Food and the Frankenstein factor

Posted on June, 18 1999

A passionate debate is raging over the use of genetically modified foods - crops into which 'foreign' genes are introduced to make them resistant to such things as pests and adverse weather conditions. So far the main concern has been human health, but unless more research is carried out before these crops are used, the real victim could be the global environment
Gland, Switzerland: Throughout history, one of the strongest forces driving the development of human society has been concern for health. Many fundamental scientific and technological advances have occurred as a result of the desire to control or eradicate disease and to improve the quality and duration of our lives. In the 20th century, a huge international industry has grown up dedicated to the promotion and achievement of good health and prolonged fitness. It covers everything from drugs and medical technology to our lifestyle habits and the food we eat. Most recently, what has become almost an obsession with health has led to renewed interest in traditional medicine and in the potential of biological treasures such as those contained in tropical forests, which harbour a vast array of plant species with possible medicinal value.

At the same time, however, the health industry and public expectations have combined to produce new branches of science based on interference with the fundamental materials of life. The study of genetics, of course, is not new, but what is different about it now is the ability of scientists to manipulate genetic material easily for the production of drugs.

But the science of genetic engineering has also responded to the other great current theory on health, which concerns diet. The race is on to create almost unlimited quantities of what is considered to be good, healthy and affordable food. Here, though, genetic manipulation has run into trouble. Fears are growing that genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, will produce food that is itself dangerous to health.

We have been eating plants and animals which have been produced with the help of man for centuries. Plant and animal breeders have always mixed and matched genetic material to create the species of vegetables, fruit, cattle and so on that we take for granted. Those modifications, though, were carried out among closely related species through selection processes using cross-pollination and cross-fertilization. What is new about today's genetically modified foods is that we can cross species barriers, so that in order to achieve the results we want we can take genes from, say, a fish, and place them in a tomato.

If that sounds far-fetched, it is not. The gene that protects a flounder from extreme cold has been introduced into the make-up of tomato plants so that they will continue to flourish in adverse weather. That may help to ensure ready supplies of tomatoes but the question is, what effect might the foreign gene have on the people who eat them? The same applies to genetically modified crops such as soya, corn, maize, rape and potatoes which have been developed by conglomerates like Monsanto and Novartis, chemical firms which now prefer to describe themselves as "life science companies".

All this is worrying enough, to the extent that agricultural GMOs have been dubbed "Frankenstein foods". But there are wider implications that concern us at WWF - effects that could radically alter the biological structure of the entire planet.

An example of what can happen when GM crops are introduced was reported last month in the USA. Pollen from corn into which a toxin called Bt had been genetically engineered killed nearly half the monarch butterfly caterpillars fed on it in a test at Cornell University. The really worrying point of this is that the test was carried out only after the Bt gene had been added to almost a quarter of the US corn crop. Imagine the possible results if GMOs were widely used. Cross-pollination could transfer the foreign genes to other plants, with the result that weeds could become resistant to diseases, pests and herbicides. Monsanto has patented seeds that are genetically immune to its own product Roundup, one of the world's leading weedkillers. If those plants cross-pollinated, Roundup could become useless against species of super-weeds and the whole exercise would be at best counter-productive and at worst highly dangerous. Similarly, pest-control genes spreading into the wild could wipe out countless animal and insect species.

Now that such risks are beginning to be understood, a fierce international debate has begun over GMOs. Some countries, such as Switzerland, are demanding clear labelling of foods containing genetically modified material so that worried consumers can avoid them. WWF believes that is not enough. Certainly people should be able to identify products containing the now widely used genetically modified soya and other GMOs, but the broader environmental threat demands much stronger action.

WWF is calling for a moratorium on the use or release of GMOs until their potential impact on the general environment has been carefully researched and evaluated - and proper safeguards have been established. Moreover, it is vital that the implications for the food chain and the natural environment are openly communicated to the public so that informed choices can be made. Nor should control of gene technology be left to scientists and commercial organizations: there must be official regulation through independent statutory bodies with the power to ban future GMO releases until agreed standards have been met.

With the prospect of a global food crisis looming, it may be that industry claims for the capacity of GMOs to ensure abundant supplies will eventually be justified. But until the companies come clean about the dangers and clearly demonstrate the benefits, and unless they respond to growing concern by dropping their commercially-inspired opposition to independent research and proper regulation, there is no case for pursuing a course that could end in more harm than good.

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