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Food under the microscope Tuesday, 6 April, 1999, 15:39 GMT 16:39 UK
The power of genes
supermarket
Do you know what foods have been genetically-modified?
By BBC News Online Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse

It is difficult to think of another technology that has caused as much debate or concern as that of genetic engineering and its application to food - nuclear power apart.

Food under the microscope
Our ability to alter the genetic blueprint of animals and plants is in the process of changing many aspects of science and medicine. Many people see this as beneficial.

But what about genetically-modified (GM) food? Do we want to eat such food? And is it really such a big deal?

When considering genetic engineering, it should be remembered that almost every living thing that man exploits has been genetically-modified in a major way.

The crops we use for food, the animals we eat, our pets and the plants in our gardens are radically different from those that existed in the so-called "natural" state.

Thousands of years of selective breeding have improved the yields of crops, the milk production of cows, the quantity of meat on cattle and the sizes and colours of our flowers and dogs.

Without this programme of genetic modification, modern life would be impossible as we know it. Mankind's ingenuity and scientific knowledge feeds the world.

To this extent, it is curious that many should regard as dangerous the more efficient and knowledgeable way to breed animals and plants offered by the modern techniques of genetic engineering. It has been said that we are at the start of a new age of "Frankenfood". Is that right?

Yes and no

The technological developments of recent years - the ability to isolate, move and modify genes - represent a true revolution. For the first time in our history, we have the ability to manipulate in a very precise and detailed way the very blueprint of any living organism.

We can take the genes from fish that make them resistant to cold and insert them into a strawberry that will then grow better in cold conditions.

We can make wheat with more gluten so that it will make better bread, and we can make tomatoes that keep their fresh-picked texture longer.

Critics of this work say that modern genetic engineering is not an extension of the "traditional" methods of breeding. Never in the past, they say, have we had the ability to transplant genes between widely different species - human genes into pigs for example.

Few would deny the benefits of modern genetic engineering in medicine. The use of genetically-modified bacteria to produce drugs such as insulin has been a revolution in medicine and saved the lives of millions.

But many argue that genetically-modified food is simply unnecessary.

It is, however, already here. The chances are that today you have already eaten a genetically-modified foodstuff or a food that was made with a modified organism. Much Soya, found in many foods, is modified and much bread is nowadays produced with a genetically-modified yeast.

All the indications are that these foods are harmless.

God's plan

Most of the worries about engineered foods are misplaced. Concerns about interfering with God's plan are a vague and ill-focused objection. God's plan - if you believe in such a thing - has been interfered with continuously since the beginnings of agriculture and medicine thousands of years ago.

But the question remains, do we need genetically-modified food?

Some crops, such as soya, have had a gene added to them to increase their tolerance to pesticides so that farmers can use those chemicals more efficiently.

Many studies have shown that soya that has been genetically-altered in this way is no different in composition or nutritional quality than other commercially available soya varieties, and that it is suitable for food use.

But the fact that in some cases the same company produces both the modified soya seed and also the pesticide has led to allegations of corporate manipulation of food markets.

It is at this level that the criticisms of GM foods become more focused; with the accusation that they are a market-driven juggernaut oblivious to concerns wider than profit.

You might raise the issue here also of whether it is right for these companies, at the end of the 20th century, to be allowed patent genes - chemical codes that have existed in nature for millions of years.

Confused issue

Many believe that the genetic-engineering lobby has been just a bit too complacent about safety.

But are these political points saying anything about the inherent safety of the technology. Might we be confusing one with the other.

The key question is: when we change the genetic structure of a plant or an animal, do we know enough about what we are doing to be sure of safety. Life is complex and has an unfailing capacity to surprise.

It is clear that GM foods have a lot they could offer the world if they were introduced in an open and fair way without the suspicion of big business bullying.

But there is a correct pace in which to introduce GM foods and many feel that the current pace is too fast. What's the hurry, they say.

Above all we must not become intoxicated by our power to manipulate genes. We have only just leaned to do it in a very crude and simple way. Nature has been doing it for billions of years.

We have a lot to thank the genetic revolution for but we must remember evolution's ability to frustrate human desires.

We must remember that our past is full of man-made disasters. Will the new genetic agricultural revolution mimic the disasters of the industrial age?

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Prof Ray Baker, Science Council: Food on shelves is absolutely safe
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