- going cautiously into the future
of the "triumphs" of the twentieth century was supposedly the
discovery of genes and the accompanying birth of genetic engineering,
the ability to modify the genetic makeup of an organism. This
new science promised the invention of new, improved crops and
livestock, marking the end of the era of haphazard breeding methods.
then has there been a growing uproar, starting in Europe and now
spreading to other parts of the world, over this new technology?
If genetic modifications are such a useful tool in precisely tailoring
crops and other organisms, as compared to the much less efficient
processes of hybridisation and selective breeding, then why are
consumers and politicians everywhere up in arms against GM crops
and food products?
is Genetic Engineering and how far has it come?
engineering is the science of tinkering with the genetic makeup
of an organism by adding or deleting specific genes. The products
of genetic engineering, Genetically Modified (GM) organisms have
new, useful traits such as fungal resistance for crop plants or
the ability for microbes to produce antibiotics.
with the tide turning against GM crops, the odds look good for
it's increasing integration with mainstream "traditional" agriculture.
Back in 1990, it would have been impossible to find any GM crops
in commercial cultivation anywhere. Yet by the close of 1999,
approximately 40 million hectares (100 million acres) will be
covered with them, an estimate (by the International Service for
the Acquisition of Agri-biotech applications) quoted in The Economist.
Some GM crops, in particular a certain strain of herbicide-resistant
soybean, have become so widespread that finding the unmodified
variety has become difficult. Food manufacturers trying to avoid
the GM variety previously relied on old stockpiles or countries
like Brazil. But now even Brazil is joining the group of nations
which has embraced GM strongly: America, Argentina, Australia,
Canada, China and Mexico. (Today however, the amounts of GM crops
being planted has waned slightly in the face of consumer pressure.)
Europe however (which has always imported its soybeans), only
Spain has significant commercial plantings of GM crops. Current
legislature allows European nations to refuse GM crops already
approved by the European Commission, upon finding new any new
risk. Recently, France, Austria and Luxembourg used this provision
to reject several strains of GM maize and oilseed rape. On the
whole, although nine varieties of modified crops have been approved
for planting in the EU since 1994, the ensuing outcry has meant
that no new strains have been added in over two years.
do consumers think?
as many European governments reject genetically modified crops,
consumers there are raising even stauncher opposition to the whole
industry of genetically modified foods. Their objections run along
three main lines: firstly, that genetic tinkering is inherently
unnatural and morally reprehensible (since it is equivalent to
playing god); secondly, that GM food is unhealthy and potentially
dangerous; lastly, that GM crops will harm the environment and
the first count of being unnatural and amoral, the fact is that
of agriculture is pretty much unnatural - there is nothing natural
about seedless grapes or flightless chickens or corn that does
not fling its seeds away as its ancestors did. Humans have spent
centuries modifying various plants and animals by selecting and
cross-breeding them for certain traits. The dairy cows of today
can produce up to 12 litres of milk
a day (over 4 times what "natural" cows would produce) so much
that their calves would die if they were allowed to suckle from
their mother. Of course, this does not mean that genetically modifying
plants and animals is either "natural" or moral, just pretty much
the same as all other agricultural processes.
second argument about safety is mostly sensationalism based on
ignorance. As yet, not scientifically reputable study has shown
that any GM product currently on the shelves is toxic to consumers.
(The scientific community has largely discredited a much-publicised
report on the toxicity of GM potatoes.) Of course, consumers are
right to be worried since accidents do happen (a brazil-nut gene
transferred to soybeans made some nut-allergic people display
allergic reactions during trials). However, the point to note
is that there are extensive testing procedures in place to check
on the safety of GM food products long before they reach the consumer.
Also, food companies have no interest in promoting products that
would harm consumers and devastate their corporate image.
good dose of scepticism is healthy though, when sorting out the
claims of scientists and GM food companies. Despite what they
might say about the "safety" and "accuracy" of genetically modifying
organisms, and how the insertion of a "single gene" could not
conceivably harm people, the fact is that the technology is very
much in its infancy and remarkably inaccurate. Scientists often
use what's known as the "shotgun" method to hopefully insert the
desired gene into the host cell (which does not always happen).
And even if the gene is inserted, the location is largely random,
often disrupting existing genes and sometimes interacting with
other nearby genes to produce weird results. Also valid is the
possibility that GM food will turn out to be harmful in the long
term. Scientific trials seldom last longer than 10 years (or even
5), and the effects of many other well-known scientific disasters
(DDT, CFCs) did not reveal themselves for several decades. And
since certain modifications include having crop plants produce
their own internal insecticide (which cannot be washed off), consumers
cannot be blamed for being wary.
and the environment
last concern about the environment is the most possible, yet also
the one with the least reliable data. Possible damage to the environment
includes the "spreading" of transplanted genes from GM crops to
related wild species, creating "superweeds" with insecticidal
properties or herbicide-resistance. These hybrid organisms would
then proceed to dominate the environment with their superior characteristics
(a la rabbits in Australia or rats in New Zealand). While GM field
tests in the UK currently must be sited at least 50 metres from
agricultural fields, monitoring exercises have found that both
wind and honeybees can carry the pollen up to 20 times these distances
(no surprise to anyone with any knowledge of how pollen works).
widely-publicised experiment, proving that the pollen of a certain
GM crop could be toxic when accidentally eaten by the caterpillars
of Monarch butterflies, shows the potential risk to non-pest insects
from crops with the insecticide gene. Also scary is the idea that
Gm microbes (designed to clean up oil slicks or digest metal ores)
could escape into the environment, where they would be virtually
impossible to recover. Rather like Pandora's Box. The message:
handle with extreme caution. consumers cannot be blamed for being
of genetic engineering point out that agriculture is inherently
damaging to the environment, since forests have to be cleared
to make way for farmland. Thus, only if genetic modifications
cause greater environmental damage than present farming practices
(already horribly polluting) would there be a reason to reject
GM crops. Also, some genetic modifications are meant to benefit
the environment. For instance, the amount of insecticide used
on cotton fields in the USA has fallen by two thirds since the
widespread switch to insect-resistant cotton strains. Of course,
the problem with GM organisms is that the scale of the potential
problems is so great that we cannot afford to be careless.
The Economist, "Food for Thought" 19 June 1999
Geographical, "All in the Genes", Nick Middleton, December
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