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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 May, 2003, 16:05 GMT 17:05 UK
Six Forum: Your questions on GM food
Six Forum: Genetically Modified Food
BBC Science Correspondent Pallab Ghosh answered your questions in the Six Forum, presented by Manisha Tank.



Genetically modified (GM) crops will need monitoring for years if they are grown in the UK, British scientists say.

The warning comes from the Royal Society, the UK's national academy of science.

It says ministers should not guess what will work and then simply hope for the best.

However, Professor Patrick Bateson of the society says he believes GM crops could confer worldwide benefits if they're used correctly.

What are the pros and cons of GM foods? How should the government monitor crops? Could GM food benefit the third world?

BBC Science Correspondent Pallab Ghosh answered your questions in the Six Forum, presented by Manisha Tank.


Transcript:


Manisha Tank:

Hello and welcome to the Six Forum with me, Manisha Tank. The Royal Society - the UK's national academy of science - has warned that genetically modified crops will need monitoring for years if they're grown in the UK. The Government's being urged not to play guessing games with the effects of GM crops. But the Royal Society still holds that GM crops do have their worldwide benefits if they are used correctly.

Well tonight the BBC's science correspondent, Pallub Ghosh, joins me to answer your questions. Pallub, first of all we've had an anonymous text message in asking: What exactly is GM?
Because the public education about the subject isn't necessarily that broad.


Pallab Ghosh:

I think that's an excellent question and it informs all the other questions that are bound to arise. If we start with what selective breeding is, which is where for centuries farmers have combined different crops to try and improve crops. So, for example, if a farmer crossed a big cabbage with a particularly tasty cabbage, he'd hope to get a big, tasty cabbage. So that kind of thing has gone on for generations and we've ended up with the crops that we have.

What genetically modified production involves is actually rather than relying on the random exchange of genes that you have in selective breeding, you actually pick a certain quality - so it's a more targeted approach. So, for example, Monsanto produced a type of cotton that's resistant to pests - they've introduced a gene specifically into the DNA of a normal variety of cotton plant that produces a chemical that is toxic or horrible in taste to the pests that feed on GM cotton - so the idea is that you don't get bitten them away by weevils and pests and you have a greater output.


Manisha Tank:

Now there are some of the benefits inherent in being able to do that and to modify these crops in that way. But before we get to the possible benefits and how it can affect farming etc. - more on public education. Chris Knight, Bristol, asks: Why do we feel it necessary to listen to public opinion on issues like this? I can't believe that the average man on the street even knows the process undertaken to genetically modify organisms.

So perhaps it's not necessary to know exactly how it happens but what is happening is probably more necessary. But basically he's asking: is the public ignorant - and you've sort of answered that question - but how can they be educated further?


Pallab Ghosh:

In the UK we're about to embark on a national public debate on GM crops starting on June 3rd. The idea of that is to have large and small and local public gatherings where people are given information about GM crops, that are able to talk to experts about it and discuss it among themselves. And it's not just about being an expert in the technology or being an expert scientist, the point is that GM crops are something that affects all of us. It's something that in the UK we've got to make a decision about - whether we choose to buy it in the supermarkets. There are consequences in terms of control of the food chain, in terms of potential effects on human health, potential effects on the environmental and those are political issues and that's why the general public ought to have a say in these issues and also to inform themselves so they can divide the fact from fiction as the different pressure groups start engaging in this debate.


Manisha Tank:

And they certainly have - ActionAid has been out there and has been quite vocal about it and the Royal Society, as I mentioned. We have an e-mail from David who asks: Which is more dangerous: selective breeding or genetic modification?


Pallab Ghosh:

As I've said to a lot of people, genetically modified crops is an extension of selective breeding. Now where the two opinions differ is that some groups who are for GM crops feel that there are no greater or lesser dangers in the technology because we've been doing it for years with selective breeding. But there are those are concerned about it - they are saying that when you mix a large cabbage with a tasty cabbage, you're mixing two things that have been naturally produced. When you're artificially creating something, then its effect on the environment is less stable because it hasn't got the genetic backup, as it were. So there may be instances where you might get a gene that finds its way into another plant through cross pollination and who knows what the consequences of that might be. They feel there are too many unknowns and we ought to do far more research before we grow them in the wild and before we sell them to public.


