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Seeds of the future

By ignoring the potential benefits of biotechnology, argues Tony Gilland, anti-GM campaigners risk losing out on far more than cheaper food

An unprecedented coalition of 29 consumer, development, health and environmental organisations has launched a campaign for a five-year freeze on all genetic engineering in food and farming. The Consumers' Association is calling on the government to ban further genetically modified (GM) food products until the regulatory system is overhauled, and the Local Government Association has supported the 'five-year freeze' campaign, recommending that councils 'ban GM food from their schools' and other facilities.

The 'anti' lobby argues that GM crops and food are unpredictable and inherently risky. They claim that there are no significant costs involved with a five-year ban, as we already have enough food to feed ourselves. Joan Ruddock, an MP and anti-nuclear and environmental campaigner of repute, claims that this is 'the most "modest" campaign proposal' she has ever supported.

But are the implications of a five-year ban really so inconsequential?

Globally there has now been three years of overall successful commercial growth of the first wave of GM crops, which have achieved precisely what they were designed to do: grow food more efficiently. Yields are up (by seven percent for Bt cotton and nine percent for Bt maize in America in 1996), and chemical usage has fallen as the new insect resistance 'built in' by genetic modification takes effect. As a result of this success, many more farmers are planting GM crops. In 1996 there were 1.7 million hectares of transgenic crops grown worldwide. In 1997 the global figure was 11 million (8.1 million in America alone), and by 1998 it was 27.8 million hectares (20.5 of them in America).

There are many more potential benefits to work towards. Some are economic, while others relate to improving the nutritional quality of food and directly address human health issues. For example, information provided by the John Innes Centre in Norwich points to a deficiency in an essential amino acid called lysine, which causes childhood blindness in China. The possibility not only exists to modify rice to contain higher levels of lysine and potentially help to alleviate this health problem, but to modify it to increase the level of proteins it contains and so assist with problems of malnutrition as well.

There is also the possibility of producing food products of pharmaceutical value. Work is currently underway to develop cheap vaccines which are effective against bacteria and viruses that cause diarrhoeal diseases and hepatitis B - major killers in the third world - which could be delivered through foods such as bananas modified to contain the required properties.

Given the potential benefits of biotechnology, Ruddock's claim that a moratorium is only a 'modest' demand suggests a disregard for human welfare. The argument that we don't 'really need' GM food, echoed even by Mick Fuller in this issue, implies that society only 'needs' the level of scientific development that it currently has. But surely the issue is what society could achieve, as it moves forward, to benefit humanity further?

The objections to GM food are not based on the hard data of what we know about biotechnology, but on more elusive worries about what we don't know. The antis argue for the use of the 'precautionary principle' - that unless you know exactly what the consequences of experimentation will be, you should not do it.

For example, Dr Michael Antoniou, a senior lecturer in molecular biology and a high-profile opponent of GM in agriculture and food production, concedes that 'the totally artificial nature of GM does not automatically make it dangerous and clearly not all GM foods are going to be poisonous or cause new allergies'. Nonetheless, his concern about food safety is based on the argument that 'genetic engineering brings about combinations of genes that would never occur naturally'. Coupled with the fact that the technology is 'imprecise', this means its effects are unpredictable and hazardous: particularly, claims Dr Antoniou, when compared with gene transfer achieved through traditional crossbreeding, where 'different variations of the same genes in their natural context are exchanged'.

But is genetic engineering really more 'imprecise' than conventional crossbreeding? Professor Christopher Leaver, head of the Department of Plant Sciences at Oxford University, makes the point that traditional crossbreeding is also an imprecise process because 'whenever you cross two genomes, the new hybrid genome can be unstable'. He argues that 'whether you crossbreed or use genetic engineering you have to go through a repeated process of crossing and selection [making use of only those plants which are an improvement on the parents, and discarding the failures] to get the desired effect to breed true'. In the past, this process 'mainly involved a plant breeder walking down the fields saying "that looks good, that doesn't, that's got all the characteristics I want plus the new one"'. Now, however, 'we have molecular approaches to help us get it right'.

Dr Antoniou argues that genetic engineering has the 'potential to unexpectedly produce' novel toxins and allergens, and that existing testing procedures are insufficient because they only test for known toxins and allergens. Yet Professor Janet Bainbridge, chair of >> the government's Advisory Committee on the Approval of Novel Foods, believes that this proposition is theoretically implausible. While it is possible for a gene to become switched off in its new environment, and to be ineffective, 'there is no reason to suppose that when you move a gene to a new organism it will produce a new [entirely different] product'. Even so, Bainbridge argues that screening mechanisms are in place to pick up on this implausible possibility, and that GM has not yet introduced any new toxins or allergens. Hence her proposition that GM foods are, if anything, safer than conventional varieties.

Opponents of GM technology are proposing a hypothetical risk that cannot be refuted with an absolute guarantee: no hypothetical risk can (after all, the sky might cave in tomorrow). But is the hypothesis that GM crops and food are inherently unpredictable and dangerous plausible? The best way to judge this is to examine the empirical information available.

Critics highlight some examples of unpredicted events. For example, there was the accidental transfer of a nut allergen to a soya bean, picked up by testing procedures prior to the product getting to market; the petunias modified to have more colour but which didn't; and the tomatoes designed to soften more slowly so they could be transported more fully ripe, but which were unexpectedly found to bruise during harvesting. But, as yet, there are no examples of the unknowable, potentially catastrophic and irreversible consequences so often alluded to.

Proponents of GM foods can argue that such unpredicted effects are a legitimate and important part of the learning process. None has come anywhere near to endangering human life, or to disproving the benefits of the technology over previous methods which also generate unexpected effects. In attacking the application of biotechnology, campaigners are not only asking us to forego the benefits that can be achieved today. They are holding back the possibility of future developments.

The GM debate is the terrain upon which society's relationship to science and human endeavour is currently being worked out. Far more worrying than GM foods themselves is the fact that so few people seem prepared to defend the importance of innovation and experimentation.

Reproduced from LM issue 119, April 1999

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