Seeds of Disaster

Seeds of Disaster
David Tyler
David Tyler David Tyler is Professor Emeritus at Manchester Metropolitan University.
01 March, 1999 8 min read
HRH the Prince of Wales SOURCE Dan Marsh

Are genetically modified foods safe? No, says the Prince of Wales, as he champions the case against genetically-engineered food.

Last summer, two days after the biotechnology company Monsanto launched a one million pound campaign to persuade consumers that their genetically modified (GM) foods are safe and nutritious, the Prince of Wales threw down the gauntlet to the GM food industry. The Daily Telegraph’s front-page story of 8 June 1998 said, ‘The Prince of Wales today attacks multi-national companies for trying to persuade the public that the growing of genetically-engineered crops should be allowed in Britain, probably next year … [He] says he will not eat food made from such produce, nor give it to his family or guests. Genetic engineering “takes mankind into realms that belong to God and to God alone”’.

His second major assault came at the end of October, speaking at the Organic Food Awards. He asked ‘whether we need genetically modified food at all’ and called for ‘strong and sustained pressure from consumers to ensure that they keep the right not to eat them’ (Daily Mail, 30 October 1998).

The story so far

Most of us are aware that genetically modified foods have been and are being developed. GM soya is available in large quantities in the US, and consumers may already have eaten it unknowingly as an ingredient in margarine, burgers, biscuits, ice cream, chocolate and bread. GM maize can be an ingredient in breakfast cereals and corn oil. GM tomatoes are sold in puree form and GM rennet can be used to make cheese.

Considerable controversy has been generated over GM foods within the European Community, not least because Monsanto and other large biotechnology companies are refusing to segregate GM products from normal products. Around 150 modified foods are waiting for approval from the British Government before they can be released for commercial farming, subsequently to enter the shops.

About 300 test sites in the UK are said to have been identified for growing GM crops. The Iceland food chain has made a policy decision not to include any GM foods in its branded products, and other food chains are still considering their position. Public opinion is behind the Iceland policy, and a recent survey revealed widespread concern. Some 85% of consumers wanted GM foods to be segregated from normal foods at source, and 95% wanted GM foods to be labelled. The environmentalist pressure groups are calling GM products ‘Frankenstein foods’.

What are GM foods?

Genetically modified foods are produced using mechanisms that splice genes from one organism into the DNA of a host or target organism. The transferred genes are intended to provide enhanced characteristics to the host. For example, a gene thought to allow a fish to survive in freezing water has been inserted into the DNA of a tomato — to make it frost-resistant.

Another genetic change to tomatoes gives them a longer shelf life. Maize has been modified so that it has greater resistance to disease. Cows have been given genetically engineered bovine growth-hormone to boost milk yields. Monsanto’s GM soya bean has resistance to Monsanto’s chemical herbicide glyphosate, with the trade name Roundup (a best seller around the world). Farmers can sow the GM soya bean, spray the plants with Roundup, and watch everything else except the crop wither and die. This produces enhanced yields for the farmer.

Fundamental difference

Supporters of GM foods argue that plant breeders have always sought to develop and enhance desirable characteristics of crops. The new technology, they say, merely extends the range of variability that plant breeders can utilise. Furthermore, farmers have always been looking for ways of improving their yields and increasing the shelf life of its products, and genetic engineering of foods just continues this emphasis. These arguments, according to Prince Charles, are unacceptable. He writes: ‘The fundamental difference between traditional and genetically modified plant breeding is that, in the latter, genetic material from one species of plant, bacteria, virus, animal or fish is literally inserted into another species, with which they could never naturally breed. The use of these techniques raises, it seems to me, crucial ethical and practical considerations.

‘I happen to believe that this kind of genetic modification takes mankind into realms that belong to God, and to God alone. Apart from certain highly beneficial and specific medical applications, do we have the right to experiment with, and commercialise, the building blocks of life? We live in an age of rights — it seems to me that it is time our Creator had some rights, too’ (Daily Telegraph, 8 June 1998).

It is refreshing to hear a national figure promoting ethical standards in science and commerce. We have a responsibility to live before God, and not as though he has nothing to say to us on these issues. However, it is important to know what God does say to us; it is not enough to know what the Prince believes God is saying. Our starting point, therefore, must be the Scriptures, and we must ‘test all things’ by reference to God’s written Word.

