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Genetic Crops
Frankenstein Foods or Manna from Heaven?

The following article, by Barnaby Harward, is reprinted with kind permission of 'The World of English', and appeared in no. 5 1999 (44)

If somebody told you that the tomato you're eating contains a gene taken from a fish would you continue eating it? Like animal cloning, the genetic modification of crops is a hot topic at the moment, especially in Britain, where many people are protesting against it. Recently even Prince Charles joined the campaign.

Genetically modified, or GM, crops are fruits, vegetables or cereals whose DNA has been changed to make them better in some way. For example, taking a certain gene out of a certain plant and replacing it with a different one might make the plant more resistant to disease or stop pests eating it. Changing the genetic structure of a plant could also make its fruit more nutritious, or allow it to be grown in a different climate. It is even possible to take out a gene that makes people allergic to a certain type of food. In Japan scientists have produced a new type of rice that will not cause an allergic reaction in people allergic to normal rice. This could be extremely important to millions of people in Asia whose main food is rice.

Invasion of the "superweeds"

So if GM crops are such a good thing, why are so many people worried about them? First of all there is concern about the effects on the environment. It is thought that these new crops will be able to spread their genes to related wild plants and weeds by the natural processes of pollination and reproduction. If farmers grow a crop that is more resistant to disease or pests then it is possible that close relatives of that plant in or near the field will gradually be genetically modified in the same way. This, people say, will lead to the creation of "superweeds" that will eventually spread everywhere leaving no room for other plants. This, in turn, will mean animals and birds will be affected. The countryside will dramatically change in a way we won't be able to reverse. "Genetic pollution", unlike other types of pollution, is impossible to clean up. Who knows what the exact effects would be on human beings?

Many scientists and representatives of biotechnology companies disagree with this view, and there is a lot of evidence to suggest this would not happen. However, some governments are unsure, and France and Canada have banned the growing of GM crops in areas where the plants have close relatives. As Prince Charles writes on his Internet page, "Major problems may, as we are assured, be very unlikely, but if something does go badly wrong with GM crops we will be faced with a form of pollution that is self-perpetuating. I don't think anyone knows how to clean up after that sort of incident, or who would have to pay for it."

The terminator

One way to ensure that this "self-perpetuating" pollution does not happen is to use what is referred to as "terminator technology". This involves more genetic modification to stop a GM plant from being able to reproduce. But this causes another huge problem. If a farmer's crop is infertile he will not be able to keep some of the seed from one year's harvest to plant for the next year's crop. Instead farmers will have to buy new seed from the biotechnology companies that produce it. Added to this, most biotechnology companies are designing the GM crops to grow best with pesticides that they themselves produce. So farmers will have to buy pesticide from the same company. This will make the biotechnology companies rich, but the farmers, especially in Third World countries, will get poorer. And if they can't afford to buy the seed to grow their food, they will starve.

Some people and organizations are saying that concern for the environment is not motivating the biotechnology companies to develop these "terminator" seeds, but rather they are motivated by money. The charity Christian Aid recently published a report about "terminator technology" which said, "Christian Aid believes it will undermine hundreds of millions of farmers in poor countries who depend on saving seeds to plant the following season." The report went on to describe how just ten biotechnology companies control 85% of the market. It is very dangerous to allow so few people to have such control over the world's food supplies, says Christian Aid. If the large-scale planting of GM crops goes ahead, we are in danger of causing widespread hunger and famine. Instead, the charity recommends we concentrate on developing more efficient natural farming techniques in the Third World.

Allergic reaction

Another concern people have about GM crops relates to allergies. It is possible, as in the case of the Japanese rice, that genetic modification will stop people being allergic to certain crops. However, there is also the fear that introducing a new gene would introduce a new allergy. For example, in the early 1990s scientists in America created a more nutritious type of soya bean by adding a gene taken from brazil nuts. But in tests it was discovered that people allergic to brazil nuts were also allergic to the new soya beans. Because of this there are calls for the clear labelling of GM products, so everybody knows exactly what they're buying. In Europe concern about the new "Frankenstein foods" is so great that many food companies are already labelling GM products even though by law they don't always have to. Perhaps the concerns of many people are best voiced by Prince Charles: "Mixing genetic material from species that cannot breed naturally takes us into areas that should be left to God. We should not be meddling with the building blocks of life in this way."

A lot people would disagree with the Prince on this matter and ask whether there is such a big difference between genetic techniques and traditional breeding that has been used for hundreds of years. But more and more people, and many scientists, believe that there has not been enough testing done on GM crops, and that they should not be more widely used until we are 100% sure of their safety, both for humans and the environment.

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