Tuesday 22 July 2008

Mendel and Frankenstein

The arguments surrounding the adoption of GM crops are complex, with many different aspects to be considered. It is right that we should revisit the arguments periodically, but that should primarily be on the basis of new research or changed circumstances.

Today's suggestion that we should revisit the argument because 'farmers would be disadvantaged if Wales did not embrace GM technology' seems to me to be the wrong basis for a reconsideration. And the suggestion that opposition to GM is based on fear of 'Frankenstein foods', or some sort of anti-science attitude looks more like an attempt to 'play the man' than to deal with the substantive arguments against.

Proponents of GM foods argue that they can help us to produce bigger, pest-resistant, drought-resistant, and disease-free crops. These are significant prizes, and are not to be dismissed lightly in a world where people are dying of starvation, and where climate change may well make it harder for us to feed the world's population in the future.

Of course, there is an argument that there is actually plenty of food available in the world today, and that the problems are more to do with the way we share it than the way we grow it. That's probably true, but it doesn't stop people starving today, and the attractions of GM food for countries which would like to become more self-sufficient in food are surely obvious. (Having said that, part of the problem with the GM lobby is that what they say sounds very idealistic, but what they do is driven by commercial considerations. Their target market for the more expensive seed which they sell is often not the poorer countries which need more food, but the richer ones where they can charge more and make more profit.)

The companies tell us that GM food is safe to eat, as a result of the testing they've done. I have no basis to argue with that, but that has never been the main argument for me. My concern is more about the long term effects of GM crops on the environment.

Genetic change in organisms is a normal, natural event. Mutations happen, genes change over time, and organisms evolve. For millennia, humans have used these facts to 'change' the genetic structure of plants and animals through selective breeding, so as to suit human needs - and that includes improving crops, increasing disease resistance and so on. We have also learnt that when one organism changes, other organisms change in response, in ways which are not always predictable; natural adaptation takes some curious paths.

The two key differences, for me, between selective breeding and genetic modification are, firstly, that the combinations of genes go beyond anything likely to be achievable in nature (selective breeding can't put a jellyfish gene into a wheat plant!), and secondly that the pace of change is much faster - what might take generations of selective breeding to achieve can be achieved in a single generation. These two key differences are, of course, the whole point of GM - but it's the effects which concern me.

The fact that many genes work in combination, as well as singly; the mechanisms by which genes can cross-transfer to other organisms, including horizontal gene transfer; and the effect on other organisms as they seek to adapt are all areas where the consequences are unpredictable. At a genetic level, the biosphere is sufficiently complex that I believe that chaos theory can be said to apply. In simpler terms, a small change made in one organism may lead to larger, unpredictable changes in others. Now, I'm sure that advocates of GM would tell me that this ultimately boils down to a question of probability and risk – and I'd agree.

My conclusion at present is simply that we don't have a good enough handle on the probabilities to be taking the risks which are currently being taken, let alone the higher risks posed by more complex genetic manipulation. And until we do, I want GM to stay safely in the laboratory. It's worthy of continued research, but not release into the natural environment - especially when the motives of those arguing for so doing are more to do with profit than with feeding the world, and the research findings on which they base their assessment of safety are usually those of the companies who have a vested interest in selling their products.

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