The problem with having politicians responsible for
handling policy on an issue like genetic modification (GM) of
foods is that they clearly haven't a clue what they're talking about
and don't even appear to know what questions to ask. This, more
than anything we actually hear about genetic experimentation, is what
we ought to be most alarmed about.
Call me a foolish optimist, but I suspect that GM foods are going to
turn into one of the most beneficial of technological advances humanity
has ever undertaken. Not only will they help wipe out hunger - and to
a great extent the causes of hunger - famine, but as we understand more
about the human genome, we will increasingly engineer out those elements
in food which actually cause us more harm than good. (for instance we
may one day be able to produce livestock with much lower levels of digestible
animal fat.) The net result will be another couple of decades on our
...that is all way in the future and you can be pretty damn certain
that before we reach that halcyon state, we will make a number of the
usual gaffes and scientific or commercial misjudgements that accompany
any major innovation. Our task at this stage, therefore MUST be to ensure
that those inevitable and excusable errors do not have the opportunity
to become the cause of inexcusable disasters.
The key risk, which I'm sure professional science correspondents could
explain better than I, is the introduction of new proteins into the
food chain. Proteins which we have not evolved a mechanism for either
assimilating or rejecting have the capacity to affect us in two major
ways. The most serious is to cause genetic mutation in humans by modifying
the so called 'germ line'. (i.e causing a defect which we could pass
on to our children)
Whilst it is hypothetically possible that such mutations would be neutral
or even beneficial, there is at least an equal chance that they
could be disastrous; and until we know vastly more about the genetic
code, it is most certainly not a risk worth taking. Having said that,
effects on the germ line are extremely unlikely and not difficult to
rule out with suitable experimentation.
The more likely consequence of this man-made invasion is the probably
trivial but potentially catastrophic response from our immune system.
We will one day know enough about the human genome to be able literally
to calculate the reaction of our dna when it encounters a foreign dna.
This is not the case to date. Hence there is only one way to be sure
that we trap all potential effects of such an encounter - and that is
to monitor the long term effects on life expectancy.
In other words, we can not and will not be sure that any new proteins
we introduce into the food chain now, are completely safe until we have
seen their effects on human consumers for about 50 years. Anyone who
says otherwise is guilty of scientific fraud or plain ignorance.
This should not mean that we don't allow people to consume GM foods
until that degree of certainty is achieved. Indeed, if we take that
approach, then, by definition, we can never reach that level of certainty!
What it should mean is that, after all reasonable efforts at establishing
minimal short and medium term risks (through experiments on animals
etc), the products can be licensed for general release under one absolutely
critical condition. Viz THEY MUST BE LABELLED!!
If they are labelled (and this, of course, includes labelling any prepared
foods which include the new products as ingredients), then the long
term trials can be conducted fairly and openly whilst routine commerce
is played out. There will, perfectly reasonably, be those citizens who
do not wish to expose themselves to this unquantifiable risk and will
use the labelling to ensure they do not consume the product. It is not
merely a matter of simple 'human rights' that they should be allowed
to do so. Just as importantly, it is crucial to the long term study
of any beneficial or harmful effects.
As time goes on and it becomes increasingly obvious that there is no
harmful effect, the abstaining group will diminish.
However, in a nutshell, if no such abstaining group has ever existed,
then, should we all start developing some strange brain disease in 40
years time, we will have no way of isolating the cause. It could be
some long delayed BSE effect, or the genetic tomatoes, or some new environmental
issue that arises at the time. How will we know? If we want to
be able to eliminate GM foods from blame for any future alarming disease
patterns, we can only do so if we know that there is a group in society
which has never consumed them. If they, too, suffer the new disease
then the GM foods are in the clear. If they remain free of the new disease,
on the other hand, then we will know pretty well that GM foods do carry
risks and be able to make an informed judgement about how to deal with
It is, therefore, in the long term interests of both society at large,
and the producers who wish to make long term profits from this industry
that full 'audit trails' are maintained so that we always know exactly
where the new foods have gone and who has eaten them.
The problem is that the Monsanto's of this world are more concerned
with the short term because their shareholders, perhaps reasonably,
want to see a return on this huge investment within their lifetimes.
And they don't want labelling in case too many of us choose to abstain
and thus reduce their profitability. And politician's have always been
too easily swayed by the men with money. What we need is a compromise.
Essentially society - through elected governments - must, if
we want the potential benefits of the innovation, be prepared to carry
some of the potential risk - particularly financial. i.e. The taxpayer
should either fund basic research in the field or pay the likes of Monsanto
to do so on our behalf. If we do the latter, then the research gets
done, the shareholders reap their short term rewards (through funding
from taxes) and society isn't rushed into accepting a half baked genetic
tomato! If the research goes well, Monsanto eventually make huge profits,
from which society reclaims its share through corporate taxation.
With all that in mind, could someone please ask the relevant politicians
- or better still their scientific advisors - to provide answers to
the following questions.
1. Is there any possibility of new proteins (viral or other) being
created by the genetic modifications being conducted? (The correct
answer is 'Yes'. If the answer given is 'No' then we should demand to
see what peer reviewed research supports such a conclusion)
2. If so, is there any possibility of these new proteins being ingested
by human beings? (Similarly here, the correct answer is 'Yes'...)
3. If so, what analysis has taken place of the risks such new proteins
might carry with them? (And where are the results of such research
published?) In particular has research unequivocally ruled out the possibility
of any effect on the germ line?
4. Has this analysis clearly demonstrated that any risk is below measurable
or significant levels? If not, what level of risk has been assessed?
Over what period of time has the analysis of effects been measured?
What evidence exists that no further effects would become evident over
longer periods of time?
5. If no such analysis has taken place, on what basis can it be stated
that no significant risk exists?
I'm sure we all look forward to hearing the answers...