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The Gene Tech Tapes
Food and Agriculture
Featuring leading international ethicists and scientists, this compilation of interviews canvases key ethical issues in the controversial world of new genetic technologies.
More than 100 years of research have contributed to our understanding of genetics. Ever since the code was cracked, we’ve been trying to work out how to make changes.
In years to come, biotechnology will have a major impact on our daily lives. But like the computer revolution of the past four decades, it’s hard to imagine where this new science will lead.
Forty years ago, the world’s most powerful computer would have barely fit into a classroom. Today’s average laptop has thousands of times more grunt.
Nowadays it seems that barely a month goes by without some kind of sensational breakthrough. And with biological sciences advancing at such a rapid rate, ethical questions have emerged, the likes of which no one would have ever dreamed of a decade or so ago
Dr Kevin Ward - Animal scientist, Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research
Dr Simon Robinson - Plant scientist, Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research
Sir John Maddox
- Former Editor, Nature Magazine, (the world’s leading life sciences
Joan Horbiak - Leading US Dietitian
Rosemary Stanton - Leading Australian Dietitian
, GeneEthics Network
Dr Mira Virma - Director Bresagen Ltd
Phillida Bunkle - Member of Parliament, New Zealand
The issues covered
• Where are genetic technologies taking us?
The question of regulation
• Have we done enough to regulate the research into and release of genetically
• What types of regulatory processes are in place?
Genetic foods are needed to help feed the world
• A key argument made by those in favour of genetic technologies is that the new
products now emerging will be needed to help feed Earth’s ever increasing population. What are the arguments? Are they valid?
Risks to health and environment
• With regard to the release of genetically modified organisms, what are the key
environmental risks being raised? Are they valid?
• With regard to the release of genetically modified organisms, what are the key
health risks being raised? Are they valid?
• Can the alteration of one gene in the thousands of genes within an organism
• The risk may be considered low, but given the revolutionary nature of the
technology, should scientists be expressing greater caution?
The changing face of agribusiness
• How is gene technology affecting agricultural business structures?
• Should society more closely consider the social affects of corporatisation?
• Should we label genetically modified foods
There is an ancient Chinese proverb that states “may you be
born in interesting times”, and as a health professional in nutrition we are certainly born in interesting times because the entire face of agriculture is changing. There is going to be many, many new crops. Crops with insect protection, disease protection, and even higher levels of vitamins and minerals.
Dr Kevin Ward
To me genetic manipulation is a very efficient way of
carrying out the breeding techniques which over the last
5,000 years or so in agriculture we’ve been doing anyway, but now we can do it in a very directed, and I think a very efficient sense. I’m not saying that the organisms we produce don’t need to be tested, they need to be looked at very, very thoroughly.
Many changes to food are occurring. For example potatoes
with built in insect protection that can decrease insecticides by almost 40 per cent. Also super soy beans that have improved protein and also fatty acid profiles, healthier cooking oils with lower saturated fats that would be better for heart disease. We’re also looking at fruits and vegetables that will be longer lasting, better tasting with higher levels of vitamins and minerals. You may even see, very soon, naturally decaffeinated coffee straight from the vine. These are just a few of the things you will be seeing with food in the future.
There are many environmental and public health issues
around geneti cally engineered foods which are as yet unresolved. These foods have no history of safe use in the food supply and we don’t yet know exactly what the problems are. But the emerging evidence indicates that from genetically engineered crop plants we are going to use more chemical pesticides and herbicides in the long run and the transfer of pollen into crops, and related weeds and crop plants, will be a major issue. Already the organic certification of many farmers is under threat from the transfer of pollens from genetically engineered crops into the organic food supply and that of course is a major concern for an industry which gives very high priority to its purity.
The Question of Regulation
Sir John Maddox
We are in a very difficult situation with the whole regulation
of genetic activity. On the one hand governments tend to be, like the public at large, over suspicious of what’s planned and therefore they over regulate, they make restrictions too severe or too explicit.
We are concerned that insufficient work is being exercised
by our regulatory authorities and allowing these new foods to come into the food supply and be generally available to people when insufficient is known to people a bout how they are going to perform and how they’re going to behave and what hazards they are going to pose. It’s science being put into the market place before its time. While science is an imperfect vehicle, companies tell us that their technologies are really fault free and trouble free. This is simply not true.
