essential. There may also be a need for a
licensing system of some sort to monitor, and, if necessary, control