What’s wrong with GM or Genetically Modified food?
You’re probably aware that there is a debate going on about GM food – some saying that it’s perfectly safe, others saying that there are a number of problems related to either the consumption of GM foods from a health perspective, or from the environmental impact of growing GM food.
One of the main arguments used by supporters of GM food is that it’s not really any different to the genetic modifications we’ve been performing on foods for thousands of years – what do they mean by this?
Species evolve by a process known as natural selection (if you’re a creationist you’re reading the wrong blog). This basically means that the species gradually change to better fit new or changed circumstances by a process of random genetic mutations, 99% of which will convey no advantage (or usually a disadvantage) but that magic 1% actually gives a benefit which makes that individual more likely to survive and breed successfully and so is more likely to pass on its genetic changes. I know this is a great simplification on what’s really going on but it will suffice for this blog.
Then one day humans catch onto the idea of deliberately planting seeds; they’ve been using certain grass seeds for food and so the choose the biggest and best to plant. Over multiple successive plantings over many generations – as a result of this unnatural selection by humans the grass seeds have got so big that it’s almost unrecognisable – this is where modern crops such as wheat, barley and oats came from – the crops have been genetically modified to make the seeds bigger through humans constantly selecting the bigger seeds.
Roll the clock forward a few thousand years and you find a more modern human with a dilemma – he can plant tomatoes that give that give lots of large tasty fruit but they might lose the whole crop due to blight. The alternative is to plant a blight-resistant tomato that make small fruit that’s not very tasty. One day someone came up with the idea of cross breeding the two plants. You would get a big mixture of results including small fruit that weren’t blight resistant but you would also get some plants that produces big sweet fruit and was also blight resistant – if you isolate this and make sure it doesn’t cross-breed with other plants you have successfully created what is, in effect, a genetically modified tomato plant. No one will object to this or think anything other than that you’re very clever and please can I buy some of your seeds?
Now we come to what we’re really talking about – modern GM is performed by scientists in a lab – they take out all the guesswork and isolate the gene for blight resistance and put it into the plant that makes the big sweet fruit. But more than that, they could put the gene into a different species of plant that suffers from blight (such as potatoes) and make blight resistant potatoes with a big useful crop.
So to answer the original question “What’s wrong with GM food?” the simple answer is “Nothing”. The whole idea of “Frankenstein” food being harmful seems a nonsense when the science is used in this way. GM is a tool, like a hammer is a tool. You can use a hammer to build a shed or you could use it to beat someone’s brains out – if you do the latter that does not make hammers bad or dangerous. Similarly, you could successively crossbreed dogs to make a large and vicious breed; you’ve done a bad thing through your unnatural selection – that makes you a bad person but it doesn’t mean that this form of genetic manipulation should be banned.
Genetic Modification is good science – it is a great advance that could be used for great good but like all scientific advances it can also be used for great bad – nuclear fission can be used to create cheap electricity or blow up whole cities, killing millions.
The problem with GM isn’t with the science but with the use to which it is put – there are very large corporations out there who will use the science of GM purely to generate huge profits without any concern for environmental damage or risks to human health and this is the real reason GM food is perceived of as being bad and dangerous.
Some examples of the bad practices being used are:
- Creating crop plants that are resistant to the company’s own herbicides. This is a great win-win scenario for the company because not only to people buy their seeds but they also their powerful weed-killers in full knowledge that they can saturate the environment with the weed-killer, killing every plant except for the crop plant. This is a disaster for the environment and probably not very good for the human safety of the crop, but think of the profits.
- Creating a plant that has resistance to certain pests (usually by producing toxins). Another great profit generator but if those toxins kill greenfly or other pests ask yourself what they might do to you – maybe not immediately but over the long-term after eating the GM food on a daily basis for several years? Also, what about the environment impact? If the toxin produced kills the problematic species of wasp isn’t there a good chance it will also kill bees? And what if the GM plant naturally crossbreeds with wild plants passing on this useful trait. In the short term the wild plant may thrive but in the meantime many species of insect may completely die out and other crops that rely on these insects for pollination cannot be grown.
- Selling seeds to so-called third-world countries is the most immoral act of all. With the aid of grants and incentives and the promise greater crop yields the countries are persuaded to stop using the seeds that have been used for many generations and buy the company’s super-seed. Problem is that when the growers try to use kept-back seed for next year’s crops they are threatened with lawsuits by the company because the seed is copyrighted. They’re told that they have buy new seed every year and very soon the grants and incentives disappear. Of course by now they haven’t got any of the seed they used to use left and the biggest irony is that the super-seeds are actually no better than what they had before because that old seed had been selectively bred for their environment over hundreds or even thousands of years. The rich companies get richer at the expense of the poor countries getting poorer and further into debt.
I’m sure there are many other ways in which these companies are exploiting the people and the environment but is it any wonder that people are (quite rightly) protesting against GM food? The science is good but the use of the science is bad – some of this GM food really is Franken-food with the potential to devastate our environment and our health in the name of big company profit. The companies have created this problem through their mindless profiteering and have thereby wrecked the reputation of all GM food – even that which has been created for the greater good.