Green Monster

Rhian Harris investigates the GM revolution Like many students at Oxford, I make a basic effort as a consumer to choose products that are environmentally-friendly, and where risks to producers’ health have been minimised. I try to choose the ‘organic’ or ‘fair trade’ option where available at Sainsbury’s Local, buy an organic lunch from Green’s café and opt for fair-trade flowers. Until recently, if you’d asked me whether I would buy genetically modified foods, I’d have said no, citing possible environmental hazards, the risk to human health and ‘unnaturalness’ as my reasons. It was in the mid-1990s that the first GM foods became available in Britain and the controversy surrounding them really began. Under the influence of tabloid hysteria and the label ‘Frankenfoods’, many people opposed GM foods – despite knowing little of the actual facts – and supported the move by supermarkets to remove all related ingredients from their own brand products. “In response to overwhelming customer concern and demand for non-GM foods, Sainsbury’s was the first major supermarket to eliminate GM ingredients from all its own brand products”, says one of the nation’s biggest stores. Yet those who cover genetic modification as part of degree subjects such as biology will know the benefits of such a concept, and perhaps realise that it has the potential to improve the food security of many of the starving in the developing world, radically improve human health and save threatened ecosystems. Genetic modification is typically defined as the insertion, deletion or modification of a single gene in the genome of a target organism. A gene inserted can be from any other organism and can be achieved through use of the bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens. This normally infects plants through wounds and transfers part of its own DNA into the host plant genome, causing the plant to produce substances necessary for the bacterium’s survival. In genetic engineering, this DNA can be removed and replaced with a desired gene, then inserted into the host plant genome. In alternative methods, particles of tungsten or gold can be coated with DNA containing the gene of interest and fired into the nucleus of the cell, where the DNA then recombines into the genome. Genetic modification is just a very precise method of crop improvement: just one gene is altered, the sequence and function of which is well known. In traditional crop breeding between related variants meanwhile, many genes are transferred, not just those for the desired character, leading to potential unexpected side effects.
GM technology has potential to enable farmers to produce higher crop yields on the same area of land, without resorting to using expensive and environmentally damaging chemicals. The world’s population is expected to grow 2.5 billion by 2050, with the majority of this increase in developing countries. To support this growth in countries such as China and India (1 kg meat requires around 3-10 kg grain), cereal crop yields will need to double in this time. However, virtually all land available for agriculture is already being used – the only other suitable land is currently tropical rainforest. Destruction of the wealth of biodiversity supported by such areas (more than one-third of all the world’s species are found in the Amazon rainforest) is damaging the environment much more than any potential negative environmental impacts it has been claimed GM crops may have. While GM foods are considered unnatural by many, most don’t consider that ‘natural’ crop plants grown today are dramatically different from those they were derived from in the wild due to traditional selective breeding. Additionally, the little-known use of X-ray irradiation to induce mutations in plants, a far more haphazard process than that of genetic modification, fragments and changes much of the genome. That’s certainly not natural, and yet the public trust in the sensationalism of the media, unaware of the alternatives.GM opponents such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are impeding a technology which could have major benefits for those in the Third World. Farmers in places such as Africa have seen their crops fail as a result of environmental stresses including drought, and if GM technology could engineer plants better able to resist these stresses it could go some way to reducing the global figure of 30,000 dying every day from starvation. Additionally, populations in developing countries often survive on just one or two staple crops, such as rice. These crops often lack enough macronutrients such as protein and many micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals, and this can lead to serious deficiency diseases, such as blindness resulting from a lack of Vitamin A affecting 250,000 children each year. GM technology offers the opportunity to improve the nutritional content of food, and with the correct technology, which can be used to create more beneficial versions of food (Golden Rice for example contains higher levels of beta-carotene) it is important that the knowledge and necessary materials are made available to those in developing countries.Another potential benefit of genetic modification for those in the developing world is in the production of oral vaccines. There, vaccinations by injection are not always carried out under sterile conditions, risking infection. There are also problems with keeping the vaccines cold during storage and transportation. With GM technology, plants have been engineered to produce antigens, which can be delivered orally and invoke the antibody response in human trials, with the potential to produce resistance against diseases such as hepatitis and dysentery.A survey of Britons in 2003 found that only 2% would be happy to eat GM foods, and this is understandable: for a start, the media has hardly let up in its scare-mongering about GM. Consumers have not really seen many clear benefits yet because the traits that have been introduced have mainly been for the benefit of the producer. They also currently have little faith in scientists or regulatory organisations following debacles such as the recent foot and mouth virus escape from a Surrey laboratory. In 1996, a clearly labelled tomato paste made from genetically-modified tomatoes was sold in supermarkets across Britain. This test showed that, in 1996, the public were willing to accept GM foods: the paste was cheaper than its non-GM counterpart, reportedly tasted better, and sold well. However, the attitude of the public to GM food changed and three years later the paste was removed from sale. Today, GM ingredients are sometimes used in food products, and these products have to pass far more stringent safety assessment by the European Food Safety Authority than conventional new foods, despite the fact that, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, “in those countries where transgenic crops have been grown, there have been no verifiable reports of…health or environmental harm.”The only GM crops that have ever been grown in Britain were those in the government Field-Scale Evaluations; used to test the ecological impact and safety of GM crops, but which were often ruined by extremist environmental groups. However, GM crops (mostly maize, soyabean and cotton) which have been modified to be herbicide and insecticide resistant have been grown in other countries since 1996 and are currently grown on 250 million acres in 22 countries across the world, by around 9 million farmers – so Britain is very much unusual in its anti-GM attitude. GM expert and Oxford University Sibthorpian Professor of Plant Sciences Dr Chris Leaver opines that “GM crops are not a silver bullet which will feed the starving millions or reverse the impact of man-made climate change. However, if we are to satisfy the real and legitimate environmental concerns associated with modern high input agriculture and the threat of global warming, and still feed the increasing world population in a sustainable and environmentally friendly manner, we must assume responsibility for fully evaluating the potential of GM. Doing nothing is not an option.” So next time you’re at the supermarket and tempted to pay that little bit extra for the organic crisps, or mulling over the ingredients of your lunch in hall, ignore the hype around these so-called Frankenfoods and tuck in.