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Genetically Modified Food - the issues Doctor icon

Introduction

The 21st century will be the century of genetics and biology, in the way the 20th century was the century of electronics and physics. This is an exciting new field, but some people feel that the trail-blazers (as is the wont of trail-blazers in all fields) are not overly cautious. The main issue that worries some people is the incredible growth of the field, and the wide-spread acceptance of various GM foods into a major part of the food chain in such a short space of time. Here's my take on the arguments.

There are many issues with GM food (let alone with other uses of genetic technology, such as medicine and crime-fighting). Politicians will try to mix up the questions and the answers to make their point, and the broadcast media will not help, since they have a low opinion of the public's ability to grasp complex issues. Note that at the Edinburgh 2000 conference on GM foods, only the Safety issues are being discussed, not environmental or economic. At a minimum, these issues include:

Safety

  • Are the GM foods now in production as safe as the non-GM variety for the general population? Remember that nearly every American has already eaten lots of these foods. Current answer - they seem to be. Phew!
  • Are the GM foods now in production safe for certain members of the population, for instance those allergic to nuts? Current answer - no. Some GM potatoes contained nut genes that caused problems with people allergic to nuts.
  • Will such foods be properly labeled so that allergic people can avoid them? Answer: the Americans don't want to do this, but the Europeans do. In the future, it will be much harder to determine which genes might cause allergic reactions, since so many will be used. This will be a problem until the human genome is much better understood (e.g. in 15 years time).
  • Are all natural foods safe for everyone? This question can be put by the pro-GM side. Answer - no. Some new natural breeds of potatoes for example have raised issues. And many natural foods (beans, rhubard and cassava for example) are dangerous if not prepared correctly, or (peanuts, wheat, milk) can cause allergic reactions in some people. I see this as increasing the need for new breeds of natural foods to be tested thoroughly, not as reducing the need for GM foods to be so tested.
  • Are all possible future GM foods safe for the general population? Answer - no, obviously someone could make a bad food. Some politicians mix up the answer to this question and the first question. Therefore the next question is
  • What process is in place to check that future GM foods are safe for the general population? Current answer - the American agencies pass science related stuff through on the nod, and use their population as guinea-pigs. The Europeans want stricter testing and long-term toxicity trials. They were burned by the BSE crisis. The Americans will try to get the WTO to force the Europeans to take their GM food (while not accepting beef from Britain, of course! America has a one-way idea of what free trade means). The WTO is run by a cool New Zealander, called Mike Moore, but will have a Thai boss in a few years. New Zealand is initially gung-ho about GM foods, but I can see this changing in the future - the strong anti-nuclear and pro-environmental tradition will prevail over the also strong pro-innovation and trail-blazing tradition, once their views are seen as being naiive.

Science

Please note that I am not a molecular biologist - these statements are from the point of view of an informed layman.

  • Do we know in theory the possible effect of new genes? Answer - No. We have not finished mapping the human genome yet, so do not know if the protein made by a gene will switch on another gene. So we must test this by experiment instead. Experiment will not cover all possible cases (e.g. longterm effects). I feel that this is not acceptable for items that will be consumed by many millions of people, but is acceptable for medical purposes (on smaller numbers of people, who have greater need).
  • Are vectors safe? Answer - we aren't sure. Vectors are the means by which the payload gene is put into the cells in some GM techniques, e.g. viruses.
  • Are marker genes safe? Answer - we aren't sure. Marker genes are like "debugging code" in computer programs - they are there for the benefit of the scientists making the new item, not for the payload. The fluorescent genes used by jellyfish are a commonly used example. Some GM organisms have had the marker genes left in, which is sloppy practice.

Environmental

  • Can these new genes be passed onto other plants or animals? Answer - yes. A Canadian farmer is suing GM companies since weeds on his property are now resistant to three types of herbicide; he believes they acquired the three resistance genes from three separate GM crops, also on his property.

Economic

  • Who do these foods benefit? Current answer - the companies who make seeds and herbicide, and want to lock in farmers who use one to use their brand of the other. America has a fine tradition of not allowing this (e.g. the breakup of Standard Oil, Boeing, AT&T) but sometimes it does allow it (e.g. General Motors buying up and then dismantling Los Angeles' public transport system). In the future, they promise things such as iron-rich rice, to supplement the diet of those who eat it (and whom some people say used to traditionally have a more varied diet, before large-scale monoculture farming was introduced). The European de-facto boycott of these foods is having a serious impact on the GM producing companies.
  • What do the companies want? Answer - profit. At one stage they wanted to introduce "terminator genes". This meant that the seed from the crops would be infertile. While this may have environmental benefits (preventing other genes from spreading) it strengthens the stranglehold of the seed companies over farmers - meaning that the majority of the world's food supply would be under the control of about six private companies, year on year, and would break with the tradition of agriculture which has worked for millennia, i.e. save some seed and then plant it to get next year's crop. This is a huge potential threat, and has massive political implications. The GM companies have currently backed away from this idea.

Opinion

With all these questions in mind, my basic view is that we should hold fire on GM food for a few years, until we know more about the human genome (and other genomes), use the techniques for something where it actually benefits the consumer not the producer (since they bear the risk), and put in place robust processes for testing the products and if approved introducing them in a slow, staged and audited manner.

I'm sure you'll email me if you have different ideas on this, though I haven't had much email in the past that wasn't junk from American companies about Florida, debts or diets, or from nice people about Ivan Rebroff or the Commodore 64!


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