What Are Genetically Engineered Foods?
It’s happening so fast that most of us can’t take it in. Familiar foods as diverse as bread. tomato puree, ham, cheese, soup and biscuits may have been altered in an invisible way using a radical new technology. Genetically engineered foods look and taste just like the foods we’ve always eaten, but have been scientifically modified for ‘improvement’.
Should we be delighted or worried? The proponents of genetically engineered food hail it as a fabulous development which could bring untold benefits. Opponents see it as an untested technology careering out of control which could have disastrous and irreversible consequences. Whom should we believe?
Simply put, genetically engineered foods are different to conventional ones because scientists have taken genetic material (DNA) from one species and transferred it into another. This enables the transfer of a desired characteristic between unrelated species, or between plants and animals. For example, an ‘antifreeze’ gene which appears naturally in Arctic fish has been introduced into tomatoes and strawberries, thus making them freezeresistant; and pigs have been genetically engineered with a human gene introduced to make them grow more effectively.
The advocates of genetic engineering say it could be a solution to the world’s most intractable food problems. Genetically modified foods will be beneficial to everyone,’ says Jackie Dowthwaite, spokeswoman for the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), which represents the UK’s food processing industry. The FDF believes that by using genetic engineering, or ‘biotechnology’ as it is also known, scientists will be able to work miracles. These include making crops resistant to disease, thus helping to feed the world and reducing use of pesticides; increasing protein and vitamin levels to make food more nutritious; decreasing fat content to make food healthier, and making fruit and vegetables last longer.
Sounds fantastic. So why has every single supermarket chain decided to ban all genetically modified ingredients from their ownlabel products? ‘Consumers are being conned,’ says Iceland chairman and chief executive Malcolm Walker. ‘This is probably the most significant and potentially dangerous development in food production this century, yet the British public is largely ignorant of it, and they are likely to be eating genetically modified foods already without their knowledge.’
So what are the risks? According to the FDF, genetic engineering is only an extension of what has been taking place already. “Since history began, man has bred plants and animals to make them stronger, healthier and bigger. Genetic modification is the modern equivalent,” says Dowthwaite.
“Not a bit of it,” says molecular biologist Dr Michael Antoniou: “Genetic engineering circumvents natural species barriers. As a result, combinations of genes are produced that could never occur naturally. It bears no resemblance to traditional breeding methods.”
Opponents of genetic engineering warn that a gene inserted into a new species or organism won’t necessarily behave in the same way as it does in it’s natural one. Possible knock on effects could include the creation of new toxins such as bacteria that unexpectedly kill beneficial soil fungi or are poisonous to plants, or diseases; weakness, and allergens on the GMO. One striking example of this was a soya bean that had been genetically engineered to have a higher protein content. The company developing it had to abandon it because it caused severe allergic reactions; scientists had inserted genes from a brazil nut to raise the protein level and inadvertently transferred the allergen.
Genetic pollution is a major concern too. Danish scientists have shown that a foreign gene inserted into oilseed rape was able to spread rapidly to neighbouring weeds. This underlines how new genes introduced into plants, bacteria or animals for one purpose can trigger undesirable chain reactions in unrelated organisms, And there is always the risk of bacteria escaping through human error.
If genes can jump from oilseed rape to weeds, what about from plants to humans? Many genetically engineered foods under development are given an antibiotic resistant marker gene. Might this resistance be passed on to humans eating them, rendering that antibiotic useless for human medicine?
“The risks are even less acceptable when one takes into account the fact that, once released into the environment, genetic mistakes or pollution cannot be recalled, cleaned up or allowed to decay in the environment. They will be passed on to all future generations indefinitely,” says Dr Antoniou.
Animal welfare campaigners are also worried that genetic engineers see animals as potential ‘labs on legs’ whose genes can be plundered in the name of scientific progress.
“All too often genetic engineering inflicts serious health problems on animals . Genetically engineered pigs have suffered heart and joint disease, ulcers and inflammation of the kidneys, and sheep have got pneumonia,’ says Peter Stevenson of Compassion in World Farming.
But the FDF seem bizarrely confident about the risks:
“There are strict controls in place, and every genetically modified product is thoroughly assessed by UK committees of experts and consumer representatives as well as covered by UK and European regulations,’ says Dowthwaite.
At Greenpeace, Dr Ian Taylor insists that unpredictable mistakes with genetic engineering have already occurred, and that we should learn from that:
“The only safe way to avoid such limitless difficulties and risks is to avoid the release of genetically modified organisms into the environment or food chain altogether.”
The Consumers Association feels that ‘genetically modified foods could potentially benefit consumers’. However, it is concerned about the absence of any labeling system to enable shoppers to choose whether to buy genetically engineered foods or not. Currently labeling foods as GM or containing GM ingredients is voluntary. The European Commission is currently arguing over the extent of compulsory labeling rules, centering on whether genetically modified organisms should be identified as they leave producers, or after they have been processed.
The British government is arguing for labeling after processing. However, processing makes it impossible to detect genetically altered ingredients. UK food and drink manufacturers have agreed voluntarily to label products containing genetically engineered soya or maize protein. But “this would result in less than five per cent of processed foods being labeled,” says Iceland’s Malcolm Walker.
So where does that leave the consumer? If you tend to believe that technological breakthroughs are the same thing as ‘progress’, you may feel thrilled by the brave new world of genetically engineered foods. But, as numerous polls into attitudes to genetically engineered food have shown, you’ll be in the minority; many more people have an instinctive reaction against technological tinkering with the food chain, a reaction intensified by the BSE disaster. They feel angry that genetically foods are already out there, and that we’re invited to say what we think so late in the day.
Meanwhile, the companies who stand to make billions from genetic engineering are determined to safe guard their investment. They’re throwing all their weight into wooing us, the doubting public, hiring PR consultants and pulling out all the stops to sell the theoretical benefits of this new technology.
But don’t forget — the doubters still have a little time in which to make their views known, because it isn’t possible to genetically engineer public opinion… yet.