ASEE PRISM - October 2000

Opposition to genetically altered foods is strong across the Atlantic, and if protesters succeed in scaring away research funding, the U.S. stands to benefit.

By Thomas K. Grose

illustration by Rick Hanson LONDON--In April 1999, London's respected Sunday Times ran a short item, buried deep inside its news section, claiming that a researcher feared that genetically modified foods could infect humans with genes resistant to antibiotics used to treat meningitis. The story was incorrect. The scientist had warned the British government to be wary of the practice--no longer used--of using antibiotic marker genes in some genetically altered crops. Nevertheless, the next day, the Daily Mail tabloid rewrote the Sunday Times piece, without rechecking the sources, and put it on its front page, beneath a headline falsely screaming, "Scientists warn of GM (genetically modified) crops' link to meningitis."

Such cavalier coverage of bioengineered foods and research is not rare in Britain. It was its vibrant tabloid press that first labeled the crops "Frankenfoods." But Britain's media's often hysterical campaign against GM foods isn't shaping public opinion. Fleet Street is merely amplifying already prevalent concerns about genetically altered foods. Protests in which test fields of altered crops are ripped up are a routine occurrence here. Anti-GM food sentiment is abetted by high-level opponents, including Prince Charles and former Beatle Paul McCartney, and much of the rest of Europe is not far behind in the GM-food anxiety sweepstakes. A recent European Union poll found that 65 percent of Europeans don't want genetically enhanced foods in their diets. The EU has maintained a de facto, two-year moratorium on the commercial planting of any new GM crops not already approved, and Germany recently banned imports of a pest-resistant genetically altered corn.

Given the deep-seated antipathy toward bioengineered food among Europeans, their media, and some politicians, scientists here are growing fearful that governmental and industry funding of GM research could eventually dissipate, and that much of the research itself will migrate to more hospitable climates--the U.S. and Japan, for instance. Although there are many talented Continental researchers doing cutting-edge plant bioscience, they worry that they are increasingly unable to compete against well-funded American colleagues. That could mean the U.S. will benefit most from the eventual commercial payoffs these technologies produce. "I think that [a funding shortage] is already happening," insists Sjef Smeekens, a professor of plant molecular biology at Holland's Utrecht University, adding that a large number of European biotech companies are already spending most of their research money in America. "The anti-GM mood makes these companies reluctant to invest in Europe over the U.S."

Professor Christopher Leaver, head of plant sciences at Oxford University, agrees with Smeekens' assessment. He's discussed the situation with executives of the major plant biotech firms and come away from those meetings feeling "very worried." The companies believe, he says, "that the U.K. in particular and Europe in general is perceived as anti-GM foods," and that the market for bioengineered food technologies is shifting to America and Asia. "There is real, significant concern," Leaver says.

ATMOSPHERE OF DISTRUST

Peter Beyer, a researcher at the University of Freiburg in Germany, believes that politicians' fears of public mistrust of bioengineered foods led the European Union to cut funding for a number of GM food research projects, including a very promising one he is working on with Ingo Potrykus of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich. Beyer and Potrykus had gained recognition for the development of "golden rice," genetically altered to infuse it with beta-carotene, a building block of Vitamin A. Beyer says that every year five million people, mostly children in developing countries, go blind because of Vitamin A deficiency, and golden rice could some day help reduce those numbers. Twenty percent of Beyer and Potrykus' funding ($2.5 million over the last nine years) had come from the EU's Framework funding program. But the EU has now changed its formula for the next funding round, saying it wanted to put more money into scientific projects that could have a quicker commercial payoff. The upshot, Beyer says, is that "practically all" projects involving transgenic crops have not been re-funded. Their work with the rice will continue thanks to other financial sources, including the Rockefeller Foundation and Zeneca. Zeneca has also agreed to help with free, noncommercial distribution of the seed in Third World countries, while retaining commercial rights in the West. And Monsanto, the largest patent-holder of the technologies used to develop the rice, has ceded all commercial rights to the scientists. But meanwhile, Beyer notes, similar research in the U.S. is being underwritten by $30 million in federal aid. "The bulk of the work in this area over the next four or five years will be in the U.S. and Japan," he admits. Beyer calls the EU's rationale that it wants to fund only the most commercially viable projects a "convenient excuse" for caving in to unfounded public fears about genetically altered foods.

Smeekens of Utrecht agrees, calling Brussels' decision to make plant biologists vie against medical researchers for the same funds as "nothing less than a disaster, very damaging for European plant science." And that's particularly a shame, he says, because the EU had been a source of funds when spending on plant biotechnology by national governments was ebbing. The Netherlands, he says, spends just 1.6 percent of its GNP on science--a piddling amount, he charges--and only a fraction of that is for GM food research. Spending in France over the past eight years has increased, but at less than the rate of inflation. Britain has done somewhat better, although exact figures aren't available.

MAD COW FACTOR

Ever since the 1994 commercial introduction of the Flavr-Savr tomato--enhanced to give it a longer shelf-life--American consumers have generally accepted bioengineered foods without qualms, mostly dismissing scary claims from anti-GM food activists. But in Europe, opponents of GM foods have had more fertile territory in which to work. The 1996 Mad Cow disease disaster in Britain was a watershed event. It was the first of several, headline-grabbing food scares here in recent years.

