GM Foods: Current tests are inadequate protection

We asked Michael Antoniou, molecular geneticist, to explain the dangers

SINCE its inception 20 years ago, genetic engineering or modification (GM) has spurred major advances in our understanding of how genes are organised in DNA. Genes are the inherited blueprints for the tens of thousands of proteins that act as the building blocks of the body for all forms of life from bacteria to humans. In the form of enzymes, proteins carry out all the biochemical processes, such as digestion of food, that keep us alive. Plants are made up from between 20,000 and 80,000 genes depending on their complexity. Estimates for animals, including humans, range from 80,000 to 150,000 genes.

Despite advances in our scientific knowledge, the gene "maps" for "higher" plants, animals and humans are still very incomplete, with only a few per cent of all genes known. More importantly, we know even less about how genes are switched on as an integrated whole to produce the correct combinations of proteins in the right place, time and quantity. What is clear is that genes and the proteins they make do not work in isolation but have evolved to exist and function in groups, the complexity of which we are only just beginning to appreciate. Nature has established boundaries so that reproduction can normally take place only between closely related forms. Tomatoes can cross-pollinate with tomatoes but not soya beans; cows can mate only with cows and not sheep. These same genes in their natural groupings have been finely tuned to work harmoniously together by millions of years of evolution.

It is claimed that GM in agriculture is a natural extension of traditional breeding methods, only more precise and safer. However, technically speaking, GM bears no resemblance to natural reproduction. The Government's Genetic Modification (Contained Use) Regulations define GM as "the altering of the genetic material in that organism in a way that does not occur naturally by mating or natural recombination or both".

GM allows the isolation and transfer of only one or a few genes (eg, herbicide or pest resistance) between totally unrelated organisms. This is contrary to the understanding that genes work in groups within a given form of life and not in isolation.

GM plants and animals start life in a laboratory where artificial units of foreign genetic material are randomly inserted into the host in a way which, to a lesser or greater degree, always disrupts natural genetic order and function. Furthermore, GM brings about combinations of genes that would never occur naturally. A gene from a common soil bacterium has been transferred to soya beans to make them resistant to a herbicide; anti-freeze protein genes from an arctic fish have been introduced into tomatoes and potatoes in an effort to confer resistance to frost.

The artificial nature of GM does not automatically make it dangerous. It is the imprecise way in which genes are combined and the unpredictability in how the foreign gene will behave in its new host that results in uncertainty. From a basic genetics perspective, GM possesses an unpredictable component that is far greater than the intended change. There would still appear to be so many unknowns that the risks to health and the environment are simply unquantifiable. A potential problem arising from herbicide-resistance GM crops that is largely being ignored is what is the fate of these chemicals within the plant? Are they stable? If they are degraded, what are the products that are produced? And what health risks do they pose?

Disruption in genetic function can lead to biochemical changes which in turn may give rise to novel toxins and allergies. In 1989 in the USA, consumption of the supplement L-tryptophan derived from GM bacteria killed 37 and rendered 1,500 permanently disabled. Many argue that this was due to sloppy manufacture.The scientists at the Japanese company concerned think otherwise and blame the GM process for producing traces of a potent new toxin.

Does our regulatory system protect us from these potential hazards? Health- risk assessment of GM foods compares only known components (eg, nutrients, known toxins and allergens) between GM and non-GM equivalent varieties. If things match up then all is assumed well. Short-term animal feeding trials are conducted in some cases. The fact that the L-tryptophan tragedy would repeat itself by these criteria highlights the inadequacy of this system. No tests with human volunteers are required for either toxicity or allergic reactions prior to marketing. Clearly the current regulatory process does not fully take into account the unpredictable side of GM. At the very least, long-term animal feeding trials followed by tests with human volunteers of the type required for GM drugs should be mandatory.

News
Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul fails to make a save from Costa Rica's midfielder Celso Borges during a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
newsGoalkeepers suffer from 'gambler’s fallacy' during shoot-outs
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
artCultural relations between Sydney and Melbourne soured by row over milk crate art instillation
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features playground gun massacre
News
Two giraffes pictured on Garsfontein Road, Centurion, South Africa.
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
Travel
travel
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations should be regarded as an offensive act
News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleBenidorm, actor was just 68
News
people
News
i100This Instagram photo does not prove Russian army is in Ukraine
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
News
i100
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Environment
Tyred out: should fair weather cyclists have a separate slow lane?
environmentFormer Labour minister demands 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists
News
people
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ecommerce Executive

    £20000 - £24000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Ecommerce Executive Working with an...

    Teacher

    £90 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Supply teaching - A great w...

    Training Programme Manager (Learning and Development)-London

    £28000 - £32000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Training Programme Manage...

    VB.Net Developer - £40k - Surrey - WANTED ASAP

    £35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: .Mid Level V...

    Day In a Page

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices