In her first interview as Environment Secretary,Caroline Spelman, who has a background in biotech lobbying, has indicated the new coalition governments unprecedented pro-GM stance, backing wider selling and growing of so called Frankenfood and bringing this highly contentious issue once more to the fore.
In the Guardian interview, the head of DEFRA said she was in favour of GM foods ‘in the right circumstances’ and that they can ‘bring benefits in food to the marketplace’.
Genetic Modification or gene-splicing, first pioneered commercially in the 90s, involves the insertion or deletion of small parts of specific DNA into the nucleus of an intended host, either by transgenesis between different species or cisgenesis between species that could breed naturally. Since the isolation of DNA, the fundamental unit that controls the different properties of an organism, any biological property that exists in any living thing can potentially be attributed to another living thing.
Potential benefits include pesticide and herbicide resistance, so that the crop survives where competing flora and fauna doesnt, prolonged longevity of fruit, so less refrigeration and packaging is required, drought and salt resistance, higher yield and increased nutritional value (rice with increased vitamin content for example).
Some of the weirder applications have included glow-in-the-dark fish by splicing a bioluminescent jellyfish gene with zebrafish, plants that turn red when exposed to the nitrogen dioxide leached from landmines, genetically modified insects that eat agricultural waste and excrete diesel fuel, pigs that absorb 65 per cent more phosphorous than normal thus reducing the toxicity of their waste (but retaining it in their meat?), and lactating goats with an added spider silk chromosome so that their milk yields a flexible, biodegradable fibre with a tensile strength of 136,000 kg per square inch.
Future applications could see fruit and nut trees that mature years earlier, bananas that produce human vaccines to deceases like Hepatitis B, foods developed to grow without their associated allergens and even plants that produce new plastics.
GM food causes little ire amongst consumers, scientists and campaigners when purely concerned with cross-breeding within the same species, crossing redder tomatoes with ones with larger fruit for example; not so different to the selective breeding thats been going on for centuries. Concern grows when unrelated species are spliced, like Roundup resistant soybeans, engineered to carry a gene from bacteria resistant to the weed killer Roundup (which then kills everything else). Not only are American farmers growing the soybeans using 5-10 times more of the herbicide, but a study by the Organic Center found yields were at best unaffected. Concentrations of the herbicide are also greatly increased within the plant.
Neatly, Monsanto, who sell the resistant seed and are by far the biggest player in the GM arena (90 per cent of the US sales), also manufactures Roundup.
In a recent report the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) stated, Genetically Modified foods have not been properly tested and pose a serious health risk. There is more than a casual association between GM foods and adverse health effects. There is causation. The Academy also called for a moratorium on GM food and for doctors to advise patients to avoid GM foods due to evidence that, since the widespread introduction of GM food in the US since 1996, chronic diseases and food allergies have doubled.
The most often cited reason for the use of GM food is to boost food production in a world with an official malnourished population of 1 billion. Oxford University economist Paul Collier says, Genetic modification is analogous to nuclear power: nobody loves it, but climate change has made its adoption imperative. Declining genetic modification makes a complicated issue more complex. Genetic modification offers both faster crop adaptation and a biological, rather than chemical, approach to yield increases.
However, in its 2008 report undertaken by 400 scientific experts and signed by around 60 governments, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) made it clear that after more than a decade of commercial application GM crops had done nothing to reduce hunger or poverty.
Instead, mirroring research done by UNEP in 24 African countries that found yield more than doubled with organic and semi-organic small hold farming, they recommended agro- ecological farming as the way forward, with all of the environmental benefits that such practice encourages.
Closely monitored and regulated, genetic engineering has huge potential, so long as we take the potential side effects into account with it. The problem seems to be that theres so much we dont know about the long term impacts of their use, of the behaviour of altered DNA and of the subtle shifts within nature that tampering with its building blocks might cause.
Can new allergens emerge when genes are mixed across different species? Given they are bred for strength and resilience, can GM harm biodiversity? Given that some GM foods are modified using bacteria and viruses, might we see the emergence of new diseases?
It may be too late; cross-pollination, physically impossible according to GM proponents, has already happened, casting genetic material with unknown potential to the four winds and potentially altering entire species. Once released into the wild, a product recall is impossible.
With this in mind, surely its wiser to err on the side of caution, to look before leaping, rather than what we usually do; make as much money as possible from our cleverness then worry about the consequences afterwards.