Manisha Tank:

Pallub, an e-mail that's just come in. John White in Kent: Why should we trust scientific opinion regarding the safety of GM crops in the environment? The majority of scientific research is carried out by the companies who stand to make most money from these developments.

Monsanto, for example, has come under a lot of fire in the past years for what it is doing on GM?


Pallab Ghosh:

Well an awful lot of money is spent by public bodies in GM, particularly since in the UK there has been concern about it, a lot of public money has been devoted to this research. And indeed the Government's own chief scientific adviser is doing a review of all the available research, much of which has been funded by public funds.

What I'd say about the privately funded research is that it is not in the private companies' interest to produce any products that are ultimately going to get them sued. So while you have to treat some of their results with caution, you do have to bear in mind it's in their interests to make sure that they're not environmentally dangerous or dangerous to the public health.


Manisha Tank:

You touched there on the public involvement in this as well - the state's involvement in GM. Phil Smith, Brighton: How can the Government really know how GM crops affect us and the environment?

There was at least one person at the Royal Society who was quite instrumental in saying that the Government shouldn't be playing guessing games - you can't know the outcome, you've got to be very careful about what you say.


Pallab Ghosh:

Well that said, we can't know for sure about anything at all - so if that were the case then we wouldn't have any technological development whatsoever. The issue is that on the one hand some people argue that GM crops have huge potential benefits - they could reduce the costs of food production which a lot of people would welcome. They could increase the amount of food that's produced which would go a long way towards solving problems of malnutrition in some parts of the world. You could also get crops of higher nutrition which would also benefit.

But on the downside, there is this potential threat to the environment. And what the professor at the Royal Society said is that although in the UK we have been doing some research into the effect of GM crops on the environment, we've only been doing it for a few years and we need to monitor it over a period of the long term to see what the environmental consequences could be in 10, 20 or 30 years time. And the issue is, for we at the society decide, whether we feel these potential benefits are worth any potential risks and also to try and minimise any of those risks.


Manisha Tank:

On now then to the benefits and just the whole reason why GM was even investigated in the first place and what it can do for the world. Robert Kimber, England: Why do we need GM crops? Is it not possible to achieve the same benefits inferred by GM crops, simply by using well conceived and sustainable farming methods?

And what's interesting here is a report that we heard on the Six O'Clock News from Barnaby Phillips, pointing out those very differences in South Africa. Where you are having some people saying, great we've had a bumper crop because we've used these GM seeds - they've come from Monsanto. And then other people saying, no actually organic farming can work.


Pallab Ghosh:

But the heart of the GM debate, certainly in the issue of the developing world, its intensely political. That there is a development community that feels that food shortage is not a matter of technology - it's a matter of trade, having access to markets, curing the social and international problems that plague some of these people. And for a foreign multinational corporation to come into a country and offer a solution is avoiding the real issue. And also there's concern that you got foreign companies owning something as strategically important as food.

So people on the development side argue that what really would solve the problem, as the questioner suggests, is to give the farmers the back-up they need to grow local varieties in the way that they want. Crops properly grown are enough to feed the world. Conversely, the GM companies argue that with the growth in population in some parts of the world, current methods of agriculture won't be able to keep up. And whether it is a political issue, let's try and solve the political issues but hand-in-hand let's provide a technological solution if there is one.


Manisha Tank:

Michaela, Manchester asks: Why is there an argument that GM will feed the world, when we already have enough food in the world to feed everyone - but the richest countries still own that food?

This is obviously an interesting question when we've just this week we've had Bob Geldof complaining about the fact that the EU haven't been sending food to Ethiopia when other countries have - things like this - it's about distribution on the one hand, again another political game. But on another scientific aspect of things where you might use these GM foods - a question from Michael in Manchester who asks: Won't nature just breed pests resilient to GM crops anyway.
Again there's this debate about will it create more poverty or more hunger - which way does it go?


Pallab Ghosh:

Well, the issue of enough food in the world - that is an argument that's often raised. The problem, as you say, is distribution, just because there are food mountains in Europe, for various reasons, its difficult and uneconomic to distribute it to those who need it the most. And yes it is to cure some of the infrastructure problems but many countries, particularly in Africa, are unable cope with swings in weather conditions and political instability.

