A Consumer's Guide to Genetically Modified Food. From Green Genes to Red Herrings.by Alan McHughenOxford University Press, Oxford, UK.277 pages, £ 9.990‐19‐850714‐3
The current furore over GM food will certainly be familiar to many Europeans and increasingly to Americans. Demonstrations, crop tramplings, boycotts and supermarket intimidation have all formed part of an extremely polarized campaign filled with deliberate misinformation by environmentalists of many hues and opinions. Non‐governmental organizations acting against GM food have proliferated like weeds in a newly turned field. Few of these organizations put themselves up for election, and most use rambo‐style tactics such as jumping on ships or oil platforms as a quick way to harass governments, instead of justifying their policies to the public. Furthermore, European politicians seem to listen only to political campaigns or prefer to sit on the fence, rather than making decisions of their own. So the anti‐GM food campaign consists largely of slogans and misinformation from those whose own views are formed in the absence of real knowledge. The fallout from this unfortunate debate has left plant scientists having to defend the use of GM technologies in agriculture, which many of us see as being important in dealing with a burgeoning human population in the years ahead. It is perhaps a failure of education that prevents most of our compatriots from critically distinguishing fact from fiction.
McHughen's book, therefore, is a crucial contribution to this debate, providing the public with factual information. A scientist experienced with GM technology, the author outlines the many issues and questions in a calm, deliberate and objective manner. The basics of genetics, routine methods of plant breeding including crossing the species barrier—first accomplished 50 years ago—GM technology, and the regulations for GM products and their release furnish the reader with material essential for following the GM food debate. More detail is provided on the testing of GM food, explaining substantial equivalence, risk assessment and the use of the precautionary principle. Another section advises consumers on how to avoid GM food.
Both lay readers as well as scientists will find their way into this excellent and clearly written text. McHughen is even‐handed, criticizing for instance the decision that allowed rape—a promiscuous plant—to be grown in small countries such as the UK, thus ensuring the spread of genes from rape to weedy relatives. Also, many of the supposed horror stories are clearly described and cleared up. The supposed inclusion of a Brazil nut allergen in our food is shown to be nothing more than a speculation that the allergen might not be allergic if expressed in another plant. Furthermore, it was only intended for cattle feed. The incorporation of a fish gene into plants to improve frost resistance got no further than the first transformants. But reading the scientific literature to check on the real facts is not something that an activist bothers with. The author analyses slogans like ‘Frankenfood’ or ‘superweeds’ and discusses the real environmental uncertainties coming with some genetically modified plants.
The most important message I gained from the book was the necessity of distinguishing the process from the product. For the consumer, it is the product that does the harm, not the process that is employed to produce it. For example, it does not matter if the genes for poisonous alkaloids from deadly nightshade are put into potato by some conventional breeding process or by genetic modification. Both varieties of potatoes will kill you if you eat them.
It is on this point of logic that many activist groups come unstuck. Greenpeace trampled fields of GM herbicide‐resistant maize in the UK claiming they were dangerous to the environment. But herbicide‐resistant crops including maize have been bred from resistant individuals and have been used by farmers for 20 years. If there was to be environmental or health harm, it could only come from the herbicide resistant character itself; not whether this genetic character was inserted by GM or conventional breeding. But no superweeds or health problems caused by herbicide resistant crops have been identified. So trampling GM herbicide resistant crops highlights either a lack of logic or ignorance about present day agriculture. In this context, McHughen tells the reader not to preoccupy himself with the details of individual genes and proteins that are digested anyway in the stomach. Moderation and variation of the daily diet is the key for a healthier life.
The summary at the end of the book asks the consumer to keep the problems of GM food in perspective. The real damage from the anti‐GM campaign is the generation of chronic anxiety over food itself–manifested in an increasing number of food disorders amongst western populations–and the destruction of the credibility of expert advice. Eighty percent of plane crashes, we are told, are caused by pilot error. But I still want an experienced pilot to fly me to my destination rather than Joe Public. In the end we have no choice but to rely on experts. Life is full of risks and devoid of absolute guarantees for safety. The real charge against objectors is their strong desire to keep the public ignorant to easily manipulate opinions with slogans and demonstrations. The only way to counter that practice is by generating a plethora of easily understood, informative and truthful information such as this book; then the truth will win out eventually.
- Copyright © 2000 European Molecular Biology Organization
The author is at the Institute of Cell and Molecular Biology of the University of Edinburgh. E‐mail: