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Eastern Daily Press, Norwich, Tuesday, February 23, 1990
(A full page spread on the letters pages)
I suggest it is incumbent on the Press to bring a little bit of objectivity to the discussion on GM foods. Hitherto there seems to have been a lot of exaggeration, if not hysteria, in a matter now clouded by party politics.
A short time ago I listened in a debate between scientists on the radio, and this was what was said by one of the participants who was independent but had some reservations about the foodstuffs. He asserted that as a scientist he would not say GM food was safe. Neither would he say it was dangerous to people who ate it.
He explained. No reputable scientist would asset that ANY foodstuffs was absolutely safe. In the long term there was no evidence either way. Indeed he went on to imply that nothing eaten or drunk could scientifically be said to be absolutely safe.
The reason lay in general scientific reasoning based on uncertainties in all scientific research. Nothing can be said to be totally free from risks, know or unknown, short or long-term.
One would assume that scientists, politicians, environmentalists and so do actually eat food and drink water. It may be hard to give ordinary members of the public (many of whom obtain their information from alarming tabloid headlines) an appreciation of scientific reasoning and logic, but it should nevertheless be attempted.
Of course absolute safety for an individual could be achieved by not eating food at all. [ My emphasis, ECA ].
ARH Glover (EDP February 17 referring to an article on February 15) asks: "Can Professor Gale assure us that GM food is safe to eat?"
Personally I am confident that the extensive testing and regulation of all new foods ensures that food produced from GM crops are no more of a risk to the health of people who eat them than foods produced by more traditional methods.
Our regulatory system involves experts from a range of disciplines who compare the modified food with unmodified and assess the nutritional value and any toxic or allergenic issues relating to all new foods to be sold in the country.
Incidentally the committee includes a consumer representative and an expert on moral and ethical issues. Unless they decide that a new food is safe it will not find its way on to the supermarket shelves.
Sadly, however, in the present climate I doubt that, as ARH Glover states: "what is needed is a categorical assurance that all GM foods are completely safe to eat".
Customers need more information on which to base choice, and the opportunity to choose exactly what they eat.
The hysterical media reporting these past weeks has concentrated on the polarised views of minorities with vested interests and has hardly informed us at all.
Worse, it has left consumers not knowing whom to trust. I fear that it's too late for assurances from the Government, newspapers. television cooks, supermarkets or scientists like me.
Only choice and information, based n properly-conducted and reviewed science, will allay the public's understandable, but needless anxieties over the food they eat.
The release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into the environment, deliberately or inadvertently, constitutes a large-scale unplanned experiment with regional and global-scale environmental systems. Such an experiment is not unprecedented.
Present concerns about climate change are the result of large-scale modification of the earth's atmosphere by the emission of carbon-dioxide and other pollutants
While both the climate and the world's ecosystems evolve over time, such technology-driven human intervention generally serves to accelerate change with unpredictable consequences for ecosystems and human societies.
The climate change debate involves very different issues tot hat concerning the development and use of GMOs.
However, it teaches us that great caution should be exercised before commercial interests are allowed to dictate the implementation of technologies with potentially large environmental impacts.
Human-induced climate change has been an inadvertent, and, until relatively recently, unexpected consequence of industrial and economic activity.
Those involved in the commercial development of GMOs know very well (if they are competent scientists) that the release of such organisms into the environment carries many potential risks.
Not least among such risks is loss of biodiversity and disruption of ecosystems resulting from increased use of pesticides and weedkillers.
As individuals involved in the study of the global environment, we propose a minimum five-year moratorium on the commercial exploitation of GMOs, pending further research into the environmental and human impacts of such activity.
We also propose that biotechnology companies such as Monsanto accept total liability for any future adverse consequences of GMO use, and that they compensate any individual or body that is adversely affected by the development or use of GMO products.
If the Government and biotech companies are confident that the risks associated with GMOs are negligible they would be wise to support such a proposal in order to allay public fears over the GM food issue.
The current undignified haste and secrecy with which this potentially useful technology is being implemented can only be to the detriment of all concerned.
New technologies revolutionise plant breeding by making it easier to breed resistance genes from wild varieties into our food crops, reducing the amount of pesticides required or increasing the yield on dry or salty soils.
It is now also possible to introduce very small pieces of genetic information from bacteria or even animals into plants, giving hope that any medicines, oils, and other useful chemicals can be made from pollution-free field crops. This should greatly reduce air and water pollution, and the need for fossil oil, power stations and animal products.
The new techniques are very powerful and they can be used for good or bad. Plants making powerful medicines may be poisonous and must be prevented from spreading. A devious scientist might try to produce a poppy that produces copious amounts of opium in the cool British climate.
Breeding potatoes could result, unintentionally, in a variety of potatoes that produces lots of the potent nerve poison made normally only by green potatoes that have been exposed to light during growth.
We must do our very best to recognise and investigate danger signs as early as possible without regard for commercial or political considerations. For this to be possible, we need independent scientists who are fully aware of these new techniques.
For important crops we should aim to have several alternatives to make it easy to switch if one should become suspicious. Just imagine how many people would have been saved from lung cancer and other crippling diseases if there had been a harmless alternative to tobacco!
Testing, however, which is most rigorous for the new foods, makes it near impossible that anything dangerous appears on our supermarket shelves.
Mistakes have, however, been made in the past and they can never be totally excluded. It is very difficult to detect slow-acting cancer inducing substances or allergens that affect only a minority of people.
In these cases, the first danger signs may emerge from the hospital statistics.
This is one important reason why all foods should be labelled so that we know precisely what we eat. It is also very helpful for the statisticians in there are people who never eat particular types of food.
Thinking about all the possible problems makes me lose my appetite till I remember how adaptable the human body is, and how diverse the diets of healthy people in different parts of the world.
I hope for a future of universal organic farming made possible by the new plant varieties, and I will want to taste all the new foods. Staying with the old methods seems much more risky than embracing the new plant genetics in an open and responsible manner.
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