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

By Caroline Scott-Thomas

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Genetic engineering Genetically modified food

Not as simple as 'for' or 'against'
Not as simple as 'for' or 'against'
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.

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It's about technology

Posted by Marko Schmitlechner,

Great article!
Don't bash the technology, because irresponsible people are misusing it. Anything ever invented can be misused...
While food industry, and technologists are under constant pressure of the consumers to produce better looking, better tasting, longer lasting food, for increasing number of people; constantly are tools that could help being vilified.
It is time to make an objective assessment of the GM technology, before it is discarded as "being evil".

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Crop Diversity

Posted by Gay Timmons,

I have yet to see any advocates for GMO crops address the issue of diminished diversity. Any of the seed crops - notable in the US being corn, soy and wheat, are cross fertilized via wind, insects, a birds.

The fact is that seed crops everywhere all adapt to the micro climate in which they are grown and this creates increased yield and allows farmers to select and save seed fo heartier species. They use of GM seed and it's subsequent cross pollination flattens this particular spike of adaptation.

The Irish potato famine is a great example of the negative side effects of reducing the gene pool.

GM crops appear to be a road to the destruction of the very successful and efficient role of "survival of the fittest". It make no sense to reduce the number of sensibly evolved seeds normally created by the millions of farmers and unknown numbers of micro climates and unique soils world wide. Nor does it make sense to allow a couple of companies to control the food supply.

Bottom line - It is not about feeding people or "science", it is about making money.

Science can be used for all sorts of things - GM seeds are not the best use of science or of scientific brains.

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Posted by Half-Crazed Runner,

I don't understand, if after all the research proving GMO seeds, crops, ingredients, and foods are safe, why aren't the companies, which are promoting, marketing and/or selling GMO foods, proudly showing this on a label?

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