04 September 2006

GM foods: good or bad?

Food can polarise opinion more than most issues, but can we please have some balance and debate, rather than mudslinging and crop burning to get to the truth?

Food can polarise opinion more than most issues, but can we please have some balance and debate, rather than mudslinging and crop burning to get to the truth?

Some GM rice has entered the food chain, BASF is starting field tests of blight-resistant potatoes in the UK, some GM crops form poisons in your stomach. Oh no they don't. Oh, save us all!

Ask anyone about GM food and you get a polarised answer. People are for or against. A colleague tells me he is against it. He doesnt quite know why, but he feels he should be against it. Another tells me he is for it.

Big credit should go to the public relations department of either side, for producing such extremes of opinion, but are we being told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? The difference of opinion suggests not.

So where exactly is the truth?

I suspect, in the middle somewhere.

Pros vs. cons
I'm not against GM food. Nor am I wholly for it. I haven't seen anything that tells me there is a danger there, but the timescale has been too short to suggest that there isn't a danger.

I understand and applaud the proponents of GM who talk about crops growing on poor soils, increasing yields, being disease-resistant, and even boosting the nutritional content, but I also appreciate the environmental concerns.

I am a scientist, and experiments merit patience and open-mindedness. Sherlock Holmes said, "It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts." (A Scandal in Bohemia, 1891).

In the US, GM crops now account for about two-thirds of most crops, but the States have been too quick to introduce GM, and to let it take such a strangle hold on their production. I think the furore over the discovery of traces of unapproved GM rice in commercial batches exported to the EU and Japan vindicates my opinion.

This handed a significant public relations boost to the anti-GM camp: "Look how easily these unregulated GM crops can get into the food chain."

There is no proof that the rice poses any kind of danger to the food chain. In fact, the FDA has said that the rice is safe - it's just that it is unapproved and therefore questionable.

Europe takes the right approach
Europe, on the other hand, has taken the right approach. 'Slowly does it' is the best. Let's introduce field tests. Let's apply stringent controls. Let's wait until the science is in rather than believing the suits on one side and the crop-burners on the other.

Britain has taken an overly conservative approach, but has still got it wrong, bowing to public fears and pressure to inhibit GM crops.

Take the BASF blight-resistant potato as an example. Potato blight is reported to cause over £50m (R680m) worth of damage to crops every year, as well as the extra £20m (R272m) in fungicide costs to try to limit the damage. If we can find a way to stop our spuds being blighted, shouldn’t we try it?

We are, after all, talking about a disease that caused the death of up to a million Irish in the mid 19th Century.

BASF recently applied to the Department of the Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) to conduct two field trials. The BASF application for their field tests will be, if granted, the first since the government field scale trials.

Two sites have been identified, and named, by Defra and BASF for their new field trials in the UK. The crops will fill two hectares. Will they be burned? Possibly.

Transgenic crops
Another good example is the potential of transgenic crops to produce omega-3. The same people who are going on about GM fears are also complaining about dwindling fish stocks, so why not use science to produce plants that provide a sustainable source of the fatty acids for an ever-increasing public demand.

The main players in this field, DuPont and BASF, are already reporting that they have produced crops that can synthesise the essential fatty acids in quantities that exceed that found in fish.

The technology works in the lab, so why not give it a chance to work in the real world. Let's get a bit of perspective. Industry involved in transgenic research, splicing genes from one species to another, has invested money and time in developing their crops. On the other hand, the environmental groups are concerned that GM crops will spell the end to nature as we know it.

Surveillance is high
The fears around GM will mean that surveillance is high. Industry doesn't want bad press and wasted money; the environmentalists don't want any cross-pollination of crops.

Under such stringent controls, there seems little chance of spreading, calming the fears of the so-called environmentalists, and the scientists can judge whether the crops work in the real world.

Then we will see where the truth is. - (Decision News Media, September 2006)

This article was written by Stephen Daniells, Food Science Reporter for, and He has a PhD in Chemistry from Queen's University Belfast and has worked in research in the Netherlands and France.

Read more:
The lowdown on GM foods
GM foods: popular myths


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