Son of Frankenstein?

Unilever chairman Niall FitzGerald is trying to reopen the debate about GM crops and food in the UK. It was widely believed that the environmental and consumer ‘Frankenstein food’ campaigns of the late Nineties had destroyed any prospects of s

This time next year, scientists will be preparing to release some of the most explosive and eagerly awaited test results ever published in the UK. The research will help to set the direction of the UK food industry over the next decade. These will be the results of over 250 Government-sponsored crop trials – on genetically modified sugar and fodder beet, rape seed and forage maize – which have been running in locations around the British Isles since 1999.

Last week, the Government outlined the next round of Farm Scale Evaluations, which will start this spring. They will be the last of the three-year FSE programme, with the final trials planted in autumn. The trials are intended to go some way towards settling one of the most controversial issues to confront the food industry: whether growing genetically modified crops harms the environment. The results will fall far short of conclusive, as the trials are only designed to find out whether herbicide-resistant GM crops are more harmful to the diversity and abundance of farmland wildlife than are non-GM.

But if the tests show that there is little difference between the two – and a number of scientists privately think this will be the outcome – many in the food industry will jump on the results as justification of what they have been saying for the best part of a decade – that GM crops are harmless, and possibly even beneficial (requiring lower quantities of herbicides) – to the environment.

Last week, Unilever chairman Niall FitzGerald told a conference of food executives that the time had come to reignite the debate over the acceptability of GM – and to win it. This is seen as part of a strategy by the food industry to “soften up” public opinion in advance of a concerted effort to reintroduce genetically modified organisms, and their derivatives, to the human food chain.

Threshing it out

The industry axed GM food in the spring of 1999 after a successful campaign by environmentalists (MW May 27, 1999) and amid consumer fears about the long-term effects of GM foods on health and the environment. But last week, FitzGerald fired the starting gun on a new – and he hopes more effective – attempt to make GM publicly acceptable.

He told the conference: “I believe it is time for a fresh start on genetically modified organisms in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. Yet we face a barrier of deep public suspicion in Europe. Can it be overcome? I believe that it can, if we remember the importance of working with consumers and speaking their language.

“The mistake that has been made with GM crops and food is the failure to reach the consumer. People do not want to buy technology – they want to buy things that work for them, that deliver real benefits in terms of health, taste and quality. So far we have badly misjudged the public mood on this issue. We need to begin afresh.”

It is perhaps ironic to hear FitzGerald bemoaning the industry’s failure to connect with consumers, while at the same time heading a company whose very raison d’être has been satisfying consumer needs. But the industry is still smarting from the damage inflicted on its GM plans by the environmental lobby, and consumers’ blunt refusal to accept so-called “Frankenstein foods”. Unilever itself was forced into an embarrassing withdrawal of its GM-based Batchelors Beanfeast brand, and has axed GM ingredients from its Vesta range.

So will the industry be more successful this time around? There appears to be strong support within the sector for FitzGerald’s position. A recent debate, organised by trade magazine The Grocer, put Monsanto UK chief executive Hugh Grant up against the Soil Association’s Patrick Holden. The audience of food executives, retailers, producers, farmers and a few scientists voted by two to one in support of the motion that it is “time to put GM foods back on the shelves”.

Grant said: “I am encouraged by this result. It indicates that choice should be given back to UK grocery shoppers.”

Others are not so sure. None of the other UK food producers contacted by Marketing Week were willing explicitly to throw their weight behind a campaign to reintroduce GM into the UK.

Friends of the Earth (FoE) spokesman Adrian Bebb claims the debate was “packed out” with Monsanto employees, and as such the result was “unsurprising”. He says that Unilever is keen to promote GM because it would enable the company to expand its range of “functional food” products using genetically engineered crops. This would, he claims, open up a new sector of added-value new products which deliver specific benefits – such as medicines – through food. Without this opportunity, it will be harder for Unilever to construct a radical strategy for future profits growth.

Bebb adds: “I don’t know where Niall FitzGerald has been for the past two years, but the public have been having a debate about GM.”

He says the results of the Government trials will be of limited relevance to consumers, as they do not address wider questions about the safety of GM crops, in particular whether GM is safe to eat.

