- Final warning - We can't ignore the taco fiasco. Next
time it could be serious.
- THE contrast could hardly be starker. Two years ago,
when biochemist Arpad Pusztai claimed on British television that genetically
modified potatoes harmed rats, all hell broke loose. The reaction across
the country was little short of hysterical.
- Then, last month, American consumers learned that they
might have eaten taco shells containing genetically modified maize that
had not been approved for human consumption. Did they boycott Mexican food
? Did they picket supermarkets ? No. While a few green pressure groups
tried to turn the drama into a crisis, indifference ruled from coast to
- These events reveal the transatlantic gulf in attitudes
to genetically modified foods. It is a cultural curiosity, and so far a
pretty harmless one. But there is one difference between European and American
attitudes that does give cause for concern.
- Pusztai worked on rats, with potatoes that were never
intended for people to eat and his methods have been widely criticised.
Looked at this way, the British public overreacted. By comparison, the
- That's not to suggest there's any evidence that the tacos'
unwanted ingredient - StarLink maize - will harm anyone. The US Environmental
Protection Agency withheld full approval only because there is no way yet
to prove that the protein added to StarLink won't produce an allergic reaction
in humans. The alarming feature of the case is that it reveals the utter
inadequacy of controls meant to keep crops such as StarLink separate from
those destined for our tables.
- Up to now, this has not been a problem, because almost
all modified plants on the market have been food crops. But the next generation
of modified crops is going to be different. Biotech companies dream of
creating plants that produce everything from drugs and plastics to biofuels.
The predicament facing the food industry is that a banana containing a
potent drug is likely to look the same as the banana in your packed lunch.
- Many green activists will be delighted that the StarLink
case could delay the introduction of such products (see p 6) and deal a
blow to biotech companies' profits. But they would do well to reflect on
the possible benefits of these modified plants. Can we afford to reject
a technology that could deliver cheap vaccines and medicines, and help
wean the world off fossil fuels ?
- In the field, there will have to be strict controls to
stop strains modified to make raw materials for industry from cross-pollinating
food plants. And segregation will have to be enforced at mills and other
places where crops are collected. But there's nothing new here. Already
poisonous varieties of oilseed rape destined for industry are kept separate
from edible varieties.
- Above all, food companies must take responsibility for
the ingredients they use. Why was it left to Friends of the Earth to commission
the tests that found StarLink in taco shells ? The food industry needs
to get its act together before the new generation of modified plants arrives.
Next time, the consequences could be serious. Then even Americans might
lose their taste for genetic engineering.
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