A biblical perspective

Our relationship with the world around us is best described by the word ‘stewardship’. Men and women have been entrusted with God’s creation (Genesis 1:28-29). We are responsible for its care and safekeeping. This dominion over nature is not given us for exploitation, but that we may serve God. He is the owner, and we are his appointed agents.

This principle is the rationale for a Christian involvement in science and industry. When professionals lose this link with stewardship, they become self-centred, and profit becomes the only significant measure of performance.

A further principle to be found in the earliest chapters of the Bible is that of ‘image-bearing’. Man was made in God’s image. Although the meaning of this term is much discussed, it must imply that in certain ways we are to be like God. We have the gift of speech because he speaks. We are self-conscious beings because he is such. We possess creative gifts because God is pre-eminently the Master Creator.

An early scientist captured this beautifully when he said that his work was a matter of ‘thinking God’s thoughts after him’. Since God has created organisms with the potential to vary, selective breeding is a justifiable expression of stewardship. (This is not to imply that all selective breeding programmes are acceptable — some appear to have lost all links with the concept of stewardship). If this argument is accepted, then it is possible to interpret genetic engineering as an extension of the breeding process — with man acting as an intelligent designer.

Christian concerns

The argument developed here is that Christianity does not object in principle to the practice of genetic engineering. However, there are other aspects which justify concern. These fall into two categories; environmental dangers and health, respectively. Consider first the environmental threat. Ecological communities thrive on diversity, but intensive farming, and particularly the production of GM foods, results in mono-cultures. Other plants and animals are excluded from the growth area, there are inevitably high inputs of fertilisers and pesticides, and heavy mechanisation is inevitably involved. The global trend to environmental degradation and soil erosion, already a serious problem for agriculture, is promoted by such practices.

Again, there are significant concerns that GM plants can produce ‘genetic pollution’. This means that the artificially induced genetic variations cannot be kept to the original GM plant. At least ten GM crops have been found to transfer their genetic qualities to wild plants through cross-pollination. The fear is that ‘super weeds’ will develop which will out-compete their natural counterparts and even the GM crops themselves.

Dr John Fagan, a molecular biologist from the US, is reported in the Daily Telegraph (7 September 1996) as saying: ‘Although there is not a danger with every genetically-manipulated food, once you introduce genetically-manipulated plants or animals into the environment you cannot recall them. They soon cross-pollinate or reproduce with their natural counterparts and the genetic manipulation can spread throughout the species’.

Viral resistance

There is thus a genuine risk of transferring viral resistance from GM plants to wild relatives. Ecologists know very little about the rôle of viruses in restricting weed populations, but research suggests that viruses may be a significant factor in keeping weed populations in check.

In the UK, these unknown risks have limited trials with virus resistant GM plants to potatoes — because potatoes have no wild relatives in Britain. However, in the US there is less restraint. According to Jeremy Rifkin (New Scientist, 31 October 1998): ‘My own bet is that agricultural biotechnology is going to be one of the great disasters of corporate capitalist history … I don’t really believe that it will be able to deal with the liability issue over genes jumping … I think that it is likely that we will be plagued by genetic pollution, and that we will look back and see chemical and nuclear pollution as not as significant — even though one brought us global warming and the others waste that we cannot deal with for thousands of years’.

Health risk

Secondly, the effects of GM foods on the consumer suggest a significant health risk. An early warning came in 1989, when a genetically-engineered bacterium was used to produce the food supplement ‘tryptophan’. The product killed thirty-seven people and permanently paralysed 1500 more before it was withdrawn.

Another much publicised case concerned the transfer of a gene from a Brazil nut to a soya bean to improve the protein content of the bean. Unknown to the genetic engineers, something else was also transferred, and people allergic to Brazil nuts reacted to the soya beans. A further example involved a GM yeast, produced to achieve an increased rate of fermentation, but which also produced a toxic by-product of fermentation.

Simplistic notion

These problems are occurring because so much GM activity is based on the simplistic notion that each gene controls one character trait — whereas modern genetics shows that genes function in a complex networked system; that is, the way one gene is expressed depends on the expression of others.

With our present state of knowledge, the outcome appears unpredictable. This is a particular problem, as GM techniques lack the ability to control where the introduced gene is spliced into the host’s DNA. To quote Dr Fagan again: ‘Introducing a gene into another organism is a Russian roulette process — the position the new gene occupies is not controllable. We are being asked to partake in a nutritional experiment of global proportions’.

To be concluded

David Tyler
David Tyler is Professor Emeritus at Manchester Metropolitan University.
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