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Current Controversies: Genetics and the Life Sciences

THE moderator began by explaining that the world is in the middle of a revolution in our understanding of how genes work. This revolution will produce dramatic changes in the practice of medicine in the next decade -- and raise all sorts of ethical issues. But for the moment, the political debate has focused not on such "red", human biotechnology, but on its "green", agricultural peer -- and particularly on genetically modified food. The first panellist argued that GM food has the power to improve agricultural productivity radically, producing healthier food into the bargain. The second warned that GM food might disturb the ecological balance, widen inequalities and pose a risk to health. Some participants supported GM food, providing that labelling was clear and the regulatory bodies vigorous. But others were not so sure. Can you really separate modified from unmodified food? And are scientists really as objective as they claim?


Ever since the discovery of DNA scientists have been exploring the fundamental structure of life -- at a molecular level and in the process creating a whole new set of tools to advance our mastery over nature. The practical application of this new science has been going on for at least the past twenty years, at an ever-accelerating pace.

Why does biotechnology create so much passion? Genomics is not just a matter of science. People have always worried that we lack the wisdom to intervene in the fundamental processes of life: remember the Tree in the Garden of Eden. All the same, there is plenty of strong evidence that GM food can produce huge benefits for humanity. It will improve agricultural productivity. The yield of the average hectare has more than doubled in the

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past forty years. By producing hardier crops, biotechnology offers the best chance of feeding the 1.5 billion people in the world who are seriously malnourished -- particularly as there is now so little unused land. And, it will produce better end-products -- such as foods that possess healthier cardiovascular properties or, potentially, polymers built around plants rather than petrochemicals.

But what about the risks? The fundamental safety questions are no different from those asked of previous forms of food technology. The United States is fortunate in that there is a lot of public confidence in regulatory agencies. In Europe that is not the case -- hence the mad cow scare and the current Belgian fracas about chickens. Another worry has to do with the industrialisation of agriculture. In fact, biotechnology is scale neutral: there is no reason why small farms should not gain as well as big ones. Other questions are more difficult to answer. It will not be easy to separate GM and non-GM foods, because they can easily get mixed up on the way to the table. There are also genuine environmental fears about how the new seeds will effect local ecosystems.


The first speaker is right on some important things. The number of people on the planet is growing and the amount of additional land available to feed them is limited. He may even be right that many benefits will flow from GM food just as they have from GM healthcare. But those benefits are unlikely to flow without big changes in the behaviour of both companies and governments -- and an honest assessment of the risks.

There is no long-term safety test for foods in the way that there is for health. We need a tougher regulatory process. Companies should be the first to press for tighter regulations -- but instead they spend fortunes trying to persuade governments to impose the least demanding regulations. The second peril is environmental. Europeans put a much higher value on the agricultural environment than Americans: witness the gap between Gloucestershire and Iowa. The truth is that we do not know enough about

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the long-term impact of GM on the environment. GM 15 not merely a continuation of previous forms of selective breeding; it allows us to create combinations that could not possibly have occurred naturally.

Poor people are already worried that seeds will become more expensive. Of particular concern is the so-called "terminator gene". Perhaps 1.4 billion people depend on re-using seeds. The idea that GM food will help feed the poor is something of a canard. A hundred thousand children under the age often die in Brazil every year because of lack of food. But Brazil is the fifth largest agricultural exporter in the world. Safer things such as sustainable agriculture and multi-cropping should be tried first.

The knock-on effect of getting it wrong could be huge. It could hit the promising pharmaceuticals side of biotechnology. It could further undermine faith in the authority of science. And it could seriously damage trade. There are many people who think that the unnatural reordering of the gene pool constitutes a grave form of human hubris. GM will be the lightning rod of all sorts of anxieties about the industrial world and man's arrogance.


The discussion began with two reminders of how important the subject has become. The moderator pointed out that America now wants to put biotechnology on the G7 Agenda. And a Swede described a recent shareholder meeting of a drug company with GM products, where the chairman was physically attacked by two women who had brought shares simply to protest. He argued that the situation with GM food is very similar to that with nuclear power twenty-five years ago -- a battle that business interests lost.

Some speakers argued that transparency is the best way to overcome the public's fears. A Swiss businessman argued that much of the solution lies in clear labelling. Provided labels clearly state the origin of food and consumers have a right to choose, then the issue will not be too explosive. In Switzerland's referendum on GM food, two-thirds of the population voted in favour. But the second

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panellist noted that up until a few years ago the food companies had fought hard against labelling. Labelling is also much harder than it sounds, he argued: GM and non-GM crops get mixed upon the way to market (because different farmers share the same grain elevators, for example) and even while they are growing (through cross-pollination).

Other speakers put their faith in science and regulation. A German businessman called for the creation of an objective panel, free from bias or vested interests, that would both calm the public's fears and make sure that science moves in the right direction. A Belgian supported the idea of a regulator, with the proviso that it should be as international and independent as possible. The first panellist thought there was some historical evidence to support this approach. The end of the nineteenth century was characterised by similar fears about food, and the response was to create expert bodies based on science. There are now regulatory bodies based on science in all the major regions of the world. But the second panellist was more sceptical. There is no such thing as perfectly objective science, he argued, and there is no way of avoiding making political judgements. Governments need to make sure that scientists are truly independent from vested interests like the GM companies; and they need to listen carefully to consumers. In the end, if consumers think that the regulatory process is inadequate, then it is inadequate.

An American financier wondered about the justification for a "terminator gene", particularly given that one of the arguments in favour of GM foods is that they will help to feed the world's poor. The first panellist pointed out that "terminator" genes are still five years down the road. He argued that the justification for these products is the same as the justification for any protection of intellectual property rights. Nobody will invest the money and effort that it takes to make a new gene unless they can get a return on their investment.

Another American participant wondered whether the GM companies were being as sensitive to the property rights of the

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developing world: the bulk of the science may be done in the rich world, but 95% of the genes that they work on come from the developing world. She also worried that the GM revolution will increase inequality, just as the green revolution did, because it rewards people who can afford higher quality crops. The first panellist responded that the GM revolution is not as capital intensive as the green revolution: the only thing that changes is what is in the seed not the way that it is farmed. He pointed out that GM foods could hugely decrease inequality by stopping crops from being destroyed by pests and pestilence.