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Friday, April 30, 1999 Published at 14:20 GMT 15:20 UK


A GM future is inevitable

BBC Doctor Colin Thomas: "Food has always been modified"

An aubergine becoming Prime Minister? Giant tomatoes walking down the supermarket aisle and paying for themselves? Grapes the size of footballs (I had those once!). Is this your idea of genetically modified food? If so, then before I lock you away, chew on this:

The purpose of genetically modifying anything is an attempt to introduce a certain quality into an organism. This could be for example a resistance to disease, or a juicier fruit, or a higher yielding crop.

In fact, man has been genetically modifying organisms for years. The first grain that Stone Age man planted would have been weedy compared to today's varieties.

Think of a crab apple - until Mr Cox and Mrs Granny Smith came along this was the 'industry standard', but by selective pollination we have the pippins of today.

Even dogs have been subject to selective breeding. By carefully planning unions between dogs, characteristics can be bred in or bred out of the line. Even after a few generations, the differences in appearance can be huge.

The difference in genetic modification today is that we now have the technology to introduce a specific set of genes into an organism without relying on a structured breeding programme to get the result.

It is theoretically possible to introduce the flavour of vanilla into a carrot which would be bad news for ice cream manufacturers as the 'cold carrot on a stick' would have great health potential, and be good for your teeth!

I don't, of course, agree with this 'consumer' type of genetic modification. However, with the population of the world increasing inexorably, man does need to find ways of feeding all his children. Genetically modified crops may be the only real way of efficient mass production without pesticides.

How come we are asking about what foods have been genetically modified, but appear to be oblivious of the tons of poisonous chemicals that have to be used to keep disease and pests away?

Effects on humans

[ image: Tomatoes have been genetically modified]
Tomatoes have been genetically modified
It is quite possible that these could have greater effects on humans than GM crops.

We all know that certain plants can be poisonous. Whilst we are able to eat certain mushrooms, others are poisonous.

However, there are some concerns about GM food.

For example, if I could identify the poison gene, then I could introduce this into an edible mushroom and make it poisonous.

The problem is that if I was introducing a gene which made mushrooms bigger I might introduce the poison gene accidentally at the same time.

More worryingly I might transfer a gene that produced a protein that did not seem to be harmful, but turned out to be 10 years down the line. A sort of 'Mad Mushroom' disease.

As sure as (genetically modified) eggs is eggs we will at some stage have to face up to the inevitability of GM foods.

When there's no bread on the table what will you say? Let them eat cake?

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