The Debate about Genetically Modified Foods

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The magazine Nature has just published the following statistics for the year 2,000:

  • 1.1 billion inhabitants of planet Earth are now existing at starvation level.
  • 1.1 billion inhabitants of planet Earth are now classed as ‘obese’.

The GM food debate has now been placed in this context.

Those who are in favour of GM foods say

  • Westerners have the luxury of choice. They tend to be well fed.
  • Food output has to increase by 60 per cent by 2025 to prevent millions from starvation
  • Transgenic crops will improve crop yields so that at least 3 billion more people will be fed by 2030
  • Engineering vitamins into foods helps fight malnutrition and disease, saving millions of lives
  • Food will cheaper and more plentiful for everyone
  • It will also be possible to make food taste better
  • And last longer
  • And retain their nutrients
  • Modification of crops has been going on for centuries (Notably with wheat, tomatoes etc.)
  • People readily accept medicines that have been modified and don’t think twice about swallowing pills for the slightest discomfort. And these new products improve life on this planet radically.
  • Experimenting with DNA, genes and cells in itself aids research and helps combat rampant diseases.
  • GM foods can actually alter or reduce the use of pesticides, and thereby lessen the impact of chemicals on the environment.
  • Decades of damage by heavy industry are being remedied by the use of GM crops.
  • Although pests do build up immunities and resistances to GM products, expert scientists have already considered this and have made provision for it.
  • It was originally scientists themselves who voiced qualms about genetic engineering and genetic modification, but now there have been TESTS and the public would not be subjected to any product that was not 100% SAFE.


Those who are against GM Foods say:

  • Delegates from Cameroun, Benin, Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, The Congo, Masagascar, Burundi, Ethiopia, Sudan, Mozambique, Tchad, Algeria, Zambia, Lesotho, Tunisia, Angola, and Morocco released a statement as early as 1998 objecting that ‘the image of the poor and hungry from our countries is being used by giant multinational companies to push a technology that is neither safe, environmentally friendly nor economically beneficial to us’.
  • It is true that the foods have been tested, BUT:
    1. No amount of TESTS can show now that IN THE LONG term GM Foods are SAFE TO EAT
    2. No amount of TESTS can show now that IN THE LONG term the growing and manufacture of GM Foods will be SAFE FOR THE ENVIRONMENT
    3. No-one knows what kind of contamination will result from the growing of GM crops.
  • Modification of crops has indeed been going on for centuries, but GM foods ‘cross the species barrier’. That is to say:
    1. With traditional breeding genes crossed within the same species, for example,
    2. the process of cross-pollination was used, which occurs naturally plant to plant.

    3. With GM a gene from a firefly, or an Arctic fish, or a bacteria in the soil is transferred to a plant. It may be handy to have a plant that glows, or doesn’t freeze, or is immune to weed-killer, but we do not - and cannot - know what effect that will have on the environment as a whole.
  • The process is not reversible
  • Pests can build up an immunity to
  • The bio-technical and pharmaceutical corporations are even claiming these modifications as their ‘intellectual property’, which adds to their excessive power. In some cases a chain of events could mean that farmers actually the right to grow their own seeds freely, and dependant on the products of big corporations.


Some developments in the debate:

The monarch butterfly became the symbol of the anti-GM food movement in May 1999 when researchers at Cornell University in the United States issued a study claiming that pollen from genetically modified corn could kill these precious insects.

In June 1998 a test was developed in Britain whereby the exact GM content of any product could be determined.

In August 1998 Professor Arpad Pusztai of the Rowett Research Institute announced that genetically modified potatoes had affected the immune system of rats. (he had inserted a pesticide called lectin into the potatoes and the rats who ate those modified potatoes incurred significant damage to their immune systems and reduced organ growth.

He declared that he would not eat any GM food that had not undergone at least as exhaustive a trial as the one he had conducted. Twenty internationally acclaimed scientists agreed with Dr. Puzstai.

In the United States John Fagan PhD, a molecular biologist who has spent more than 20 years working with DNA techniques renounced $1.8 million dollars in grants for further research, and took an ethical stand against GM foods.

A number of scientists supported him, including George Wald, a Nobel Prize winner.

In England, Prince Charles spoke out against GM foods. He was applauded by environment groups but criticised by a number of scientists and even a bishop or two took a pop at him.

The British Prime Minister, Tony Blair declared that he would have no hesitation in eating GM foods, and was instantly dubbed the ‘Prime Monster’.

More recently the DNA man himself spoke out:

The DNA Man – James Watson

James Watson is 72 years old now. Almost fifty years ago when he was in his twenties he and Francis Crick – greatly assisted, it is now known, by others – made one of the great discoveries of the Twentieth Century. They were able to show the structure of DNA, and Watson wrote a best-seller about it, The Double Helix. Both men were awarded the Nobel Prize.

He has been speaking out now, via the media generally, with a major profile in London’s Sunday Times.

Watson is convinced that people are afraid of GM foods because of ignorance.

And they are being ‘silly’.

Watson uses the bicycle as the first step in his argument: You have to invent the bike before someone can fall off it. That is to say, he thinks we must wait and see if anything goes wrong.

He refers to the alarmism ot the 1970’s. Yet he declares that there were no ecological disasters because of DNA experiments conducted then. Nor have cancers been caused by experiments with pathogens.

The same pressure groups, he says, were warning then of irreversibility and of unquantifiable risks; he mentions Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace.

Watson does not address the question of crossing the species barrier.

And the most important element in his argument appears to be the destructive power of nature. After all locusts destroy crops, there are poisonous creatures, dangerous creatures, fire and flood, famine and infectious diseases.

In short he believes that interfering with nature is not always a bad thing to do. It can improve our lives.

Misuse of genetics must be guarded against..

But he is convinced that studying the human genome and researching the genetic modification of crops can bring advances and advantages to the human race.

Indeed this world-renowned scientist is determined to make the point that using genetic studies badly is not the problem. Far more disastrous would be the decision not to conduct the studies at all.

As he puts it, misuse would be far less of a shame than disuse.

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