Culinary foe speaks out on plans to grow modified beet


If Monsanto were to hand-pick politically-sensitive locations around Ireland where it might be best not to locate controversial trials on the growth of genetically-modified sugar beet, Shanagarry outside Midleton in Co Cork would probably top any insider's list.

It's the home territory of Myrtle Allen and Ballymaloe House, where visitors are served the best of Irish food, unpretentious yet magnificent. It is also the location of Ballymaloe Cookery School, where Darina Allen with her inimitable zest expounds on the joys of cooking wholesome Irish foods.

Genetically-modified foods do not conjure up the same distinctly Irish and green image, even if those who promote them say they are the way of the future and the same Shanagarry is one of the better locations for growing beet in Ireland. The juxtaposing of such contrasting food enterprises so close in a corner of green Ireland will do little to reassure those who remain to be convinced on the merits of beet modified to be resistant to Monsanto's own herbicide, Round-Up.

Lingering controversy in Ireland, and new concerns in Britain and Europe, have if anything increased public concern of late. The technology, however, has been found to be inherently safe by the Environmental Protection Agency, a view endorsed without equivocation by similar agencies in the US and Britain.

But a European public is still to a significant extent sceptical of what is largely a "new and relatively untried" US phenomenon primed to generate huge profits for six major multinationals. What seems like evasiveness on the labelling of such foods has only served to increase concerns.

This week the British government effectively halted the planting of the first genetically-modified crops in Britain, dealing a blow to the £250 billion biotechnology industry. The move followed growing opposition from environmentalists, notably Friends of the Earth but including some state agencies such as the influential English Nature.

They opposed the granting of the first commercial licence for the growing of genetically-modified oilseed rape, the fourth most important crop grown in Britain, which is a frequent component in margarines and vegetable oils.

Decisions on licence applications were due this month, but it is now likely to take up to three years to reach a final decision. Top of the queue was one from Plant Genetic Systems, the Belgian subsidiary of Hoechst, which wanted to sow two varieties of "herbicide-friendly" oilseed rape.

Darina Allen, stepping into the debate within the Irish context, has the potential to deliver an equally-damaging blow to Monsanto as far as its plans for Ireland are concerned. She is perhaps the most visible, if not most authoritative, presence when it comes to pronouncements on Irish food.

Given the depth of her concern, it - together with the "step back" attitude of Britain, and to a lesser extent, France - could push the Government into firming up its stance against such crops, taken when in opposition. In a Fianna Fail environment policy, the party said it would not support "what amounts to the largest nutritional experiment in human history with the consumer as guinea pig".

Beside having to deal with the formidable presence of Darina Allen, Monsanto's other battle has been trying to keep confidential the names of farmers facilitating trials. That one may already be lost, as the agency refused such a request last year. The company then promptly reduced its trial sites. Shanagarry may soon meet a similar fate.

The company also has to face a judicial review hearing sought by the environmental group Genetic Concern, which challenges the EPA decision to license its trial last year, on the basis that it believes the technology is not as safe as has been declared and not suitable for Ireland. The issue of genetically-modified foods in Ireland is far from settled.