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Genetic engineering: It’s a technology, not an ideology

By Caroline Scott-Thomas, 04-Feb-2013

Related topics: Carbohydrates and fibres (sugar, starches), Cereals and bakery preparations, Fruit, vegetable, nut ingredients, Science, GM food

Whether you are ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ genetic engineering has become a divisive political issue, but remember that we are talking about technology; it shouldn’t be an ideology.

Last week, BASF said it would stop seeking European regulatory approval for three genetically modified (GM) potato varieties, citing ‘uncertainty in the regulatory environment’. After a decade of research, it’s going elsewhere.

It was a decision welcomed by anti-GM campaigners. Jubilation exploded on various internet forums. But I think it’s a sad indictment of the scientific climate in Europe, when a company that’s invested millions to produce potatoes that are resistant to late blight – a major potato crop disease – is driven out of Europe because regulators can’t decide what to do about divisions in public and political opinion.

In the balance

Genetic engineering shouldn’t be a political issue, no matter how much sci-fi-sensitive individuals might be reminded of the plot from The Day of the Triffids. Plants can be engineered in many ways, and their potential benefits should be balanced with an assessment of their potential detriments – no matter what the technology.

Meanwhile, new GM crops are carefully considered by safety assessors around the world, including by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which, if you’ve been paying attention to its work on health claims, has an excellent record of telling the industry to go back to the drawing board if the science isn’t solid enough.

From my perspective, the reaction from many people on internet forums underlines the need for better science education, not necessarily around genetic engineering, but in order to be better critical consumers of scientific knowledge. In other words, don’t believe everything you’re told.

‘Toxic genes’

Some of the GM conversations I’ve followed over the past week have included phrases like “toxic genes”, “plants that have their genes manipulated to include a pesticide”, and the cartoonish “Frankenfood”. These are inaccuracies at best. Nevertheless, it is the blanket negative viewpoint about all GM foods that bothers me most, one that fails to consider application of the technology.

Opposing GM crops because of the technology itself makes as much sense to me as forsaking computers for fear of a Terminator-type scenario. The machines might stilltake over the world.

Problems with GM

Do I think there are concerning issues in GM agriculture? Absolutely. I don’t like that some companies restrict farmers from saving their seeds from one harvest for the next, or that there is a relatively small number of companies in charge of a large and growing chunk of the food supply.

However, these are concerns that can, and should, be dealt with through legal mechanisms.  They are concerns that are independent from safety. Crop safety should be left to highly specialised scientific experts.

I’m not one of them, so I say, no, I am not explicitly anti-GM. Nor am I explicitly pro-GM. I don’t see why I should be either.


P.S. Eating is risky. Certain applications of genetic modification may be risky too. But I also think it is risky to close a door on a whole area of research and innovation.

Since some readers are sure to ask, here’s a list of about 600 studies from peer-reviewed publications that analyse the relative risks of GM crops.