Genetic food is backed by top scientist

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ONE OF the world's leading authorities on evolutionary genetics has condemned what he sees as irrational fears over genetically modified food.

Richard Dawkins, Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, says that modifying food by genetic engineering is no different to the selective breeding carried out by farmers for thousands of years.

Professor Dawkins, who is an award-winning science author, says in a letter to The Independent today that the toxins and poisons which occur in natural, ``unengineered'' food are just as dangerous as anything that could result from genetic engineering.

``I can reveal that the toxins in deadly nightshade, deathcap fungi and puff adder venom are produced by unengineered genes,'' he writes.

In a response to the fears expressed by Prince Charles in June that scientists are playing God by genetically enhancing food, Professor Dawkins said yesterday that there are many types of foods that would not exist without such intervention.

``The other thing you can say to Prince Charles is that if you look at a maize cob it is hugely different from a wild maize cob and that has been achieved not by introducing foreign genes but by artificially selecting genes,'' he says.

``When one uses rhetoric like `Frankenstein's plants', you could call a maize cob a Frankenstein plant, but everyone is quite happy to eat maize cobs.''

Although he accepts there are still risks attached to genetically modified crops, Professor Dawkins said that these are more likely to be environmental rather than nutritional or medical.

``There's a general feeling that these foods are almost radioactive. The reaction has been as if people believe genetically modified plants are poisonous, or they give you cancer or that they degrade your immune system. Well anything can do that.''

Genetic engineering can introduce genes from one species of plant or animal into the genetic makeup of another species of crop plant, but "the fact that you are importing them from another species does not inherently make it bad or good'', the professor says.

Letters, Review, page 2