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6 October 2012

Genetically Modified Foods

Tag(s): People, Technology

Less than half a mile from where I live is situated Rothamsted Research Centre, the oldest and largest agricultural centre in Europe with a mandate for food security, agricultural sustainability and adaptation of agriculture to the consequences of both climate change and depletion of fossil fuels. The Director and Chief Executive is Dr Maurice Moloney and last week I had lunch with him. Dr Moloney’s career in plant biotechnology spans more than 20 years. He has published more than 80 original research papers and is an inventor on 43 issued US patents and over 300 patents worldwide. He is also the founder of SemBioSys and served as the company’s President from 1994-98. He is a Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Calgary and held the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Chair in plant biotechnology from 1995 until 2003. Previously he was the head of the Cell Biology Group at Calgene Inc. in California, where he developed the first transgenic oilseed plants using Canola as the model. This resulted in a landmark patent in plant biotechnology and eventually became the basis of RoundUp Ready and Liberty Link Canola, which now command 85% of the Canola acreage in Canada, a market of more than $100 MM per annum.

Dr Moloney has been in the news this year for Rothamsted’s ground breaking work developing the world’s first Genetically Modified (GM) wheat crop which repels insects instead of killing them, thus reducing the chances of the pests developing immunity. Genetic Modification seeks to find ways of using natural protection rather than chemical insecticides, herbicides and fungicides. If crops were simply unprotected that would certainly lead to a food crisis. As it is the European Union imports over 40% of its food needs. Without good agricultural productivity there would be a crisis. Dr Moloney told me that at Calgene he was one of the first biochemists to successfully move genes from one organism to another. The philosophy of this type of science is to use the methods of protection that have already been invented in nature.

Many wild plants are naturally resistant to insects or funguses and some can even produce herbicides by themselves. Unfortunately as man tames and refines such plants in agriculture he breeds out those qualities that were found in the wild. A weed is resistant to aphids and is self-protective. DNA is now a familiar concept. It took almost ten years to sequence the first human genome. Now an individual genome can be sequenced in less than a week. Similarly it is now much simpler to understand the purpose of individual genes in plants, to identify their traits and to design plant modifications that involve moving these traits from one species to another. The hope is to reduce considerably the use of chemical pesticides.

One early experiment that proved this principle was to identify the gene that makes jellyfish luminous. Then this was transferred to a plant to see if it glowed. The experiment worked and thus helped to prove the principle. Much of this early work was conducted in universities in Belgium, Germany and the UK but by the 1980s big companies were starting to figure it out. Today every plant laboratory in the UK uses GM on an experimental basis but unfortunately considerable resistance to its use has built up in Europe, much more so than elsewhere in the world.

There is widespread ignorance about GM even though it is successfully used in a number of important applications. It ought to be a commonly agreed objective to reduce the use of chemical pesticides. Most insecticides are nerve toxins that while no doubt safe in the final foodstuff are undoubtedly a hazard to the farmers who spray them in huge quantities. Phosphates and other insecticides used in corn and cotton farming have been considerably reduced by 100 million pounds or so but most of this reduction is in North America, China and India but not Europe. Much of the technology was invented here but we don’t use it.

Firstly people object to it on what almost seems like theological grounds by calling it ‘Playing God’. But 'God' has already invented this stuff. Genes move in nature. There is antibiotic resistance in pathogens, but bacteria exchange DNA so that TB is now resistant to antibiotics. GM scientists seek to learn from what already exists in nature. Alexander Fleming did not invent penicillin. He observed its properties as a natural phenomenon.

A second objection on safety grounds is more rational. However, the assumption behind the objection is not.  People assert that what is natural is good and what is engineered or modified is bad. The language of marketing tells us that describing a product as natural is received positively. But botulism is natural. Deadly nightshade is natural. Scientists understand the need for proper testing regimes but GM scientists operate under very tight regulatory systems particularly in the EU while classical plant breeding has no such restriction.

Dr Moloney explained to me the need for the careful design of proper ecological experiments with an eye out for unintended consequences. His experiment on developing aphid resistant wheat is simple in concept. An aphid produces a volatile chemical signal when under attack. This is an aphid alarm phenomenon which other aphids scent and so avoid the area. Many weeds and even hops for beer and mint for our roast lamb produce the same compound. Aphids carry plant viruses as well as extract the valuable sugars from the crop. It is unlikely that the relevant gene transferred from mint to wheat would have any toxicological effect.

To date the experiment has proved successful in the laboratory. It has proved successful in the green house where it also attracted aphid predators such as wasps. Rothamsted has gone through a one year process of gaining approval from DEFRA for field trials for a two year experiment to allow for changes in weather conditions. Wheat is self-pollinating so there is no risk to other crops. Nevertheless this provoked angry protests from activists who threatened terrorist damage and other actions. It was necessary to introduce security and close some of the field paths that I often use on my weekend walks. Local opinion however has largely remained supportive. While some are sceptical they understand the need to conduct experiments to find out what is possible.

GM products are already widely used. Cheese today contains a GM enzyme that used to be derived from veal. People objected to the methods used in rearing veal and so cheese makers looked for another solution. Soft drinks bottlers like Coca-Cola no longer use sucrose as the sugar in their sweet beverages but fructose derived from corn-starch with the use of a GM enzyme. Diabetes sufferers inject themselves everyday with insulin which is produced through a GM organism. Many pharmaceutical products, notably antibiotics, are produced by GM.

Dr Moloney accepts that communication of all this to the public has been poorly managed. It has largely been left to companies to explain, and these, mostly American, have taken an aggressive stance that has alienated much of the public.  It needs well qualified academic scientists to take a lead and take out some of the emotion and the Frankenfoods nonsense.

I told Dr Moloney of my own experience in a similar vein about 25 years ago when I was running Green’s of Brighton, a cake mix manufacturer. At that time we were obliged to list ingredients on the packaging and those additives that had been approved for safe use by the European Union had a so-called E-number ascribed to each one. Although the purpose of this system was to advise the public what was safe one or two additives, notably colourings like tartrazine, were linked to possible behaviour issues with young children. While these links were not proved scientifically it would have been perfectly reasonable to suspend their use pending proper investigation. But the media jumped on all E-numbers assuming they were all bad. This was fatuous- even Vitamin C had an E-number- but the damage was done and we were forced into expensive reformulation to reduce E-numbers even when they performed useful and safe functions.

Dr Moloney reckons that as a result of the negative campaigns on GM foods the UK alone has exported 50,000 high quality jobs to North America. The EU has missed a golden opportunity in creating a huge new business with the benefit of improving safety and agricultural productivity and reducing the use of toxic chemicals. The first genetically modified tomato was developed at the University of Nottingham and there are many other examples of British pioneering in this field. Instead our agriculture has one of the highest usages of pesticide in the world. The food industry as a whole including agriculture, processing and distribution is easily the largest employer in the UK accounting for 30% of GDP. It’s a pity it isn’t able to also take a lead in such exciting technology but at least we have Rothamsted, seen as a beacon all round the world.

Copyright David C Pearson 2012 All rights reserved

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