Genetic Modification – Is it Time to Open Up the Debate?
By Leslie Williams.
Please note: The opinions expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and should not be seen as a reflection of the views of the Irish Food Writers’ Guild
Mention Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) to most people in Ireland and you get a fairly predictable reaction along the lines of “I don’t like them, I don’t understand them and I don’t want them in Ireland!”.
The debate is beginning once again since the Irish agricultural research organisation Teagasc have recently applied to conduct a field trial on blight resistance in GM Potatoes at Oak Park in Carlow.
The debate around Genetic Modification (GM) is incredibly emotional and I have long since tuned out because I simply do not believe what the large bio-tech companies such as Monsanto are saying: mainly that GM will save the planet.
Similarly I do not believe what anti-GM campaigners such as Greenpeace are saying: mainly that GM will destroy the planet.
How refreshing then to hear Cathal Garvey raise the possibility of a third way. He did so at the most recent For Food’s Sake food discussion forum, which was held in Dublin’s Science Gallery in February 2012 and focussed on the question of ‘What will your future taste like?’.
A micro-biologist and self-styled ‘bio-hacker’, Garvey is part of a network of DIY molecular biologists who are attempting to take back the technology from the big boys (eg bio-tech companies and universities) and make it open-source so that anyone can use the technology as a source for good.
As DNA becomes easier to decode, Garvey believes it will soon be possible for third world countries to create their own medicines and engineer their own disease-resistant seeds without any money going into the pockets of large bio-tech or pharmaceutical companies.
WHAT IS GM?
But let’s step back a moment. Many of us are deeply uncomfortable with the idea of GM crops for environmental as well as ethical reasons and I would count myself in this group. However I think we need to begin to face the fact of GM’s existence: after all, it cannot be un-invented. Perhaps it is time we tried to understand it a little better before we simply dismiss it as ‘unnatural’.
A gene is a tiny molecular instruction that can cause or prevent changes in a living organism. Genetic Modification is when you artificially add, remove or adapt genes to cause or prevent changes to an organism.
The genetic code is like a language and we have learned to read, adapt and manipulate it much as you would a computer programming language. Many of the most effective and groundbreaking medicines developed in recent years have been developed through GM, treating everything from HIV to malaria. Through synthetic biology, bacteria can be created to clean up oil spills or turn on or off genes that could potentially prevent everything from hereditary blindness to cystic fibrosis.
Gene transfer occurs naturally during the traditional process of cross-breeding plants to create a new variety of rose, grape or potato but this is very unpredictable and relies largely on trial and error.
Modifying the genetic structure of a plant through genetic modification involves altering the genes at a molecular level in a lab (such as via a bacteria). This process allows one gene to be added at a time in a more controlled way and (potentially) gives more predictable results to specific ends – for example adding a gene that will cause a plant to produce a protein that is toxic to the plant’s main pest.
While the idea of adding a gene from a fish to a potato sounds like an experiment Dr Frankenstein would try, in fact genes have often moved naturally from plants to animals to humans through viruses or bacteria.
Perhaps the most famous application of GM is the introduction of the Bacillus thuringiensis (or ‘Bt’ for short) gene into crops to make them resistant to particular pests. Bt is a naturally occurring bacterium harmful to certain insects. First isolated in 1901, farmers began to use Bt as an organic spray-on pesticide to protect crops from pests in the 1920s. Bt only attacks certain insects and quickly degrades so it has no lasting impact on the environment and is still used by organic farmers today.
Much of the world’s cotton is grown using GM crops with a Bt-producing gene that makes them resistant to their main predators. Using GM seeds such as this eliminates the need for chemical pesticides and major steps are also being taken to ensure the pests do not become resistant to Bt.
Most of us have probably worn cotton created from GM crops and virtually all of us have eaten food created through the use of a genetically modified organism – to take just one example the vegetarian rennet used in most artisan cheeses is created through GM.
Virtually all insulin for treating diabetes is created through GM and this came about because it was not possible to meet the demand through natural means. Millions of diabetics are alive today thanks to GM insulin.
The bad news is that this is very new technology and nobody knows exactly what the implications are for long-term food production from GM crops.
Many fear that a heavy reliance on GM will lead to a lack of bio-diversity, the implications of which could include widespread crop failure should pests become resistant to Bt spores, to take just one example.
Bio-tech companies are required to make greater and greater profits for their shareholders and this profit motivation has ensured they have vigorously defended the patents they own on gene sequences. Many view this as an attempt to patent life itself.
Farmers usually do not own the GM seeds they plant, they merely buy a licence to plant the seeds and reap the crops. The farmer does own the crops but the seeds remain the property of the Bio-Tech company so seeds produced by the crop cannot be saved to plant the following year. In addition many GM seeds have an “off-switch” to ensure they cannot reproduce viable new seeds.
Contamination of non-GM crops with conventional crops is another legitimate worry.
Consumers are understandably very resistant to GM foods, especially in the EU, so it would be a foolish country that allowed the widespread unrestricted growing of GM crops. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently considering an application by Teagasc to conduct a field trial on GM potatoes which would mean Ireland would no longer be GM free. It would seem very unwise for Ireland to jeopardise its GM-free image if it wishes to protect its growing food export markets.
Despite the negatives mentioned above the reality is that GM is here to stay. I believe we need to analyse the benefits as much as the risks with a very cold eye.
Given the speed at which bio-technology is changing, food professionals and food writers need to keep aware of GM technology developments and what they mean for the planet’s food production.
GM technology is becoming open-source in the same way that much of the Internet is now developed collaboratively, the open-source browser Mozilla Firefox and Wikipedia being just two examples.
The cost of synthesising and de-coding DNA molecules is decreasing five times faster than the cost of computer power. When you see a bio-hacker like Cathal Garvey extract the DNA from a banana in just a few minutes using household equipment (see video link below) you begin to realise just how widespread this revolution could become.
Certainly GM technology could be used for evil but bio-hackers like Garvey and his collaborators are determined that it will be used to benefit mankind, whether that means a cure for malaria or simply better tasting tomatoes.
We do need blight resistant potatoes, but do we want to risk Ireland’s GM-Free status right now just as our food exports are beginning to grow? Food writers need to be aware of the potential good as much as the potential harm associated with GM technology. Encouraging the seizing back of the Bio-Tech factors of production is as good a way to start as any, whatever the EPA decides.
Doing Bio-Tech in My Bedroom
Cathal Garvey demonstrating Do-it-Yourself DNA extraction in a tent:
Cathal Garvey’s Blog: http://www.indiebiotech.com
EPA Notification of GMO Field Trial: http://www.epa.ie/whatwedo/licensing/gmo/fieldtrial/
Teagasc Notification of Trial Document: http://www.epa.ie/downloads/forms/lic/gmo/gmtrial/Teagasc_Notification.pdf
EPA Submissions Information: http://www.epa.ie/downloads/forms/lic/gmo/gmtrial/EPA_contact_representation_criteria_planned_gm_release.pdf
Green Party Press Release on the proposed Teagasc Trial: http://www.greenparty.ie/news.html?n=40
Genetic Use Restriction Technology: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GURT
Synthetic Biology: Bits and pieces come to life by James Collins, Nature Magazine: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v483/n7387_supp/full/483S8a.html
University of Southern California at San Diego website with detailed information of the form and function of Genetically Modified “Bt” crops: http://www.bt.ucsd.edu/
Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2009: http://www.isaaa.org/resources/publications/briefs/41/executivesummary/default.asp