Gulp! GM Food Is For You

By Steve Connor
May 18, 2000
The Independent

If Sir Walter Raleigh were alive today it is unlikely that his proposal to introduce a doubtful-looking vegetable tuber from South America would ever get approval from the many food committees that today safeguard the British diet. In its natural form the potato is so rich in equally natural plant toxins that it would probably be deemed too unsafe for human consumption. Natural or not, the wild potato is a decidely risky thing to eat.

The idea that natural means healthy, wholesome and ultimately good is at the heart of Prince Charles's latest broadside against genetically modified (GM) food, delivered as his contribution to the Reith Lectures, broadcast on Radio 4 last night. In his talk, Charles argued that scientific rationalism has smothered the guiding principle of the sacred trust between mankind and God, "under which we accept a duty of stewardship for the Earth". If nothing is held sacred, he said, then what is to prevent us treating the world as a "great laboratory of life" where science is allowed to run rampant and unchecked?

There is no doubt that the Prince's intervention was powerful and emotive, but was he right? Certainly, most prominent scientists do not think so. Martin Bobrow, professor of medical genetics at Cambridge University, is one who accuses Charles of denigrating science. "I think it is extremely unhelpful to convey a general attitude of being antagonistic to a scientific process," he said. Richard Dawkins, the renowned Oxford zoologist, declared himself "saddened" that Charles should see scientific rationalism as an enemy of environmental protection.

In their war on GM technology, Prince Charles and his environmental advisers invoke the organic sustainability of the natural world and pit it against the artificial, unnatural and chemically synthetic approach of the scientist and agricultural technologist. In essence, the Prince's message is simple: scientists should know their place. Nature, the work of the Creator, can do no harm, and we meddle with it at our peril.

But in reality, the scientists argue, the world is more complicated. Nature is more than red in tooth and claw, and humanity has been fighting against it for thousands of years. The smallpox virus is natural, so is botulism and plague. An African child dying from diarrhoea as a result of drinking cholera is a quite natural event. So are children born in the industrially developed world with inherited gene disorders.

If we wanted to follow a "natural" existence, we wouldn't practise medicine. We would allow the many quite natural diseases to take their course. We wouldn't bother to sow crops and store grain, but rely instead on the seasonal bounty that Mother Nature may or may not provide. Above all, if we wanted to be natural, we would not interfere with evolution and let natural selection be the ultimate arbiter of whether we live or die. Quite natural, but quite appalling.

When, about 10,000 years ago, the first proto-agriculturalists selectively picked the ears of cereals that looked most promising for further cultivation, they were breaking with natural evolution. It is not natural for our staple crops to be so heavy with edible produce, as they are now. No organic food fanatic would look twice at a natural corn on the cob - a miserable affair a couple of inches long.

Interfering with Nature has enabled the human population to grow to unprecedented levels. Between 1960 and 1995, rice and wheat yields have increased more than twofold thanks to unnatural events by breeding strains that can resist drought and pests and by adding artificial pesticides and fertilisers to boost production.

No one, least of all the scientists who helped in the so-called Green Revolution of the past 40 years, will say this success has come without any costs. It has. Chemical sprays have left their indelible mark on wildlife, genetic diversity has been lost in the drive for monocultural efficiency and pests have fought back by becoming resistant to the artificial toxins we threw at them.

Yet to do nothing would have meant certain disaster for the human species. Prince Charles is old enough to remember the doom-merchants of the 1960s who predicted mass starvation and social collapse as a result of famines and food shortages. They calculated, quite correctly, that the food production techniques of 40 years ago would not sustain a world population growing at such a rate.

The Green Revolution, however, has run its course. More and more chemical fertilisers have now to be added to a crop to achieve the same yields; agricultural land and water supplies are becoming more scarce in the world, yet the global population is set to rise from 6 billion to 9 billion within the next 50 years.

GM technology offers the most promising solution in that it allows better crops to be developed more quickly than is possible by conventional breeding. GM can be compared to a sniper's rifle picking off potential problems one at a time, rather than a farmer's blunderbuss being let off in the darkness.

What most worries Charles and his supporters about this technology is that it permits scientists to move a gene from one species and introduce it into the gene pool of another. This is indeed fairly unnatural, but not unprecedented in Nature. Although biologists once considered it impossible for one species to interchange genes with another, this is no longer the case. It is now apparent that Nature herself permits this -- using quite natural vehicles for gene transmission, such as Agrobacterium tumefaciens, a bacterium that lives in the soil and which possesses the uncanny ability to transfer some of its own DNA into that of susceptible plants.

Scientists have adapted this natural ability of A. tumefaciens to insert beneficial genes into crops. There are now many instances of edible plants being modified in such a way as to make them more resistant to pests, to grow in drought conditions or produce higher, more nutritious yields.

In the blast of propaganda from the anti-GM merchants it is easy to forget that the technology can lower our reliance on chemical sprays. Maarten Chrispeels, professor of plant biology at the University of California San Diego says that the planting in 1998 of GM crops in the US resulted in a "12 per cent decline in pesticide use". Eliminating the recently-identified gene that causes "pod shattering" in oil-bearing canola seeds meant farmers could double yields. Another way of looking at this is that GM technology should allow canola seed farmers to grow crops on half the land they once used, and use half as much fertiliser and pesticide as a result.

GM technology can improve human health even more directly. Natural toxins produced by moulds can be highly lethal. Mycotoxins on organically grown nuts have killed thousands of people. American scientists have found that GM corn contains lower levels of mycotoxins because the grain is less prone to insect damage, which has allowed moulds to grow more easily on the grain.

Scientists also plan to produce edible vaccines in plants, a simple, sterile way of delivering a vital medicine to children in the developing world. Infant diarrhoea caused by intestinal infections probably kills more babies than any other single disease. A GM vegetable or fruit bearing an entertoxin vaccine is far from natural, but a potential life-saver. Other examples exist of the direct benefits. GM rice enriched with vitamin A - another man-made monstrosity in the eyes of Prince Charles - may not actually save lives, but it promises to prevent blindness in hundreds of thousands of children in the developing world.

Unnatural, artificial and synthetic as GM technology is, we cannot afford to ignore its benefits. If every farmer was to till the land in the same, organic fashion as the Duchy of Cornwall there would only be enough food to feed about 4 billion people in the world -- about 2 billion short of the current total. We have no choice but to continue our age-old struggle against the limits of Nature. We cannot rely on God to do it for us. Jim Watson, the father of DNA science, said recently at a meeting in London that scientists often get accused of wanting to play God. "But then in all honesty, if scientists don't play God, who will?" he said.

And despite the protestations of the heir to the throne, Watson is right.

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