All we are saying is: Give genetic modification of plants a chance

On August, 10, 1998 a World in Action television programme mentioned experiments performed by Arpad Pusztai at the Rowett Research Institute, Bucksburn, Aberdeen. Dr Pusztai had apparently demonstrated that rats fed on genetically altered raw potatoes had impaired growth and immune responsiveness. When asked whether he would eat foods produced from genetically modified crops, Dr Pusztai replied that he would not, until they have been critically assessed via experimental tests.

As was to be expected, that reply provided the mass media with an unexpected publicity bonus; and consequently, sensational headlines, such as “Genetic Crops Stunt Growth”, “Frankenstein Food Fiasco” and “Shops in Fear of GM Food”, began to appear. Reports from some of the wider-circulating newspapers seemed to suggest, although with hazy details, that Dr Pusztai inserted into the potato a gene coding for a type of protein called lectin which many plants produce as a natural defence against insect attack.

The truth was that the results of Pusztai’s rat experiments were only preliminary and unpublished at the time of the World in Action programme. When finally a paper by Stanley Ewen and Arpad Pusztai appeared in Lancet of October 16th 1999, The Independent and Express carried headlines reading, respectively, “Smeared GM Expert Vindicated” and simply, “Vindicated”. But the crucial point overlooked by the headline writers was that the paper did not support Pusztai’s original assertion that GM potatoes impaired growth and immune responsiveness in rats; it merely indicated their variable affects on the micro-structure of the digestive tract, and that had not much to do with the GM scare-mongering. Besides, three scientists, Kulper, Noteborn and Peilnenburg, commenting on the study, criticised the results as “difficult to interpret and do not allow the conclusion that genetic modification of potatoes accounts for adverse effects on animals”.

The whole blame for the GM madness may not be laid on journalists alone. It is well known that for a long time a powerful mix of social circumstances has been at work. More and more people are increasingly becoming suspicious of global companies, in this particular instance Monsanto, the commercial producer of GM crops. Over-efficient farmers, thanks to the efforts of scientists, are making food so abundantly available that certain groups of consumers have started to question the rationale for, or even dislike, intensive agriculture. Scientists are viewed as persons who overtly interfere with nature or pretend to play God by manipulating and restructuring living organisms. Some die-hards claim that science is the root of all our evils. There is little wonder then that the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (the so-called Madcow disease) and its link with the human new variant CJD (Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease) became associated in the public mind with distrust for scientists, especially food scientists. Even the fact that these two diseases have nothing to do with genetic manipulation was immaterial. What mattered was that they were linked, in a way, with feeding of cattle on processed slaughter wastes.

The simple fact is that genetic manipulation as a science has been around for over 80 years. Scientists have learned how to isolate genes from one living organism and insert them advantageously into another. The useful application of this technique is not far to seek.  For example, a gene from a jellyfish, encoding a fluorescence protein called GFP, can be physically linked and thus co-expressed with mammalian genes to identify the location of the protein encoded by the GPT-tagged gene in the mammalian cell. Such methods are useful tools for biologists in many areas of research. Proteins, oil and carbohydrates contained in plants could be modified so as to provide the basis for sustainable raw materials for detergents, paper making, lubricants and biodegradable plastics. Tolerance of plants to weeds and to parasitic insects and fungi can be increased in order to lessen, or probably abandon, the application of herbicides, insecticides and fungicides. Seed losses from shedding during harvest could be reduced. During storage fruit and tuber ripening could be delayed or hastened accordingly. Tolerance of crops to environmental stresses, such as extremes of temperature, prolonged periods of drought and increased soil salinity, could be increased. The ability of certain plants to extract toxic metals from the soil can be enhanced, a useful means of ameliorating mining wastes or landfill areas  and of phytomining (mining of metals, like nickel, chromium, cobalt and magnesium, using plants with the ability to hyper-accumulate these metals in their saps). The allergens in some crops, such as rice, could be eliminated and the vitamin contents of the crops increased. In January 2008, scientists genetically altered a carrot variety in order to considerably increase its calcium production. Some plants can be genetically manipulated to enhance their usefulness in the production of pharmaceutical substances, including anticoagulant compounds, cholera vaccine and medicines. These are but a few of the potential applications.

To achieve these benefits, present-day food scientists are faced with new challenges. How to deal with uncertainties and failures in their research efforts and how to be sure that the new crop varieties produced are environmentally friendly and fit for human and domestic animal consumption, are some of these challenges. The UK Government has already formed the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission which reports directly to the Cabinet office. The Food Standards Agency has been established, and it deals with all aspects of food safety.  Therefore, one thing is sure: no scientist will be allowed to recommend the use of any GM product unless it has undergone rigorous testing and experimentation, and declared unambiguously to be safe.

The general public owes the scientists both moral and financial support to continue their research efforts in GM technology. The irony of it all is that the UK is a recognised giant in the field of plant breeding research; but, with the present opposition from certain entrenched quarters to the use of GM foods and to field testing of GM seeds, it runs the risk of being downgraded as the pigmy in the application of the research findings. We don’t have to turn our backs to the new challenges and opportunities that GM technology offers. If we do, the country will not be in a position to compete favourably in the future with other countries for the large-scale commercial exploitation of GM technology. So, to echo John Lennon’s slogan, all we are saying is: Give GM technology a chance.