Brits Oppose GE Sugar

The [London] Guardian (U.K.) March 21 1998

Food chains Joanna Blythman

Sweet surrender

Britain's sugar barons are refusing to accept any genetically- engineered sugar beet through their factory gates. The reason: they don't want a repeat of what happened in Holland last year, when a tiny amount of sugar from genetic- engineering trials was accidentally introduced into bags of Dutch sugar. Once discovered, there was a public outcry, and the whole batch, all 12,000 tonnes of it, had to be disposed of - at great expense.

"This paints a rather bleak future for genetically-modified sugar beet," says British Sugar's spokesman, Geoff Lancaster. "Public suspicion may sink this technology completely."

Not so long ago, the UK food industry was brimming with "Tomorrow's World" style enthusiasm about genetically- engineered foodstuffs, but a wave of cynicism has since swept through the ranks following the Monsanto biotech company's successful efforts to force genetically-engineered soya on to the market by refusing to segregate it at source from the conventional soya supply. So now we must accept that 60 per cent of all the processed food we eat contains genetically- engineered soya - and unlabelled too, if you please.

But might it be that Monsanto has pushed its luck too far? After all, British Sugar is now responding to pressure from food manufacturers and retailers to supply "clean" sugar that hasn't been contaminated" by genetic engineering. Like glistening, white sugar, it seems that consumer thinking on gene foods is crystallising, and that the previously unthinkable is becoming a definite possibility - an outright ban.

In June, the Swiss will hold a national referendum on the issue, seeking a mandate to ban, among other things, genetically-engineered crops. Recent polls suggest that 58 per cent will vote in favour of a ban. And a 1998 Europe-wide survey published in the journal Nature has shown that the more the public knows about biotechnology, the more fears are aroused.

In the UK, the Soil Association (SA), which promotes organic food and farming, would like Britain to declare itself a genetic engineering-free zone. The Iceland retail chain has already banned genetically-engineered ingredients from its own-brand products, and SA has challenged the major supermarkets to eliminate foods containing genetically- engineered ingredients from their shelves by December 31, 1999. A response is awaited, but, apart from Safeway, whose unquestioning commitment to gene foods becomes more outlandish by the day, the others seem to be increasingly wary of "gene smog".

Gene smog is the new name, used in Europe and America, for the genetic pollution that is slowly permeating our food chain. The tactics of Monsanto et al are to introduce genetic engineering by the back door. They hope that, by the time gene smog has reached critical levels - soya derivatives throughout the food chain, animals eating genetically- engineered feed, humans eating their meat, and so on - the commercial train of genetic engineering will have left the station and it will be too late to bring it back.

"The market mechanism could send that train back into the station if supermarkets listen to public opinion," says SA spokesman Patrick Holden. That's because many consumers just don't buy the "assurances" of supermarkets and government, hiding behind the edifice of "science" and the discredited guarantee of labelling. It is not comforting to think that those who should be protecting us are being pressured by megacorporations and crossing their fingers, hoping that nothing goes wrong.

SA is urging consumers to complain to supermarkets about the unpredictable nature of gene technology and the threat it poses to the environment and human health. Also, that if they want their customers to have faith in their brand image, they need to tell their suppliers of their intention to eliminate all foods with genetically-engineered ingredients from their shelves by the millennium.

I've just picked up my pen.


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