14 March 2007

GM: a healthy debate

The development of genetically modified crops to improve health could be the golden ticket for advocates to persuade the public that GM is not a wholly nefarious idea after all.

The development of genetically modified crops to improve human health could be the golden ticket for advocates to persuade the wary public that GM is not a wholly nefarious idea after all.

But will a new, healthy spin be enough to counter deep-rooted fears that genetic modification, by its very nature, poses an equal and opposite threat to human health?

Ever since food from crops genetically modified to resist pests, produce bigger yields, or grant some other benefit for the farmer started to appear on the market in the mid 1990s, consumers have sniffed suspiciously at the idea.

"How do we know it's safe?" "I don't want food that's been mucked about with, thank you very much".

It is easy to see why they are turning their noses up like petulant toddlers when GM food is peddled with the underlying message: "Eat this, it's good for the farmers".

A new twist to GM debate
But last week two GM food projects made the headlines that introduce a new twist to the GM debate - health.

California-based Ventria Bioscience received preliminary approval from the US to cultivate over 3 000 acres of rice engineered with human genes to produce lactiva and lysomin, proteins that occur in breast milk that have shown potential in speeding recovery of children with diarrhoea.

Then Monsanto and The Solae Company announced they are joining forces with their respective projects to genetically modify soybeans as a source of omega-3s - (long and shorter chain), with a view to giving the food industry a new source of the healthy ingredient within five years.

When the message is "Eat this, it's good for you" or "Let the poor children of Africa eat this, it's good for them," that strikes a chord with two major themes of modern consciousness - eating for health and wellness, and doing whatever we can to stamp out disease and deprivation in the developing world.

Such messages could well sweeten the fork-load so that the consumer starts to sniff at it in temptation. If it smells good enough, they'll wolf it down in one.

But wait. Hold that fork poised mid-air between plate and mouth for just one moment. It's not quite that simple.

True effects unknown
Re-enter the anti-GM lobby, which has long campaigned against tinkering with genes on the grounds that we do not know the true effects on human health.

What is more, the record of keeping GM crops entirely separate from non-GM is not so good. The US authorities recently revealed that GM traces had been found in samples of non-GM rice, prompting the EU to clamp down on imports from the other side of the Atlantic on the grounds that it is a variety unapproved in Europe.

When crops are engineered to have properties that some would call pharmaceutical (others, nutraceutical), the nightmare scenario is contamination occurring when a gust of wind sends seed billowing across field boundaries.

No-one wants to sit down to a bowl of what they think is perfectly innocent rice pudding, only to find that in fact it contains ingredients that at best they don't need, at worst cause them to OD on a medicine they didn't even know they were taking.

The battle lines are being drawn for the next stage in a fiercely fought war.

Impact on human health
The new developments mean both sides are finally talking about the same measurable quantity - impact on human health.

But the outcome shouldn't be determined by who can shout the loudest at consumers: "Pick me, I'm the healthy one. Really, I am!"

It should be determined by scientific evidence that the benefits are real, and that they are not cancelled out by detrimental effects - whether the person consumes the food deliberately or accidentally.

On every consumer's lips, no-matter how a-quiver they are with temptation or emotion, should be the words: "Show me the scientific proof, and I'll eat the pudding." - (Decision News Media, March 2007)

This article was written by Jess Halliday, editor of award-winning website and Over the past decade she has worked in print, broadcast and online media in both Europe and the United States.

Read more:
GM foods: good or bad?
GM contamination sparks controversy


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