Friday, 22 January 2010

Genetically Modified or Genetically Enhanced? It's Still a Thorny Question

As you probably know, a genetically modified (or GM) food is one that has had new genetic material added to it in order to alter its DNA structure. This might be done for a number of reasons including to improve taste, prolong shelf life or even to make the crop more disease resistant while growing. It can reduce the use of pesticides and make crops less likely to fail in extreme weather conditions such as unexpected early frosts.

But could they be dangerous? Many people maintain that GM crops are. In the first instance, genetically modifying crops can affect the surrounding ecosystems. They are already being cited as a potential source of blame for the collapse of many bee colonies. A large number of monarch butterfly caterpillars also died in the US after eating milkweed plants contaminated with pollen from corn genetically modified to kill insect larvae. There are also concerns that crops resistant to weeds will cross-pollinate and encourage the development of “super weeds”. It may not be possible to control these without the use of chemical pesticides and no one knows if the pesticides we have would be strong enough to kill them. As to what the effect of eating foods that are genetically modified will have on animals or humans in the long term, very little is known. However, GM foods have been in the North American food chain since at least the early 1990’s and we are not seeing anything negative that can be directly and conclusively linked to their consumption.

After all, haven’t we been playing around with agriculture for years? The loganberry is thought to be derived from a cross between a blackberry and a raspberry and tangelos are a cross between a tangerine and a pomelo or grapefruit. We’ve cultivated different varieties of apples, plums and pears by grafting and cross breeding for centuries. How different is that from what is being done with genetic modification? Well, to start with, none of the new fruits created from these crosses had a negative effect on the environment or killed bees or butterflies, both of which pollinate our crops.

What is most worrying is that we don’t always know what we are eating. Although products in the UK and Europe must be labeled if they contain anything that is genetically modified, in many other countries, this kind of labeling is not compulsory. Everything from soybeans to corn, rapeseed (Canola) and even sugar cane has been successfully genetically modified. This is by no means an exhaustive list. So if you eat corn oil made from genetically modified corn, or GM soy products (which are in more things than you would imagine) or even meat raised on GM soy based feed, you are consuming genetically modified products whether you are aware of it or not.

Public perception of genetically modified foods varies tremendously depending on where you go. For example, in North America one often hears the term “genetically enhanced” which sounds infinitely better and inherently safer than the “genetically modified” and “Frankenstein food” terminology that is used in the UK. However even here public opinion is shifting, especially as now the Food Standards Agency in the UK says that “GM foods may only be authorised for sale if they are judged not to present a risk to health, not to mislead consumers and not to be of less nutritional value than the foods they are intended to replace.” There is apparently a rigorous safety assessment that is carried out to ensure this and this has reassured many consumers.

So what do I do? Well, I try to buy organic wherever possible and I always read labels. I follow the GM issue very closely and keep an open mind. However, when given a choice, I avoid serving anything I know to be genetically modified to my family wherever possible. I buy organic fruit and vegetables, and source my meat from a reputable butcher (but it is still pretty likely a lot of the beef we eat is raised on GM soy based feeds). However if my favourite fruit was on special offer and it wasn’t organic would I avoid it? Definitely not. We humans are amazingly adaptable in terms of diet and I’m not unduly worried about the effects on our health but I do worry about what genetically modified products are doing to the environment. Let’s face it, we would be pretty lost without bees and butterflies and I don’t fancy the idea of “super weeds” at all.

The debate rages on. Despite research to the contrary, some people still maintain GM crops will help prevent world hunger, prevent climate change and that economically, nations have no choice but to embrace them. Others maintain GM crops will destroy the environment and harm our health irreparably. As with everything, I think this issue needs balance and open minds. Those who think genetic modification is the answer to all our problems need to consider that everything has consequences and tread very carefully. It might even be prudent to slow down a bit and wait and see what happens in the next few years around the foods we have already modified, both in terms of environmental and human health. Those who have closed their minds to the idea of genetic modification completely need to consider how beneficial it could be if properly implemented and regulated. It’s unlikely that genetic modification is going to go away anytime soon, so we definitely need to get folks on both sides of the debate discussing this issue constructively before it’s too late – not just for us, but for the world as we know it.

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