Look out for the domino effect

Tassos Kourakis, deputy professor of medicine at Thessaloniki University, is wary of a domino effect from GM products. What worries you most about GM foods? The release of GM organisms into the environment and the extinction of related species due to advantages the GM organisms possess, but which do not necessarily mean they will stand the test of time better than the others, nor that they will fit into the equilibrium that has developed over the ages. It’s the domino effect, where the collapse of one piece in the game triggers a series of events which eventually cause the whole system to collapse. What dangers do GM products pose? First, genetic pollution of the environment, the uncontrolled dispersal of new genetic organisms which have not been naturally selected and thus threaten the balance of the ecosystem. Second, their as yet unknown effects on other living organisms. Third, the impossibility of recalling these organisms if something goes wrong and that there are no scientific methods of predicting and monitoring their behavior when they are released into the environment. For humans, there is the problem of resistance to antibiotics. We have very little experience – we only started consuming these products in 1996. I imagine the main threat will come from the disruption of the ecosystem. People should know that alien genes are incorporated at random into the genetic system of plants; we don’t know where the new gene goes. It may upset the operation of other genes, with unforeseen consequences. It’s like a spaceship carrying people to a planet but we don’t know where it will land. Cancer is a gene that starts working in the wrong place, time and quantity. So if the natural product of a gene acts in the wrong place, time and quantity, it is carcinogenic. New carcinogens may come from this random union in a few years. With this in mind, do you think this science should not go any further? It’s one thing to broaden our knowledge and understand the way genetics is related to the environment, and a very different thing to use this knowledge in applications which change genetic material. It is not a question of understanding our genetic nature but of being able to change it and doing so. Everyone admits that while we are able to manipulate DNA, we know very little about the incredibly complex way it functions. It’s wrong to believe that mapping the genome is the same as understanding it. That may happen in 50 or 100 years, and since that’s so far away, the fact we have the technique to manage it enables us to reprogram it. Is restricting science feasible, given that some people make money from these applications? It may not be feasible, but it is necessary. The path science is taking is not one that has to be followed. The direction is determined by the values, perceptions and world view of society. They dictate the solution to the problem. In this society, which maximizes profit and competition, the worship of chemical culture is leading in that direction, but it is not a one-way street. We can use the huge potential and funds to better understand our connection with the genetic environment rather than to change it. The EU has had a temporary moratorium for some years on permits for GM crops, but it may soon be lifted. Do you think the scientific data have changed sufficiently for that? It is strange that though there has been no research concerning the problem of controlling damage, the research commissioner has come out with a report – a very selective one, in my opinion – showing that GM products are harmless. The fact that he makes selective use of research done by companies and says that these products have done no harm to health, when he knows that we have only been consuming them for 5-7 years and that carcinogens take 20-30 years to show up, and that he says all this without a care, indicates which way the EU is going. I fear it will go in the direction of liberalization.