No Fear Factor

Genetically modified food is absolutely safe for health, says Jane E. Brody

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Vegetable colours: Farmers protest in favour of bio-engineered food plants. AFP

Almost everywhere food is sold these days, you are likely to find products claiming to contain no genetically modified substances. But unless you are buying wild mushrooms, game, berries or fish, that statement is untrue.

Nearly every food we eat has been genetically modified, through centuries of crosses, both within and between species, and for most of the last century through mutations induced by bombarding seeds with chemicals or radiation. In each of these techniques, dozens, hundreds, even thousands of genes of unknown function are transferred or modified to produce new food varieties.

Most so-called organic foods are no exception. The claims of no genetic modification really refer to foods that contain no ingredients that are produced through the highly refined technique of gene-splicing, in which one or a few genes are transferred to an organism. But alarmist warnings about the possible hazards of gene-splicing have made the public extremely wary of this selective form of genetic modification. Such warnings have so far been groundless.

?Americans have consumed more than a trillion servings of foods that contain gene-spliced ingredients,? said Dr Henry I. Miller, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and author, with Gregory Conko, of The Frankenfood Myth, a new book that questions the wisdom of current gene-splicing regulations.

?There hasn?t been a single untoward event documented, not a single ecosystem disrupted or person made ill from these foods,? he said in an interview. ?That is not something that can be said about conventional foods, where imprecise methods of genetic modification actually have caused illnesses and deaths.?

Why should people object to the presence of a single new gene whose function is known when for centuries they have accepted foods containing hundreds of new genes of unknown function?

A junior high school student in Idaho, Nathan Zohner, demonstrated in a 1997 science fair project how easy it was to hoodwink a scientifically uninformed public. As described in The Frankenfood Myth, 86 per cent of the 50 students he surveyed thought dihydrogen monoxide should be banned after they were told that prolonged exposure to its solid form caused severe tissue damage, that exposure to its gaseous form caused severe burns and that it had been found in tumours from terminal cancer patients. Only one student recognised the substance as water, H2O.

Without better public understanding and changes in the many arcane rules now thwarting development of new gene-spliced products, we will miss out on major improvements that can result in more healthful foods, a cleaner environment and a worldwide ability to produce more food on less land ? using less water, fewer chemicals and less money.

The European Union has, in effect, banned imports of all foods produced through gene splicing, and it has kept many African nations, including those afflicted with widespread malnutrition, from accepting even donated gene-spliced foods and crops by threatening to cut off products they export because they might become contaminated with introduced genes.

Even more puzzling, Uganda has prohibited the testing of a fungus-resistant banana created through gene-splicing, even though the fungus is devastating that nation?s most important crop.

In a new report, ?Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods,? published by the National Academy of Sciences, an expert committee notes that any time genes are mutated or combined, as occurs in almost all breeding methods, there is a possibility of producing a new, potentially hazardous substance.

Citing a conventionally bred potato that turned out to contain an unintended toxin, the report says the hazard lies with the toxin?s presence, not the breeding method.

Only those foods produced by the specific introduction of one or more genes into the organism?s DNA are subject to strict and prolonged premarketing regulations.

But as the Academy?s report points out, gene-splicing is only a process, not a product, a process on a continuum of genetic modification of foods that began more than 10,000 years ago when people first crossed two varieties of a crop to improve its characteristics. In fact, gene-splicing is the most refined, precise and predictable method of genetic modification because the function of the transferred gene or genes is known.

All new crop varieties, whether produced through gene- splicing or conventional techniques like cross-breeding or induced mutations, go through a series of tests before commercial introduction. After greenhouse testing for the look and perhaps taste of the crop, it is grown in a small, sequestered field trial and, if it passes that test, in a larger trial to check its commercial viability.

The potential risks associated with genetically modified foods result not so much from the method used to produce them but from the traits being introduced.
With gene-splicing, only one or two traits at a time are introduced, making it possible to assess beforehand how much testing is needed to assure safety.
Sources: The Telegraph (Kolkata, India)

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