NEWS

GM debate draws expert opinions, objections

Genetically modified food is one of the most controversial scientific subjects that the general public tries to get to grips with, and this was evident on Monday in Athens when the relative merits of GM organisms were put up for discussion. The varying degrees of acceptance of this technology was reflected in the show of hands called for among the participants, many of them scientists, at a public debate titled «Genetically Modified Food: Benefit or Threat?» Some declared themselves in favor, others were undecided and others remained decidedly against it. The debate was part of the «Beautiful Science» series held in Greece by the British Council and the Eugenides Foundation aimed at improving science communication, and was led by three panelists, two Greek scientists and the Guardian’s science correspondent James Randerson. Typical of the issues raised was whether genetically modifying organisms in the laboratory was «natural,» and whether it benefited humanity to the extent claimed by is proponents. According to Randerson, the question of whether GM organisms are unnatural is «not helpful» to the debate. «After all test tube babies are ‘unnatural’… just because something is unnatural doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad,» said Randerson. «Genes move around all the time in nature. There are lots of examples of genes that have come from different kingdoms,» he said, suggesting that there should be more discussion about the modifications on a case-by-case basis. The other issue, he said, is the feeling that GM food is, to use a term used in the UK’s tabloid press, «Frankenstein food.» «These are very emotive phrases which I think influence the debate. Mutation is something that happens to DNA all the time, so mutation in itself is not necessarily bad. People deliberately cause mutations in plants in agriculture and then select the ones that produce the highest yield, grow in certain conditions or are resistant to pests. To cause those mutations, they often use chemicals and radiation, so the food we eat at the moment is modified. So to put GM food in a different category is not helpful. The question as to whether GM is good or bad is the wrong question; I think the question should be which uses of GM are potentially good or bad,» he claimed. Last month Randerson interviewed scientist Dr Arpad Pusztai (http://education.guardian.co.uk/higher/profile/story/0,,224057- 2,00.html) whose controversial research on GM potatoes was dismissed but anti-GM campaigners made him «a hero – the scientist who stood up to the establishment and, as a result, had his career squashed at the behest of shadowy forces in the GM industry and the government.» The difference with GM, said Pusztai, «is that there is a political agenda at work. Ninety-five percent of GM is coming from America, so naturally it is in their interests to push it,» he says. «I have no ideological grounds against Monsanto [the biotechnology company]. For me, it’s a scientific argument. They have not done a proper job [of testing], and they are just using their political and economic muscle to foist it on us.» American flag Randerson admits that the difference in attitude between the USA and the UK is partly related to the latter issue. «In the rest of world, GM (crops) are being grown in great volumes. In 2007 around 140 million hectares were under GM cultivation, of which only small amount was in Europe. That figure was an increase of 12 percent on the year before… GM food very much has the American flag flying over it. In the US it is patriotic to be in favor of GM food. In the UK and I suspect rest of Europe people are much more suspicious.» The other issue, he said, lay in the British attitude to agriculture. «Because Britain is a very crowded island, there are very few wilderness areas, so most people’s experience of the countryside is its agricultural areas. We have a fondness for agricultural land as being the countryside… The idea of there being a threat to that in terms of GM food causing ecological problems in the countryside is very worrying to people. In the USA, because they have so much space and great stretches in the middle of the Midwest where they grow food, I think they can separate their wilderness areas from their agricultural areas in their minds as a large industrial food-growing area which you wouldn’t necessarily want to go and visit, as compared to the wilderness areas as separate to that. They don’t see them threatened by GM crops.» Randerson’s claim that modifications to crops to make them drought tolerant or salt tolerant will be useful technology for developing countries was challenged by a member of the audience, who claimed that in 1996, the year GM soya was introduced, 800 million people were suffering from starvation, whereas now the figure is 840 million. «Therefore, increasing production does not solve the problem. Let’s not use that myth to justify the use of GM,» he urged the panelists. Another of the issues raised by the audience was the lack of public information as to how these modifications were made and their possible effects on human health and the environment. According to another speaker, Efstathios Gonos, the director of research at the National Hellenic Research Foundation, Institute of Biological Research and Biotechnology, all life is governed by the same gene code, with only slight differences from one species to another. Yet the question was raised that in nature, there was no historical record of a fish gene having entered the gene of a strawberry, for example, and that it was one thing for an organism’s DNA to be modified over time and another for 140 million hectares of crops to be modified in a very short period. An agronomist in the audience, who declared herself to be as yet undecided with regard to GM, said that more attention should be paid to preserving biodiversity and local varieties of crops to avoid the risks of depending on monoculture. Methods questioned «My problem is not whether we should buy GM food, we have to get away from that and talk about how these modifications are made. Those that occur in nature occur for survival purposes over a long period of time in order to adapt to the environment. Those that occur in the laboratory take place in a very short period of time and not in response to environmental changes,» she said. Randerson replied that nevertheless, there were several examples of genes moving between different kingdoms of life, between different organisms. «So it’s just a question of degree. DNA is essentially common to all life on the planet and so it doesn’t necessarily matter where the gene comes from.» He cited the example of modified forms of corn or Bt maize that have genes from a bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis which is a protein that is poisonous to insects but not mammals. «As far as we can tell, it doesn’t affect humans or animals. Will it have an effect on the environment? I think the relevant question there is that if that gene were to spread to a wild relative of that plant, then that may become a super-weed that could spread because it would have the advantage of being poisonous to insects and that could cause ecological problems. That to me is a much more relevant question to ask and one that we don’t necessarily have the answer to. I think it’s those questions that are much more important. It is the debate rather than whether it’s natural or unnatural.» Many questions remain unanswered and will no doubt continue to be for some decades, just as with other technological wonders of the past that turned out to create more problems than they solved. As Pusztai told Randerson in his interview, caution is required. «Make no mistake, this is an irreversible technology. It is no good 50 years later to say: ‘We should have known.’»