The pros and cons of GM foods: Are they really worth the risk?

As part of an ongoing debate, Kathimerini interviewed three professors about the pros and cons of genetically modified (GM) foods. «I don’t accept the position of the multinationals that GM foods are harmless. In my view there is no harmless process,» says Athanasios Tsaftaris, professor of genetics at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. «Whether a plant is dangerous to use depends on the plant itself and the environment where it is grown. So we have to look carefully at every product and choose the one with the most benefits and fewest risks.» What is your opinion about the use of biotechnology in producing food and other goods? Let’s look at the history of it. The first products of biotechnology were drugs, the first and foremost being insulin. We have 15 years’ experience of such drugs. Human insulin made in biotechnology laboratories has almost completely replaced the pig’s insulin that diabetics used. It shows there are products that really can help medicine. It isn’t the same with plants. Drugs are made in the confined area of a laboratory; GM crops grow in the open countryside. Nothing is without danger. But we cannot change our bioethics to suit ourselves, protesting when a gene is transferred from a bean to corn, but saying that it is for the good of our health when a gene is transferred from a human to a bacterium. It isn’t only a matter of ethical dilemmas but also differing extents of danger. Even if a plant turns into Frankenstein, as some people fear, it will be limited to the hectare it grows on; it won’t go any further. Every process has its advantages and disadvantages. But I agree that there is less danger with drugs. And with plants? My view is that certain GM varieties can be beneficial. I don’t share the extreme viewpoint of environmental organizations such as Greenpeace that there are no benefits. I believe farming is in trouble, and the GM Bt varieties of corn and cotton about which there is so much discussion do provide benefits. It’s good for farmers to grow an insect-resistant variety and not to have to spray pesticides. Some studies have shown that the farmers still use sprays. GM plants that are resistant to insects reduce the use of insecticides, and not only in theory. In the US, China and Australia where Bt genes have been used, insecticide use has decreased. If the GM variety were resistant to fungi, then fungicide use would decrease. If you make a plant resistant to boll-weevils, the use of boll-weevil killer decreases, but if you make a plant resistant to weed-killer, farmers use more of that weed-killer and less of other pesticides. But later generations of insects become resistant to the GM plants’ defenses. Long-term use of varieties that are resistant to certain insects will definitely lead to insects that can break that resistance. That will happen in 15-20 years. I don’t accept the multinationals’ position that GM foods are harmless. In my view there is no harmless process. Whether a plant is dangerous to use depends on the plant itself and the environment where it is grown. We have to look carefully at every product and say that it should not be available in Europe if the risks outweigh the benefits. Greece strongly opposed a certain plant that is resistant to weed-killer. But we have wild greens that are related to it and if they are pollinated by resistant genes we will have serious problems. We shouldn’t even try it out. In contrast, there are no varieties related to corn or cotton in Europe, so there is no chance of pollen from GM plants getting into wild greens. We should fight to stop GM corn from getting into Mexico where there is a wild variety of corn near the corn-growing area. Is it certain that GM genes can’t be transferred to related species? I can’t see corn pollen getting into cotton. In the 500 years that we have been growing it, we haven’t seen genes from corn in cotton. This is why the regulations have been made, to examine each case on its merits. Why the rush? Right, we have to go slowly and experimentally, to see if there are any dangers, but we have to try. I think the multinationals are wrong to rush it.