Wednesday, 2 July 2008

What I've been reading

Image of the book cover
Eat Your Genes: How Genetically Modified Food Is Entering Our Diet
by Stephen Nottingham

"By 1997, people in many industrialized countries had consumed food produced using genetic engineering. To the surprise of the multinational corporations backing this technology, considerable resistance to GM food has developed. The public in Europe, for instance, expressed concerns about health issues and the lack of labelling on GM food. Meanwhile, environmental pressure groups and independent scientists drew attention to the range of environmental impacts of transgenic crops and the implication of awarding patents of the use of plant genes."
This is a book on the reading list for one of my modules next term. When Mr A found out, he charmingly called me a swotty swotty swot swot. That's about right.

It seems that in essence, GM technology is a more controlled and faster way to make the changes to plant and animal species that farmers and breeders have been making since farming began. Old genetic modifications were done by looking at the phenotype and guessing at the genes inside, then selectively breeding animals or plants with the desired characteristics. New genetic modification looks at the genotype directly. The other main difference is that we can now move genes between species more easily. They moved between species before, but unpredictably, randomly, and not very often.

The risk of unforeseen effects is somewhat proportional to the speed of change, so by that measure, genetic modification by direct gene manipulation has greater risks. On the other hand, the potential for improving the nutritional qualities of food is huge - making a rice plant synthesise vitamin A could prevent deficiency and blindness in some of the poorest populations on earth.

But there are definitely risks that cannot be controlled, such as the interbreeding of GM organisms with wild types, and potentially with the weeds and pests and microorganisms that they are designed to combat. The arms race between plant or animal and pest or disease is inevitable. This is the main danger - we create a plant resistant to a herbicide so the crop survives spraying while the weeds die, and perhaps the weeds will evolve a way to resist the herbicide too. Or we destroy everything but the crop, and biodiversity suffers. Or the crop itself becomes a weed.

I have no straightforward view in favour of, or against, genetic modification. Using genetic techniques to enhance production and increase the quantity of food creates economic benefits to the technologists rather than the consumers. There is more than enough food produced in the world for everyone; food poverty and hunger still exist because of war and/or politics. The arguments that convince me to support some areas of GM research are about changing the quality or properties of the food, like the golden rice containing vitamin A.

All being well, I should be taking this module next term - I'm sure there will be plenty more food for thought when I am better informed.


aims said...

Wow Lola! This is definitely 'food for thought'.

I look forward to you taking this course and filling us in on developments.

I'm not sure how I feel about this - sometimes I'm for it - sometimes I have been doing it for so long and getting it right - why change everything? And - is genetically modified good for us?

How many times have we found out - down the road - that something is bad for us and they pull it off the shelves?

I always think about botox. They have no idea what this is going to do to the body in the long run. And do women actually look good with their eyebrows up at their hairline?

You've touched a nerve here...

belle said...

oh er, lots to mull over there. Keep us informed.

oh and I need you to email me your address for your party bag!

Mike said...

I echo what these folks have said here. Really good topic. Let us know what conclusions you come to.

Jay said...

I find all this very, very worrying. I don't normally even like reading about it because it's so worrying and there's nothing I can do - recipe for depression.

I knew most of what you say, and also that genetically modified tomatoes are spreading across the world because the seeds are not killed in our gut.

Apparently many sewage treatment units have healthy tomato plants growing around them. Not sure I'd want to eat them though.