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  • Nick Lander
Written by
  • Nick Lander
16 Aug 2002

The debate over genetically modified foods may have slipped from the front pages but this situation can only be temporary. It is an issue of such critical importance that no-one - government, scientists, farmers, consumers or those in developing countries - can ignore it for long.

Professor Mark Winston's lucid new book, Travels in the Genetically Modified Zone, is therefore both timely and valuable, not least because it is easy to read and understand, even for the non-scientist. As the issue confronts the whole of the planet, this book deserves to be as big as seller as any Harry Potter adventure.

Winston, Professor of Biological Sciences at Simon Fraser University, British Columbia, began to take an interest in genetically modified crops in the mid-1990s because, as an example of the major criticism he levels at the scientific community which supports GM crops, even as a fellow scientist he was refused access to their studies for proprietary reasons. He oversees a department in bee biology which was being continually questioned by beekeepers what effects the genetically modified crops of cotton, soybean and canola, on which their bees forage, may have on their honey.

This apparently innocuous question initially aroused Winston's scientific curiousity. Silence from US and Canadian regulatory officials and their counterparts in private industry fuelled his determination to investigate the far bigger picture.

This investigation takes Winston initially to Iowa where Roswell Garst initiated this crop revolution in the 1920s. From there the author zigzags in search of the truth: to Vancouver to meetings of Bad $cience, a movement vehemently opposed to GM crops; to Washington DC to meetings of government regulators, harrassed on both sides by pro- and anti-lobbyists; and to the UK, home to Gene-Watch and a particularly successfully orchestrated opposition to GM crops.

What distinguishes all Winston's reporting is his even-handedness. He is equally critical of both sides. Once he had discovered that GM crops do not affect the bees that had prompted his concern, he went on to discover, and proves convincingly, that their side effects have been widely exaggerated. If that is the case, he asks of pro-GM scientists, why are you so defensive, proprietorial and arrogant?

This attitude seems particularly regrettable, he argues, since the anti-GM movement has so successfully grabbed the middle ground with clever (but totally unproven, as the author also demonstrates) phrases such as Frankenfoods, slogans which, Winston believes, have stopped any intelligent debate and progress.

Whilst hugely sympathetic to the organic movement, the author points an accusatory finger at all those (myself included) who in the luxury of the developed world have put emotion before science. We are guilty, in particular, of ignoring just what can be done for those in developing countries, with the bio-engineered example of Golden Rice, which has added vital Vitamin A to rice, a striking example.

Winston concludes with four strong recommendations. Each new type of genetically modified food should be tested for safety and its environmental impact - and this must happen before products reach the market. (Winston is concerned about which genes jump from GM crops to wild plants and how often cultivated GM crops become weeds.) Independent organisations should conduct this safety research rather than governments, which in North America have boosted biotechnology rather than policing it. And the biotechnology industry must confront consumer concerns and drop their opposition to mandatory labelling. As long as the biotechnology companies persist in saying that their products are safe and therefore do not require labelling, concern and opposition will never disappear.

For all this to happen Winston demands more accurate information on the potential risks from the scientific community which brought us genetic engineering and a broader, more even-handed approach from governments and their regulators. But while governments work so interdependently with biotechnology companies on both sides of the Atlantic this solution is, alas, highly unlikely.

Travels in the Genetically Modified Zone, Harvard University Press, $27.95, £19.50. 280pp.