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End of the Germ Line New Scientist Mar 28 98

TERMINATOR technology: that's what farmers are calling a breakthrough in genetic engineering designed to prevent the seeds of agricultural crops from germinating. They fear it could spell the end of the tradition in poorer countries of saving seed from one seasoii's crop to replailt the next. Earlier tliis niontli, tile US Departlileilt of Agriculture (USDA) and a Mississippi seed firm, the Delta and Pine Land Company, were granted a patent for a technique that can sterilise the seeds produced by most agricultural crops. They expect the technique to be adopted within the next five years by all the major seed companies, which liave been looking for ways to prevent farmers from recycling seeds from their crops for many years. "It's terribly dangerous," says Hope Shand of the Rural Advancement Foundation International, a pressure group based in Canada. "Half the world's farmers are poor and can't afford to buy seed every growing season. Yet they grow 15 to 20 per cent of the world's food." The technology depends on a promoter sequence from a gene called late embryogenesis abundant (LEA) that activates the gene to which it is attached only when the plant's seeds are maturing. The researchers attached the LEA promoter to a gene that produces a protein which prevents gerrmination. They inserted this into seeds. At the end of hie growing season, the promoter switches on this geile Melvin Oliver of the USDA's labs in Lubbock, Texas, who invented the technique, claims that seeds manipulated in this way will grow into healthy plants that produce sterile seeds. He anticipates that it will be welcomed by seed companies, who regard the replanting of seeds as theft of their intellectual property. "Our system is a way of self-policing the unauthorised use of American technology," says Oliver. "It's similar to copyright protection." Willard Phelps, a spokesman for the USDA, predicts that the new technique will soon be so widely adopted that farmers will only be able to buy seeds that cannot be re-germinated. The US government's aim is merely to ensure the profits that are made from its introduction are not excessive, he says.

But Camila Montecinos of the Centre for Education and Technology in Santiago, Chile, which works with local farmers, is calling on governments to outlaw the new technology. "This is an immoral technique that robs farming communities of their ageold right to save seed," she says. "It should be banned." Rob Edwards

Food chain spits out altered soya beans. New Scientist 28 Mar 98

THE British company Iceland has become the first food retailer in the world to promise its customers that its own-brand products will be free of genetically modified organisms. Iceland says it will use soya beans from suppliers in Canada and Brazil whose beans have not been engineered to resist a herbicide. Beans grown in Canada will come from stocks certified as unmodified. They will be transported in their own containers to avoid contamination, and then processed in a dedicated British plant that won't handle genetically modified beans. In Brazil, where genetically modified beans are not yet available, the soya will be processed into oil and lecithin before being exported to Britain. Iceland has contracted the Iowa-based company Genetic ID to test products at several stages, from raw beans through flour to finished products like biscuits or pizza crust. The company claims its tests can ensure that even these end products are 99.9 per cent free of genetically modified ingredients. But some experts are sceptical that such testing can reliably detect traces of engineered soya beans in highly processed foods. "The DNA may have degraded," says Janet Bainbridge of the University of Teesside, who chairs Britain's Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes. Alison Motiuk

Consumer Resistance

LONDON, March 19 (UPI) One of Britain's largest supermarket chains says it is refusing to market under its own brand name genetically altered foods. The company, Iceland, explained its policy today, breaking ranks with other key chains Safeway, Tesco and Sainsbury's.

The policy effective bans the sale of many U.S. food products under Iceland's brand name and guarantees nearly 400 grocery products will contain no genetically modified foods. Iceland, noting that most containing altered genes are designed to make products last longer or taste better, says its new policy goes into effect May 1. The other chains have said only that they plan to label all genetically modified goods by the end of the year.

The decision is the result of the personal views of Iceland's founder, chairman and chief executive Malcolm Walker. He told British radio today, "Consumers are being conned." He said use of genetically modified ingredients "is probably the most significant and potentially dangerous development in food production this century." Walker said he was acting on the basis of comments last year from the head of the government's new Food Standards Agency, Prof. Philip James. James said last year: "The perception that everything is totally straightforward and safe is utterly naive. I do not think we fully understand the dimensions of what we are getting into."

Iceland executives say its market research shows 81 percent of customers are concerned about buying genetically modified foods and would avoid them if possible.

Iceland has 770 stores and a $2.32 billion annual turnover.

Sweet Surrender (internet)

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.