There is concern about the development of pests that become resistant to GM crops. But those who argue for GM crops would say that it's not just about pest resistance - GM crops can increase yield, they can produce varieties that are resistant to drought. What we have available at the moment is just the start of a whole new generation of crops that are not only going to produce more food but are actually environmentally better because they require less pesticide, less weed killer and perhaps will have a less damaging effect on the environment than traditional agricultural methods.


Manisha Tank:

But Pallub understandably, one viewer who's e-mailed us - who unfortunately didn't give us their name or where they from - pointing out because of mass crop farming that could be certainly assisted by this, will we end up seeing small scale farmers actually losing their livelihoods because other crops are doing so well?


Pallab Ghosh:

Well that's the fear and small scale farmers have always faced this disadvantage. Those people who've got larger farms, have got larger economies of scale and can produce more for less unit cost. What the GM companies have been doing is they've been making an effort to try and promote their products to small scale farmers. They feel that they stand to gain the most, provided they get the right loans and financing to back them up, even though the initial cost is more if they're more resistant to swings in drought and harvest and so forth. Those are the things that small farmers are most vulnerable to so their technology benefits the poor farmers - the small scale farmers - the most.


Manisha Tank:

A text just in from Andrew Sanders looking at costs: If GM crops contain terminator genes, won't they be more expensive in the long term?


Pallab Ghosh:

Well GM crops are more expensive because they offer more options, as it were. But the point is that what they claim to do is to increase the yield and so any farmer buying GM seeds will, if it all works out, make more money. The point about the terminator gene is that it means that seeds can't be reused from that crop. They aren't actually being widely used at the moment in the field. But the idea is that people using GM seeds have to pay for the seeds year after year - which many do anyway. But if they are able to recoup those costs - it will be the market that decides. If these poor farmers feel they're getting value for money by paying for more expensive seeds every year then they'll go for it - if they don't they won't.


Manisha Tank:

And we know that sometimes the market can be very fickle. Let's just bring it back down to the UK now and focus here. M Brown, Woking, Surrey asks: Will GM foods used in food preparation or sold as fresh food be properly identified on labels so that myself and others can boycott them?
Obviously this is the big debate that's growing - this is why the BBC is covering GM issue so closely. The Government's going to have these decisions.


Pallab Ghosh:

Well the Government is committed to labelling. The Food Standards Agency has said there should be clear labelling of GM crops and the supermarkets generally, whether there was legislation or not, they feel that it is important to label - there has been this great trend towards labelling. So those who have objections to GM crops or concerns about it will be able to pick and choose. One of the issues though is whether supermarkets, or governments indeed can source every single ingredient that goes into a particular processed food. It is very, very difficult, particularly if the amount of GM crops grows because you get all sorts of ingredients from all sorts of locations and it increases the cost for the producer to try and find out where every single ingredient came from. So there is a commitment to labelling - as to how effective it is, is the open question.


Manisha Tank:

A final question from Magnus Johnson, Scarborough: If GM crops and products are ok, companies should not object to transparent labelling
From what you're saying, companies should not object to transparent labelling and from what you're saying companies have made it perfectly clear that is exactly what they'll do.


Pallab Ghosh:

Yes, when Astra Zeneca introduced genetically modified tomato paste in the UK, sold by Safeway, they clearly labelled it as genetically modified and then used it as a selling device. But very shortly after that became this whole concern about GM crops and it was quickly taken off the shelves. So the food companies do want to sell GM as GM and they do want to promote GM as a good thing.


Manisha Tank:

Well we have to finish there. I am afraid that's all the time we have. Pallub Ghosh, our very own science correspondent, thanks very much.




SEE ALSO:
GM crops 'need long-term monitoring'
27 May 03  |  Science/Nature
Bush: Africa hostage to GM fears
22 May 03  |  Americas
GM food ban would be 'illegal'
19 May 03  |  Science/Nature
National Trust urges GM boycott
11 May 03  |  Science/Nature
GM foods 'not harmful'
08 May 03  |  Science/Nature


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