Why I'm quite happy to eat genetically modified food
Ignore your natural distrust of Government spin doctors' efforts to generate good publicity
Tuesday 16 February 1999
His reaction was typical of the scientists I have spoken to about the latest "row" over genetically modified crops and foods. Why the quotation marks? Because this latest twist in the debate is more artificial than a packet of prawn-cocktail-flavoured crisps. There is not a single new fact, and certainly no fresh scientific data, that could advance either side's argument, pro- or anti-genetic modification. You have only to witness the involvement of politicians such as John Redwood and Tony Blair - whose lives until now have been untouched by the need to discern between a gene, a ribosome and a protein - to know that once more the scientists are getting left out of a debate that is rooted in complex molecular biology.
We have seen this happen many times before, of course. Remember ecstasy? It periodically returns to the limelight as the Killer Chemical, despite apparently having a lower death rate per tablet consumed than many drugs available over the counter. But the calmer voices of scientists researching the effects of MDMA tend to get drowned out by the shouting of grieving parents and professionally indignant politicians. Or how about cannabis? When the researchers on a World Health Organisation committee drafted a report that pointed out that cannabis in fact had fewer harmful effects on people than either of those legal drugs alcohol and tobacco, the American government successfully pressed for that information to be left out of the final version. Politics intrudes, and it does so without regard for the science and the facts. What does infuriate scientists about this latest version of the debate is that amidst all the Cabinet ministers, green lobbyists and worried vox-popped shoppers, there never seems to be room to explain what is in fact done to the plants or foods. It's easy to understand why: it sounds better to have a harassed Jack Cunningham on The World At One than a scientist explaining what an antisense gene or Agrobacterium tumafaciens virus is.
However, in terms of spreading knowledge, the difference is like comparing The Vanessa Show with the Open University. I spent last week moving house, and so was a passive consumer, rather than generator, of the media's output. Amidst all the back-and-forth of increasingly accusatory finger-pointing, I never once heard a piece of explanation that left me more informed about the underlying science.
So what then are we to make of the "debate" about genetically modified soya? Simply this: the US government is very keen to develop an agribusiness that will allow one of its companies, Monsanto, to export a modern technology (for that is what the seeds are) to other parts of the world, especially Europe. When the first soya crop was grown in 1996, it nearly triggered a trade war, because European governments wanted the soya to be at least separated, and at best labelled as genetically modified. That was what its regulations said.
The US said that any attempt to prevent American exports of soya would be treated as a trade barrier, and it would retaliate. Because the US is a net importer of so many European goods, that would have harmed us. The US is waving the same big stick this year over the banana trade. So if you wonder what's so great about modified soya, the answer is: nothing. Or at least, nothing that you profit from. It benefits the US to sell it to us.
Next, is it unsafe? Almost certainly not. The American regulatory regime is strict; new foods have to undergo rigorous testing for toxicity and other effects. If the US Food and Drug Administration thinks something is safe, it very likely is. Ignore your natural distrust of the efforts of the Downing Street spin doctors to generate positive publicity for GM foods (with Tony Blair "doing a Gummer" in feeding them to his children).
Ignore, too. the experiments by Dr Arpad Pusztai on potatoes "modified" to contain poisons called lectins; the experiments were never completed, never examined by independent scientists ("peer-reviewed"), and never published. In that sense, they simply aren't science. "If scientists begin to view the Daily Mail as the place to publish their results, it's going to kill off science," said one disgruntled researcher, who was peripherally involved in Pusztai's experiments. Just concentrate on the science of it, if you can. Right now, the science suggests it is safe; the genes don't make any magical leaps into your cells. And do not try spraying yourself with herbicide to see whether you've become resistant. It'll hurt.
However, in commenting on this topic, one caveat is obligatory: BSE. Were I writing this article 15 years ago about that disease, it would be easy to round up scientists prepared to swear that science could suggest no way by which the BSE agent (for it is not a bacterium or virus) could be transmitted to humans. Even eminent scientists, and non-eminent journalists like myself, held that view almost until March 1996, when Stephen Dorrell told Parliament that a number of deaths had been ascribed to exposure to the BSE agent.
What had happened? Science had moved on, and the population of Britain became part of a huge food experiment - resulting in the deaths so far of nearly 40 people. Similarly, our understanding of how the cell produces proteins from genes is incomplete. Does the cell machinery treat some proteins differently from others, under some sets of circumstances? We don't know. Donald Bruce, a scientist who also specialises in ethical issues, said earlier this year: "Molecular biology is a teenage science. It's got to the stage where it has discovered techniques for a vast array of things with great excitement, but it hasn't yet hit the problems that other sciences have, that have made them humble in their approaches. Physicists are content to say what they don't know; biologists tend to say that everything is possible, because they haven't found out what isn't."
With that in mind, I personally don't mind eating food containing GM elements, but I also think there should be clear, unambiguous labelling. If I have to put my genes on the line for a minuscule, a theoretical risk in order to satisfy America's desire for the free trading of cashmere sweaters and bananas across the high seas, then at least I would like to know when I'm doing it.
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