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 the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act 2023. 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
GM and GE food products can now be legally grown and offered for sale in the UK, subject to licensing and constraints such as labelling.
To be imported, food products may need a UK import licence, but the World Trade Association won’t permit an import ban.
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.
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.
Food Standards Agency: GM
Kings College London.
Environment and Sustainability, front page.