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Friday, 14 June, 2002, 17:57 GMT 18:57 UK
GM crops: A bitter harvest?
Scientists recognised the dangers genetic engineering could pose from the beginning
Scientists couldn't agree on safety measures
GM food has been the subject of much debate and controversy. A new BBC Two series charts its history, including the first field trial and the first field trashers.

In 1972, scientists based at Stanford University, California, discovered genetic engineering - at the time its importance was compared with man's discovery of fire.

But right from the start, scientists saw both the benefits and dangers in this new science. While genetic engineering might offer the possibility of new cures for diseases, it could also cause epidemics.

The scientists could not agree on how to proceed and in February 1975 a meeting was convened in California to try to reconcile differences. Top scientists were invited from America, Britain, mainland Europe and even from behind the Iron Curtain.

The discussions were heated, but faced with the threat of government intervention or the possibility that scientists themselves might be held responsible if something went wrong, the group finally announced a consensus on safeguards.

Public outrage

However, others were less convinced. The citizens of the town of Cambridge were up in arms when neighbouring Harvard decided to upgrade its old biology laboratories.


The pharmaceutical industry and agricultural sector are leading edges of American economic and technological innovation, we wanted to make sure that innovation wasn't impeded

US government adviser C Boyden Gray
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Professor Jonathan King: "Cambridge was the beginning of the lay citizen saying, 'no, this is a technology that's going to impact us. We pay for it... and we're going to have some say over how it's deployed, or to make sure it's deployed safely'."

Despite these protests, the US Government were keen to press ahead with genetic engineering.

GM 'boost to US economy'

By the late 1970s, America was having difficulty competing with the Japanese and the Germans in high-tech areas. The US Government saw the promotion of biotechnology as a way of rejuvenating its economy.

Adviser to former US President George Bush Snr
C Boyden Gray
C Boyden Gray, Counsel, President Bush 1989-93: "The pharmaceutical industry and agricultural sector are leading edges of American economic and technological innovation. We wanted to make sure that innovation wasn't impeded and was in fact allowed to bloom as much as possible."

Consequently, the administration decided the new technology did not warrant extra regulation.

Advanced Genetic Sciences (AGS) was one of the first companies to specialise in agricultural biotechnology. Its first product was Frostban and was designed to protect fruit from frost.

First GM crop


These products [Genetically modified bacteria] are alive, so they are inherently more unpredictable when you place them in the environment

Anti-GM activist Jeremy Rifkin
Dr Julie Lindemann worked for AGS on the first Frostban trial: "Frostban was a biological control agent... the bacterium could be applied at the blossoming stage to frost-sensitive plants such as almonds or peaches or strawberries, and could prevent the growth of the bacteria that catalyse ice formation.

"In this way, if there was a light frost, the number of bacteria there would not be sufficient for ice to form at relatively warm sub-zero temperatures."

A field in Brentwood, California, was chosen as the site for testing. For the first time a genetically engineered organism was about to be released into the environment, causing alarm among many campaigners.

Writer and anti-GM activist Jeremy Rifkin: "What differentiates genetically engineered products from petrochemical products is these products are alive. So they are inherently more unpredictable when you place them in the environment.

"These products reproduce. Chemical products don't do that. These products mutate. Chemical products don't do that."

First GM crop trashers

Protester Andy Caffrey
Anti-GM crops protester Andy Caffrey
Jeremy Rifkin now had new allies. They called themselves Earth First or more jokingly The Strawberry Liberation Front or even Mindless Thugs Against Genetic Engineering.

Andy Caffrey from Earth First recalls: "When I first heard that a company in Berkley was planning to release these bacteria Frostban in my community, I literally felt a knife go into me.

"Here once again, for a buck, science, technology and corporations were going to invade my body with new bacteria that hadn't existed on the planet before. It had already been invaded by smog, by radiation, by toxic chemicals in my food, and I just wasn't going to take it anymore."

On the night before, the field was attacked. The world's first trial site attracted the world's first field trasher.

Andy Caffrey: "Everybody was crawling on their bellies between each row and just grabbing at the plants and two rows at a time, just crawling up until they got to the end and then turning around. And the whole thing was done in about 15-20 minutes."

Despite all their efforts, the protesters failed to destroy the crop, which was re-planted by the farmer.

Still, the scientists were worried that somebody might go to extreme lengths to stop the test.

Dr Julie Lindemann: "There was talk before we went out to do the study of the chance that one of us might be injured by trying to put the test on. Would someone possibly come after us with a gun? We had to at least consider that scenario."

Despite all the protests Dr Lindemann says the experiment was a success, and refutes campaigners' claims they could have been harmful.

She told the programme: "We were able to show that you could put a study out with a genetically engineered bacterium and that it could be done safely."

Though Frostban was never used commercially in farming, the test itself was a milestone.


You can watch Bitter Harvest: Out Of Eden, the first of a three-part series, on BBC Two, on Sunday, 16 June, 2002, at 2000 BST.
 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Peter Day
"The inside story of, possibly, the most powerful technology ever developed"
See also:

09 Jun 02 | Americas
08 Jun 02 | Scotland
28 May 02 | Scotland
14 May 02 | Science/Nature
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