Some proponents of GM foods accuse individuals opposed to the genetic modification of our foods of being ‘anti-science’. Labels like these, however, do not help with a rational debate. Instead they indicate a lack of appreciation of the scientific basis that motivates informed individuals to speak out.
The aim of this page is to explain how science in the form of GM technology, by being applied in a relatively controlled way (GM medicines) can be worthwhile, and by being applied another way (GM foods) can lead to problems that are impossible to contain.
Gene technology has been applied in the medical field to produce certain products for individuals with specific needs. For example, GM Insulin is used by some diabetics who may otherwise have to consider using Insulin from an animal source, and GM clotting factors are of value in haemophilia (a set of bleeding disorders).
There are, however, very clear and important differences in using this technology to synthesise medicines, and using it to manipulate food.
Differences: GM Medicines vs GM Foods
1) A genuine health problem: Medicines are produced as a solution to a genuine health problem. Somebody has a health problem and the medicine is meant for their use. The dose and frequency of the medicine may vary according to the illness, degree of symptoms, or the age of the individual. Many medicines are contraindicated in pregnancy because of potential harm to the unborn baby.
GM foods, however, can end up mixed into everyday foods (e.g. bread, pizza, baby food) and are consequently consumed in random quantities by people of all ages and states (including the young, the elderly and pregnant women), and yet without any proven health benefit. From the health perspective, there is no valid reason for the desired availability of these foods for consumption.
2) No generalised toxicity testing: It is known that genetic modification can cause unpredictable effects that may result, for example, in the production of new toxins. However in the case of GM medicines, the substance produced in the laboratory can to a large extent be purified, so that as far as possible only the active component remains. This minimises the possibility of the presence of new toxins ending up in the medicine. Should any new toxin be produced, its effects can potentially be picked up in the generalised toxicity tests that all medicines have to go through, and approval can be refused.
There is no compulsory requirement for GM foods to undergo such generalised toxicity testing. This means that testing procedures, which grant approval to these new foods, are inadequate in safeguarding health.
3) GM crops not contained: GM medicines are produced from engineered organisms, which are kept in a contained or closed environment. This means that the supply of the medicine can be controlled and made available only to those who may benefit from it.
GM crops however are grown in an open environment, which means that they can interact with thousands of other life forms thereby allowing knock on adverse affects to take place elsewhere.
“If after approval, a GM medicine is found to be hazardous to health, people can stop taking the medicine and laboratories can stop producing it. However, in the case of GM foods there is no reliable way of containing their spread. Pollen can be carried many miles by wind and insects”
Also, in the open, cross-pollination is often inevitable. (See the ecology & interconnectedness page for more info on these aspects). Thus, unlike GM medicines, the release of GM foods makes it very difficult for people to avoid eating them.
4) The challenge of withdrawal: Following on from the last point, if after approval, a GM medicine is found to be hazardous to health, people can stop taking the medicine and laboratories can stop producing it.
However, in the case of GM foods there is no reliable way of containing their spread. Pollen can be carried many miles by wind and insects, and GM crops have already contaminated non-GM sites. If the food is found to be harmful following approval, unlike BSE where the cows were destroyed (an unfortunate outcome though that was), this will be next to impossible with GM foods.