Ears growing out of our apples: Dissecting the GM food debate

It’s hard to read too far into the debate around genetically modified food without losing all sense of reason and perspective. This is probably because there are crazies on both sides of the fence and, as usual, they are the ones who generally rant the loudest.

GM advocates and detractors have both zealously argued their cases in an increasingly politicised debate, but to what end? Public opinion on the issue seems as divided as ever. So how do we break down the mounds of information available to us on this contentious question to form an opinion of our own?
Well, firstly, let’s look at the history in an effort to understand where all this hoopla started.

The History

The manipulation of genetic material has been around for quite some time. Selective breeding may be viewed as the mother of genetic modification, and has been utilised by farmers for millennia to capitalise on the best and most profitable traits in crops and animals. Look no further than your pet cat or dog to see a great example of selective breeding. (The image of a Chihuahua standing next to a Great Dane is often used to show how selective breeding can be used to make lots of very different things from one same-same thing, i.e. a wolf. I prefer to look at pictures of the British Royal Family to see how it can all go horribly wrong).

Most people don’t seem to have an issue with selective breeding, and by all accounts it has lots of good points: Meatier cows, sweeter, juicier crops and, well, royals with better caricature potential. But anyone who has ever owned a pedigree dog will know that selective breeding is not without its flaws (a plethora of physical and behavioural problems including hip dysplasia, a weaker immune system and a serious lack of intelligence, to name but a few). In a nutshell, selective breeding generally good; thoughtless inbreeding of a small pool of genetically similar creatures, bad.

So what is GM?

Genetic modification is similar to selective breeding, but it involves less romantic music and more lab equipment. It is essentially biotechnical manipulation of the genetic material in an organism. Sometimes desirable genes from a plant or animal are implanted into another organism, and sometimes a gene that already exists within an organism is “turned down”. This method is called gene silencing and is used, among other things, to reduce the amount of unhealthy oils in oilseed crops.

So Many Possibilities

Genetic engineering has been used to make crops resistant to pests, a major plus in developing countries where pests can destroy entire crops, and pesticides are not readily available or affordable. Reducing the use of pesticides also has obvious environmental benefits, as, really, who wants that nasty chemically stuff flowing into our rivers and dams?
GM crops have been produced that are resistant to herbicides, are drought and frost-tolerant and have greater nutrients, making the daunting task of feeding an ever-increasing global population just a little bit more achievable. Biochemists like Dean DellaPenna at Michigan State University are investigating ways of using biotechnology to help provide vaccines against diseases like pneumonia, heart disease and even cancer by loading popular fruits and vegetables with therapeutic ingredients. All good things, surely.
But if it’s all lollipops and rainbows, what’s with all the ranting about doomsday and mice with human ears growing out of their heads?

Why Worry?

Many people express health concerns over eating food that has been genetically modified, and will say that the long-term impact of doing so cannot yet be assessed. In fact the vast majority of scientists and health professionals seem to agree that a genetically modified tomato is chemically identical to a non-GM one, and that GM crops do not pose any serious health risks. Considering the rigorous testing that these foods go through before they arrive on our supermarket shelves, eating most GM foods is probably safer than eating a peanut.

Genetic research doesn’t come cheap and big agribusinesses need to ensure that they make a profit. The patenting of certain technologies and plants is common practice and, although it sounds logical, it is fraught with problems. After all, how do you enforce a patent on something that grows in the ground and whose seeds blow in the wind? Biotech giant Monsanto has been widely criticised for trying to sue farmers who have unintentionally harvested Monsanto crops from their land, and talk of introducing a “suicide gene” to make plants that produce sterile seeds lead to widespread public outrage. Although Monsanto has said that it has abandoned this research, it is a serious ethical issue and one that needs close attention. Because we all know that big corporations and ethics are best buddies, right?

Perhaps the greatest concerns about GM crops are around their possible impact on the environment. Several studies have indicated that pollen from genetically altered plants that blows into neighbouring fields could kill wildlife that we like, such as butterflies, or could result in unintentional cross-breeding with weeds, forming some kind of mutant super-weed that JUST WON’T DIE. While this sounds like science fiction and these studies appear mainly inconclusive, they do raise questions about the indirect effects of altering our food.

So…

The GM foods debate is not going away any time soon, and with more and more possible applications for this kind of technology, we are probably going to be talking about this issue for years to come. Although we undoubtedly need to demand tight regulation and rigorous testing of GM foods, let’s imagine a future where our food is plentiful and super-nutritious, our corporations are held to the highest ethical standards, and irrational fear-mongering is a thing of the past. Perhaps genetically modified food will kill us all, but I have my doubts about that.

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