Public and media attitudes toward food safety changed dramatically after the British government admitted that year that Reutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, the always fatal, human form of bovine spongiform encephalopathy--or Mad Cow disease--was caused by eating infected beef. That pronouncement came after years of assurances from scientists and government officials that there was no link between the two diseases. True, the Mad Cow debacle had nothing to do with genetically modified foods, but it made people less willing to trust official guarantees about food safety. And trust was further eroded by a veritable menu of scandals since then: e-coli bacterial infections in Scotland, meat and poultry products laced with dioxins in Belgium, and contaminated cans of Coca-Cola in Belgium. Says Peter Cotgreave, director of Save British Science:

"There is now this perception among people that scientists want to mess up the environment and make people ill."

In Britain, some opponents acknowledge that bioengineered foods have potential benefits, including decreased use of pesticides and healthier foods in greater abundance. And some say they aren't particularly worried that the handful of modified products already in the food chain are dangerous. But they are worried that GM crops could somehow infect other plants and weeds and do environmental harm. Food protesters play on those fears, often showing up in test fields they attempt to destroy wearing protective plastic suits, as if they were handling radioactive waste. GM crops are routinely labeled as "contaminants" in the press.



Greenpeace activists demonstrate outside a McDonald's in downtown Munich.  Some 50 Greenpeace members staged a protest blaming the fast-food chain for using genetically manipulated chicken feed.

Researchers are frustrated, saying that on one hand opponents say more testing is needed, yet often they oppose the very field tests necessary to evaluate any dangers. "If you stop the research now, it would be the worst thing you could do," insists Karin Metzlaff, manager of the European Plant Biotechnology Network in The Netherlands. "If we don't test it in a field we can't evaluate its effect on a field." But Smeekens suspects that many opponents "want [research] totally stopped. They're not interested in more research." Greenpeace, he adds, has become on this issue "like screamers on the street and has lowered its scientific principles."

Monsanto, the U.S. biotech firm that introduced GM foods to Europe, is also given very poor marks for the heavy-handed way it handled the media and public. It has been accused of trampling over European sensibilities and initially taking a condescending attitude toward opposition and patronizing the public over understandable fears. "Monsanto didn't do itself any favors," Cotgreave says. Beyer says Monsanto and its competitors also erred by first introducing GM crops that resist various herbicides. "There's no consumer demand for herbicide-resistant crops," Beyer notes. While these crops may benefit the companies and farmers, consumers can see no clear benefits, just risks. It would have been better, he says, to have come into the market initially with foods with obvious health or taste improvements that appealed to consumers.

Not all researchers are immediately worried about funding becoming scarce. Ray Mathia, a researcher and spokesman at the John Innes Center, a research facility in Norwich, England, says, "We have not yet seen any impact of either the media scare stories or the effects of pressure groups on our funding." Adds Vivian Moses, a visiting professor of biotechnology at King's College in London and director of CropGen, a lobbying group financed by the biotech plant industry: "There is no sign of financing drying up yet, but it depends on how the protests develop." But both say the situation could quickly change if the protests worsen or a scandal over GM foods erupts. And Mathia says that if the EU's moratorium on new plantings continues it could eventually push some companies out of Europe's markets.

The companies themselves are circumspect. Monsanto spokesman Tony Combs sidestepped a question on future funding plans in Europe. "I think our competitors like Novaratis would love to know what we are up to," he says. As for Switzerland-based Basel Novartis, spokesperson Sheena Bethall says that the company hasn't shifted research from Europe to America, but "of course, a great deal of work was already being done in the U.S." Field trials, Bethall explains, are only done in countries where Novartis hopes to market the product. So would it pull out of trials in countries where protests make testing and eventual marketing overly difficult? "It hasn't come to that point yet, but if the situation worsens, it could," she admits.

CONVERTING THE SKEPTICS

If there is one point of agreement it's that the scientific community needs to do more and better public relations to win over skeptical consumers. And that means acknowledging and understanding concerns, even when they are illogical, emotional, and unscientific. "I don't think there is much point in sitting around saying the public doesn't understand," Cotgreave says."There is a need for dialogue. If people are scared, there is no point in saying you shouldn't be." Mathia says that scientists need to rebuild trust and accountability with a dubious public, and that's best done by "showing how science works and what drives science."

Smeekens, however, isn't sure his European colleagues are up to the task. For one thing, he says, they are only now trying to organize themselves into effective lobbying bodies, a process that could take years--years in which rivals in the U.S. and elsewhere will pull even further ahead. For many years, he explains, research money came rolling in almost automatically and Europe's plant biotechnologists didn't have to worry about convincing lawmakers and the public of the value of their work. "Now we need to do this, but we are still not reacting the way we should. There is a big communications problem." He marvels at how well organized American researchers are. "My colleagues in the U.S., they testify in front of Congress. They have impact."

In Europe, Smeekens adds, most researchers are clueless when it comes to explaining their work or talking in the kind of sound bites best understood by the public and politicians alike. "I'm pretty negative about this," he concedes. Smeekens and many other scientists here fear that, if and when Europeans ever admit that bioengineered foods are palatable, the GM food industry--and the research that supports it--will have long ago moved on.

  Thomas K. Grose is a freelance writer living in London.

october navigation bar