When the Scientists Play God
Wednesday, May 3rd 2006
If we are what we eat, what lies ahead in the new world of genetically modified food? Science reporter Keith Perry reports on the 'Frankenfood' debate.
Tomatoes that don't rot, all-year-round fruit and crispier potato chips - just some of the innovations promised by genetic modification.
Although biotechnology firms are promoting it as the taste of the future, consumers and environmental groups don't like what's on the menu.
The idea of scientists developing new food varieties by manipulating genes, the basic stuff of life, has led to bitter arguments about the benefits of so-called "Frankenfoods."
Genetic modification is the act of taking a gene from one organism and inserting it into the genetic material of another, so that the second one produces a gene that the first one produces, for example a hormone.
A gene is a strand of DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, that tells a cell to build the proteins that create the specific characteristics of a plant or animal.
Those in favour of GM crops argue that the technology enables agriculture to be more profitable in ways such as boosting yields by making crops resistant to pests, removing the need for pesticides.
Other changes can make plants tolerate weedkillers so that herbicides can be sprayed without destroying crops, and some scientists believe it offers huge potential for feeding the world's projected population of eight billion in 2020.
Human genes have also been put into livestock so they secrete harvestable drugs in their milk.
The first plants were genetically modified in 1983, and now major crops have been modified and grown commercially, including maize, oilseed rape, tomatoes and potatoes.
But many people opposed to genetic modification argue that it is unnatural to pluck the gene from, say, a toad and insert it into an agricultural crop, although scientists point out that, in the natural world, foreign genes move between species anyway.
However, potential risks do exist. For example, when scientists insert a foreign gene into an organism, this causes it to produce an abnormal substance, which may trigger allergies or even poison you.
Scientists argue that the lectin gene is well known for producing a poisonous protein and would never be used in human food.
There are also fears that the act of genetic modification itself could be harmful because of various other substances used to squeeze in the gene and switch it on.
Another argument is that the foreign gene could interact with the genes that are naturally present, with unknown results.
As for the foreign gene itself, we eat DNA all the time, so there is no reason an introduced gene should cause harm.
DNA is rapidly broken down in the stomach and by cooking. That is why there is little concern that sugar refined from sugarbeet genetically modified to resist insects will cause problems.
However, environmentalists warn of the nightmare of "green concrete," in which herbicides have wiped out all weeds, leaving just the genetically modified crops growing.
Alternatively, rampant superweeds might engulf the countryside because they now possess the genes that make them resistant to herbicides.
The groups predict a population with damaged immune systems as a result of eating harmful proteins that we are not designed to deal with.
Despite reassurances from politicians, people have remained skeptical about the benefits of GM foods. They feel that they have lost their freedom of choice.
Many shoppers will increasingly want to know whether their food is free from genetically modified ingredients.
Source, Weekend Herald, August 7-8, 1999
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