Genetically modified foods and crops have a high
acceptance and this has been consistent since the crops were introduced into the USA. There are several reasons. We have strict regulatory code for GM crops. We have up to three agencies in the US involved. These are the United States Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration as well as the Environmental Protection Agency. Also many of our leading health organisations have come out with strong position statements in favour of biotechnology.
We are suggesting that there should be a five year
moratorium on any further commercialisation of any crop plants or farm animals that have been genetically engineered. The reason we are suggesting this is that there has been insufficient research, there is no pre-market human testing of these foods and crops.
Dr Kevin Ward
The regulation of genetic manipulation experiments is very
thorough. The experiments that are put up by myself and my
colleagues here, first go to an internal committee. It’s called a institutional biosafety committee and a group of experts on that committee, including lay people and ethics people who look at the ethics of the experiment, evaluate the project and decide whether or not it should even start. If they say that the project can go ahead then that information is sent down to a central body in Canberra. Som etimes just for information but sometimes the Canberra body is actually asked to make a decision if it’s felt that there is a question raised that the local committee is uncertain about.
The Canberra committee makes the decision and eventually the go ahead is given, as long as everything is approved and the experiments can start. Those experiments are then carefully monitored by the local committee (the institutional biosafety committee) and regular reports are produced. In our particular area we are producing transgenic organisms. The next phase of the work is to then start testing those organisms in the paddocks. We have to get another set of approvals for that experimentation to start, and again that work is viewed by the central committee in Canberra - the GEMAC Committee.
Having got through that stage of the testing comes a release phase. Here, we’re asking for these animals to be released into the agricultural community. There is another total set of evaluation protocols that need to be established at that stage. And at that point the public has a very big input into whether or not these animals should or should not be released into the local community. If they are released there always have to be safeguards in place so that they can be recalled.
It’s imp to know that in genetically modified crops typically
one gene is being changed out of the 40,000 or so in a typical plant or crop. So it is one change. However that one change is being very strictly regulated, in terms of allergenicity and in terms of other safety issues. That’s why safety and approval process is very lengthy.
Will Genetically Modified Foods help us to Feed the
Dr Simon Robinson
We have to look at how we are going to feed the world in the
next 50 years. There is still going to be a dramatic increase
in the population of the world and we are going to run out of food. All of the increases in food productivity in the last 20 years which have stopped us from having massive starvation have come about normally by traditional plant breeding. But we are running out of options there, we have already done most of the clever things in traditional plant breeding and genetically modifying plants allows us to go one step further.
The argument that genetically engineered organisms will
feed the world is wrong. Firstly there is no shortage of food in the world at the moment. The problem is that it’s not in the right places, moreover the people who are starving cannot afford the food. This is a systemic social and cultural problem that is not going to be fixed by a technology like genetic engineering.
There are two reasons why GM foods won’t feed more
people. The first is that it involves the subsistence farmer in very expensive production. He has to buy the seed each year and has to buy the herbicide and then gets into debt. He’s producing for a cash market because it’s monoculture, that’s flooded and the price drops. He isn’t producing the balanced range of crops. For example Indians eat 256 different sorts of plants, and so his nutritional status drops. And so, the chances are that the loss of biodiversity and locally adapted s eeds is going to undercut the ability of the world to feed itself and that might be one of the most tragic outcomes of GM foods.
It’s absolutely essential to look at how we are going to
produce more food on less land. For example, o ver the next 50 years it’s predicted that the population will double adding an additional five billion people to this planet. That would increase the population to about 10 billion.
Currently about 6 million acres are used for available farming today. That would mean by 2050 we would need up to 15 million acres and unfortunately most of the land suitable for agriculture is already being used. What this means is many valuable wild areas as well as rainforest would have to be destroyed for farming. And also in many developing countries the need for improvements to fight starvation is very clear.
You can’t predict the future, but this may be a ray of hope that the technology would be within the seed and it wouldn’t require special knowledge or machinery or insecticide so it would be able to help in countries where they do have severe problems.
