Genetically modified (GM) and engineered (GE) food
GM (or GMO) means Genetically Modified (Organisms). GE means Genetically Engineered (otherwise known by the euphemism (‘precision bred’). Both have usually referred to crops for food, but now also apply to animal breeding.
This is a controversial as well as complex area which Christians should nevertheless think about very carefully. In the end we all have to make up our own minds about GM and GE – but there are reasons to be wary.
We may wonder whether this is an example of humans ‘playing God’.
Proponents of GM and/or GE say we’ve being doing these things for centuries through selective breeding. However, rather than just choosing a variety you prefer and breeding it, GM tampers with the DNA chains in the cell nucleus, by transplanting genes from one organism where they are present and have a desired function, into a different species where the same genes have never been present. Meaning they didn’t possess the desired characteristics before, but will benefit from them after modification.
DNA is the molecule containing an organism’s genes. Genes transplanted in the manner just described are called ‘transgenic genes’. Gene flow between remote species would rarely if ever occur in nature, but now humans can and do cause this to happen.
Plant scientists and geneticists are now taking the technology even further, from transgenic genes (transplanted whole) to gene editing (‘precision breeding’). Using the ‘CRISPR’ technology, this involves directly altering the bases (satellite clusters of atoms) within the DNA nucleotide (the molecular chain). This is in order to remove or modify unfavoured characteristics. This is GE (genetic engineering) even though termed ‘precision breeding’ in recent legislation. We may think this introduces even greater risks and ethical concerns, but it is rapidly gaining currency.
“Feed the World”
We would all agree that God wants us to use our creative faculties to help feed the starving.
But it’s important that we do that wisely, in a manner that doesn’t cause harm in other ways.
Opponents of GM and/or GE will argue that there are better ways to feed the hungry e.g. by reforming systems of trade and distribution – and tackling climate change.
On the other hand, sophisticated techniques by researchers and biotech companies contributed to the ‘green (agrarian) revolution’ in the 20th century, massively increasing crop yields, which has already fed greater numbers than ever before.
Benefits and risks
Considerable benefits are claimed for GM or GE, e.g. further increased crop yields, climate resilience, reduced pesticide use, environmental safety, public health.
It seems inconceivable that altering the genetic code directly could be carried out without unintended side effects. Lord Robert Winston, the renowned expert in fertility and reproduction, has expressed profound concern about this.
However, proponents of GE claim that alterations are engineered minimally, to achieve the intended effect and no other. Many scientists remain unconvinced that adverse consequences have occurred so far. There appears to be a substantial scientific consensus in favour of GM, and GE too, but the alleged benefits are strongly contested by opponents.
Risks, testing, control
GM or GE can threaten consumer choice where there is gene flow e.g. into organically cultivated crops, compromising their status. This can occur e.g. due to wind-borne pollen.
The most serious health risk may be the potential for transgenic alleles to meld with natural alleles into unexpected combinations within crops and other plants. (An allele is a version of a gene shared by some members of a population but not all.)
This might, it is feared, cause dramatic changes whether visible or invisible which could have disastrous results, e.g. if consumed during pregnancy.
A Chinese study in 2011 claimed to show that microscopic RNA (a molecule which mediates the replication of DNA) can migrate from the genes present in food into the consumer’s bloodstream, potentially affecting how our own genes are expressed during our lives. Others protest that such reports are ‘alarmist’.
Yet ‘horizontal gene flow’ in general is gaining wider acceptance among scientists as a reality that has occurred down the aeons.
Proponents claim that testing of GM and/or GE products is rigorous. Regulation and enforcement may be easier to achieve in developed countries such as the UK – if there is the political will. Yet it may be in the UK and Europe that GM crops are least needed, or welcome.
Paradoxically it is in places where regulation is likely to prove most lax, that GM or GE may be of greatest potential benefit in helping feed the population.
GM or GE sales and imports
There are already a very small number of GM food products on sale in UK supermarkets. But mostly, GM foods are only imported for feeding to livestock.
There are said to be no GE products currently on sale in the UK.
To be imported, food products may need a UK import licence, but the World Trade Association won’t permit an import ban.
Such products do also have to be on the European Union’s approved list, hitherto applicable in the UK, and were/are required to be labelled (unless material has found its way into the product accidentally and is below a certain minimum concentration).
Until now, EU requirements have continued to apply after Brexit – having been transplanted wholesale into UK Law. This has facilitated continuing trading with the EU’s Internal Market, while not necessarily mandated by trade deals with other countries.
However, the UK Government has now begun the time-consuming task of reviewing the whole mass of EU regulation, and deciding what to retain and what to discard. It is reported that legislation will be introduced to allow regulations to be changed without specific legislation for each item or class of regulation. One example given is a desire to introduce GE tomatoes with added vitamin D.
An accelerated process of viewing, adopting, amending or discarding EU law in many areas is underway, supposedly to be concluded by end of 2023. At the same time, the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill 2022 is currently making its way through Parliament.
There may also be concerns about farming practices where the crops were grown overseas – which may not be reflected in an import licence, as they they will vary from farm to farm. Trade practices may impose a manufacturer’s conditions on growers in developing countries. Manufacturers can thereby seek to dominate the food chain and dictate what we all eat – including vulnerable communities in developing countries. This is one of the down sides of globalisation – potentially a major source of injustice upon the poor and the weak.
The now defunct EU/USA trade negotiations known as TTIP provoked fears of GM products being forced onto unwilling countries in Europe including the UK. That is now off the table, and the menu; but there could be a risk that similar terms might be incorporated in some future UK/US trade agreement (probably with fewer safeguards).
GM or GE crop growing
So far, the only GM or GE crops thought to be growing in the UK have been for research and field trials, such as the GM wheat trial authorised at Rothamsted Experimental Station in Hertfordshire.
For growing in any EU country, only GM food on the approved list (ie the seed) can be imported, and only if it isn’t banned by the individual country. In the UK, each constituent country counted as a separate country. Scotland had already announced a blanket ban on GM food growing, before Brexit.
As stated, the UK government while reviewing EU regulation post Brexit is said to be considering granting permission for commercial growing in England (as well as importation), possibly of GM products, but more likely some GE strains to begin with, as GE is held to be more accurate and precise in the alterations it makes to the genetic code and therefore to the functioning of an organism.
Issues will arise about labelling of imported and home grown GE and/or GM products. How this may be handled is as yet unknown.
Concerns have often been expressed about the use of weedkillers applied to fields where GM, or presumably GE, crops are planted. Just because the modified seeds are weedkiller resistant, ie it doesn’t kill them, does not stop them absorbing chemicals from the weedkiller, with the result that they may enter the human food chain. (Of course, the same can occur where weedkiller resistant crops have been bred by conventional techniques.)
Glyphosate in particular is alleged to be harmful to health. The World Health Organisation has said that it is probably carcinogenic, though this is contested by manufacturers, and the evidence appears ambiguous. A study by Kings College London suggests that harm be caused by exposure to glyphosate even at low concentrations, below regulatory limits.
Glyphosate is alleged to degrade the soil, e.g. by killing soil bacteria, as well as causing harm to wildlife in water courses and rivers.
It’s important, though, to keep GM and glyphosate as distinct issues in our minds. There can be GM (or GE) crops without glyphosate being used, and glyphosate can be and is used very widely even in countries with no GM or GE food.
Care for Creation
Fertilisers and pesticides
Food and drink.
Kings College London.
Environment and Sustainability, front page.