Indeed, the Government’s own Agriculture and Environment Biology Committee concluded last autumn that the trials would fail to address the wider safety implications of GM. The AEBC even accused ministers of knowingly misleading the public over the scope of the trials, saying: “The Government is fully aware that the information which will be provided from the FSEs is limited, but statements from ministers have not always made this clear.”

But FoE’s comments are dismissed as “a knee-jerk reaction” by Vivian Moses, visiting professor of biotechnology at Kings College. Moses is a member of Cropgen, a group of scientists which promotes the benefits of genetic engineering in agriculture. He believes that public acceptance of GM will come only when there are products that offer real benefits to consumers. These could take the form of fruit which has some major advantage such as medicinal use, or is much cheaper than the non-GM equivalent, or that merely tastes better than the non-GM variety. But he thinks the best way to soften up public opinion and stimulate a reasoned debate would be to introduce genetically modified non-food products first, as people would be less scared if they did not have to actually put GM products into their bodies. Alternatives could include fabrics made from GM cotton, or genetically engineered decorative plants with novel colours and shapes.

Unilever, however, says it has no plans to introduce any products containing GM ingredients.

It never really went away

UK supermarkets were among the first to act. In 1999 they began to axe GM food, pledging to ensure their own-label products were GM-free. But some, apparently, still sell products containing GM. One activist claims Sainsbury’s sells a brand of vegetarian bacon-style pieces, called Baco Bits, which contain GM ingredients. Sainsbury’s was unable to comment. A Safeway spokeswoman, meanwhile, says: “Our position is that, although we have eliminated GM from our own brands, that does not apply to branded manufacturers. We do not have that power over branded goods.”

So, if the industry is as eager as it claims to give consumers a choice over whether they eat GM foods, one of their number will have to produce some GM products. According to Daniel Pearsall of the Supply Chain Initiative on Modified Agricultural Crops (Scimac) – which is overseeing the crop trials – some of the products introduced in the first wave of GM during the late Nineties were more popular than non-GM varieties until the issue was pushed into the national spotlight by environmental campaigners. GM tomato paste was successful, he claims, and some consumers found it more tasty.

But he too plays down the importance of the crop trials: “Because they have been so high-profile, they have attracted more baggage than is relevant. The trials are just there to test the hypothesis about whether crops have an effect on biodiversity.”

If the tests conclude that biodiversity is not adversely affected by GM, seed producers will still need to get the go-ahead to grow the seeds commercially in the UK. They have so far held off, following a voluntary agreement with Government not to pursue commercial growing of GM crops until the trials have been evaluated. Scimac has worked to ensure that, if there is to be commercial GM cultivation in the UK, the produce will be carefully separated from non-GM crops, thus enabling the industry to give consumers a clear choice. Part of the problem with the first phase has been that GM and non-GM ingredients have been mixed together, giving the impression that consumers were being force-fed GM food. This had the effect of radically politicising the everyday act of eating.

There’s no escape

Some believe it is inevitable that GM, just like the euro, will come to the UK eventually. There is too much at stake for food producers to allow such an opportunity to pass, the reasoning goes. It was recently revealed that the total area of cultivatable land used for GM crops worldwide increased by a fifth last year, to 130 million hectares, an area twice the size of the UK. But Greenpeace anti-GM campaigner Charlie Kronick says that this represents a marked slowdown in the growth of GM cultivation, which expanded far more rapidly in the mid-Nineties. Just 14 countries permit GM cultivation, and only four of these – the US, Canada, Argentina and China – dedicate significant areas to it.

Kronick believes there is nothing inevitable about the reintroduction of GM in the UK. He says: “What is clear about GM is that it represents a further step down the road of intensive farming. Most submissions to the Government’s Food and Farming Commission on the future of agriculture show that people want less intensive farming. That is where there is a real opportunity to make a fundamental change.”

And even in the US, where there has been less unease about GM, activists have managed to persuade some chains to remove GM food from their shelves. A campaign against Kraft in the US, calling for it to axe GM, will be launched in February.

It is one thing for Niall FitzGerald to stand up after an enjoyable dinner (GM-free, presumably) and call for a new debate on this revolutionary technology. But a long and treacherous road will have to be travelled before UK consumers are persuaded that they will get any benefits from buying GM products.

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