I think that’s total bunkum. At the moment there are people
in the world who starve and there is more than enough food to feed them. The reason why they are not fed are reasons of poverty and food policy feelings between people that we don’t want to give some of our excess food to some people because that might reduce our profits. We are in a situation now were people starve but food crops a re ploughed into the ground to keep prices artificially high. I don’t think there is the slightest shred of evidence that this technology will mean that the poor of the world are fed any more than they are now when there is a super abundance of food.
Risks to Health and Environment
The public wants to know are foods safe, are they going to
be labelled, is the nutrition going to change?. Even simple questions like how will they look, how will they cook and how will they taste. These are issues whether a crop is genetically modified or through traditional breeding.
We have seen a reduction in insecticides. Also less soil erosion because it’s compatible with something called “no till farming”.
As far as the human health concerns go, antibiotic
resistance genes are emerging as a major issue. These genes are put into each cell of many crop plants and out in the commercial world they will be eaten by humans. They have the potential to transfer themselve s into the micro-organisms in the gut of human beings. Some recent Dutch research shows that the DNA does survive and it can be transferred to micro-organisms.
The issues of concern among genetically modified crops are
similar to traditional crops. Consumers and the public want to know how these are regulated. They want to know will cost more? They also want to know will the nutrition change.
We are concerned that insufficient work is being exercised
by our regulatory authorities in allowing these new foods to come into the food supply and be generally available to people, when insufficient is known from science about how they are going to perform, how they’re going to behave and what hazards they are going to pose.
In terms of health affects, when you look at genetically
modified crops it’s important to have a historical perspective of farming. In traditional breeding two plants, thousands of genes, are crossed. So man has been moving genes for many years. With genetically engineered crops, one specific gene for one purpose is being moved. So many people feel within regulatory agencies that these crops may even be safer because it’s more predictable, more precise and a little more controllable in terms of the number of genes.
I do want to make it very clear that there is a very rigorous allegernicity safety testing at at least six different levels before this crop could come to market. Many of these crops under go testing for five to eight years before they do come onto the market.
I don’t believe we have total confidence that everything is the
same in this product. It may well be, it may be better. But there is the possibility that some things like the phytoestrogens , the plant estrogens in the soy bean, may be there in greater quantity. But we don’t have that data for all of these different plant chemicals, so until we know that, firstly we need to have it labelled so that later on we can trace it back, but also I think there needs to be some caution I think.
I wouldn’t say people should be worried that something is going to happen to them if they consume these products, but we don’t know the long term effects.
Dr Kevin Ward
It’s an interesting question about whether or not we’re going
to change the characteristics of animals and make them in
some way unsuitable for food. Let’s take the manipulations that we’re doing with growth hormone to modify the growth characteristics of animals. The hormonal changes that are involved there are very very small. So small in fact that even if the hormone was actually eaten, it would not make the slightest difference to the diet of an individual, but more importantly this hormone doesn’t become part of the meat that one eats in an animal.
But there’s absolutely no safety issue involved at all in the growth hormone manipulation experiments that are being done. The possibility of producing plant proteins in animals is again interesting. In that case one has to look at it in a case by case scenario because obviously there are some plant proteins which are allergenic which you certainly wouldn’t want to produce in animals.
As far as safety of eating them goes, it will depend on the
food. The chances are, yes they will be safe. I think we have to look much more at the environmental effects, we’ve got to look at the effects on communities and societies of growing food in this way and of certain people owning the world’s seed production. I think they are of greater concern that whether or not these foods are going to poison us.
The Changing Face of Agribusiness
Food production won’t depend on owning land it’ll depend on
owning the DNA, owning the seeds. And what we’ve seen In 1997/98 is a huge consolidation of ownership across the food chain. Virtually all of the seeds now are owned by three companies. They have essentially esta blished an oligopoly so it’s very difficult for farmers not to go to them for seeds. So farmers are basically having to rent the seed, rent the DNA off the people who own it because of the patents. For example, Australian farmers growing GM cotton last year were charged twice the royalty for cotton seed than US farmers were charged.
