Genetically modified (GM) food
GM (or GMO) means Genetically Modified (Organisms).
This is a controversial area which every Christian should think about very carefully. In the end we all have to make up our own minds about GM – but there are reasons to be wary.
We may wonder whether this is an example of humans ‘playing God’.
Proponents of GM say we’ve being doing that for centuries through selective breeding. However, rather than just choosing a variety you prefer and breeding it, GM directly tampers with the DNA chains in the cell nucleus, and transplants them to an entirely new species group where the same genes have never been present.
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. 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. We may think this introduces even greater risks and ethical concerns.
“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 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 food, e.g. further increased yields, climate resilience, reduced pesticide use, environmental safety.
It seems inconceivable that altering the genetic code directly could be carried out without unintended side effects. However, proponents of GM 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, but the alleged benefits are strongly contested by opponents.
Risks, testing, control
GM 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 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 may be of greatest potential benefit in helping feed the population.
GM 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.
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 GM material has found its way into the product accidentally and is below a certain minimum concentration). EU requirements may continue to apply after Brexit, for purposes of trading with the EU’s Internal Market – not necessarily in trade deals with other countries.
There may still 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.
Concern also centres around trade practices, such as conditions imposed by the manufacturer on growers in developing countries. Manufacturers can 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 crop growing
Currently the only GM thought to be growing in the UK is 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 counts as a separate country. Scotland has already announced a blanket ban on GM food growing. The UK government was said to be considering whether to permit any commercial growing in England, post Brexit.
Concerns have often been expressed about the use of weedkillers applied to fields where GM crops are planted. Just because the GM seeds are weedkiller resistant does not stop them absorbing it, with the result that the chemical enters the human food chain. (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 without glyphosate, and glyphosate can be and is used very widely even in countries with no GM food.
Care for Creation
Fertilisers and pesticides
Food and drink.
Kings College London.
Environment and Sustainability, front page.