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Genetic Modification of Foods

Five Basic Questions

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 life expectancy.


...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 them.

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...

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed by Harry Stottle (2001-5) under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 License.  

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