These seeds are owned, there is a royalty to be paid. In third
world countries, subsistence farming (meaning the growing of crops for personal us e, then keeping some of the seed for the next crop) will be forbidden because the seeds are owned by a company who demand a royalty.
It’s very difficult for the farmers to escape the control of the
people who own the DNA. It’s a whole new kind of property which our world has invented. And what it’s doing is consolidating ownership of this new kind of property, and we haven’t woken up to the effects of what this actually means. It’s a bit like the Microsoft of GM. They end up controlling a whole sector of the economy.
There are programs under way in the US now where many
different scientists from developing countries are working with US researchers to understand the science and take it back to their countries. And also because many developing countries can not afford insecticides, many of them lose about 50 per cent of their crops to viruses. They may see that with GM seeds the increased yields and the decrease in this dramatic loss through viral diseases, that the cost benefit will be very significant. They may see that they will actually save money.
Do we really want large multinational companies in charge of
the production of food in societies throughout the world. My answer would be no.
Probably the most important thing to remember is that
biotechnology will not replace conventional farming or organic farming. It will be one tool, it is not a magic bullet, it is one tool a grower can use, put in his tool box, to help in terms of risk management, to help grow more food on less land in a more environmentally sound way. It will not replace traditional conventional farming and it will not replace organic farming.
Informed Choice and Labelling
I think foods have to be labelled. Consumers need a choice.
There are some people who are totally comfortable with genetically modified foods and others who aren’t. We’ve already had a huge range of products containing some soy protein isolate that has been genetically modified, and people [haven’t known which products were affected because nothing is specifically labelled]. The effect of that is that people have said, well I won’t eat any soy products in case I get this stuff.
Labelling all sounds like a great idea. Obviously if you can
label something you can provide people with a choice. The
problem comes when you start going to bulk commodities. If you sell apples you can put on a little sticker on the apple that says this is genetically modified. But what do you do if you label a tomato and someone makes tomato paste out of it and puts the paste on a pizza that is delivered to your door. Should the pizza have a sticker on it?
And what does genetically modified mean anyway? It doesn’t tell you what’s been done to it, it just tells you the process. So I would prefer to know something about the product rather than the process.
Why shouldn’t we have a choice? If these foods are safe
why shouldn’t we choose? I’ll give you an example. Modified soy is on our market now, but it has been declared safe by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) so it’s not labelled. But it does have eight per cent more phytoestrogens in it. Personally I’d rather not eat any more estrogens I don’t need any more, I’ve got lots of good reasons for that and I’d like to be able make that choice. Why can’t I make that choice?
There are a few areas where you are actually adding a
protein or a gene that didn’t actually exist in that food before. It may be something that exists in a number of other foods, it’s a common component of other foods and therefore unlikely to be a major problem, or it may be an unusual new thing. I think in the case of a completely new thing you have to have some mechanism to communicate that. But, to just have a label that says food is genetically modified tells the cons umer nothing. It does not improve your ability to make a decision, except on the basis of discriminating on the basis of the technology that was used to create the food. It is not a safety issue.
Dr Kevin Ward
The question of labelling of genetically modified foods is an
interesting one. From the logical point of view there probably
isn’t any real need to label many foods. They are what’s called essentially equivalent and it really is creating difficulties to label them. But this is a new technology and as with any technology consumers are uncertain until it can be absolutely proven that the technology can be safe for them. For that reason I feel that labelling of these products is quite acceptable in fact should be done so that the consumer knows that he or she is eating genetically modified material. It wont be very long, in my opinion, before consumers will be actively seeking out food which has got a genetic modification label on it because that’s what they want, but that will be a few years yet before we get to that situation.
Labelling has to be decided in each country through open
discussion of the government, health professionals and the public. In the United States we have had very high acceptance of not having mandatory labelling for genetically modified crops. Our current status is that it is the product not the process, it is the characteristics of the food not the methods used to produce it. It is more of a science-based approach to labelling. However, if say an allergen would increase in a crop, or there was a change in nutrient composition or the identity of the product, then certain types of labelling would take place. This has served the United States well and has had very high acceptance. But in each country once again it will be a very case by case basis and has to be determined by open discussions among all the different groups.
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