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Opinion: Campaigners against GM food

Campaigners against GM food claimed a significant victory this week, when the Government’s GM Nation? consultation revealed emphatic levels of opposition to the technology. Some 93 per cent of respondents thought that GM products could damage their health and 86 per cent would refuse to eat them. Greenpeace activists are jumping for joy.

GM Nation? was badly flawed, with meetings poorly advertised and dominated by activists whose minds were made up. A proper opinion poll would have been a more scientific — and cheaper — barometer of feeling. But while the results are misleading, they clearly reflect a trend.

The polls, too, suggest that the public thinks GM food is not safe to eat.

There are good questions still to be answered about GM crops, such as their environmental effects and the influence of agribusiness over the food chain. Food safety, however, is not one of them.

As the Government’s recent GM Science Review found, there is no evidence whatsoever that any commercially available variety is “toxic, allergenic or nutritionally deleterious”, and plenty to indicate the contrary.

The idea that GM foods pose a special risk to health stems from misconceptions. First, there is the belief that it’s unsafe because it’s unnatural. GM is certainly not a natural process, but neither is selective breeding nor, even, agriculture. Nature is not a good guide to safety. We don’t avoid wheat because it doesn’t grow in the wild, any more than we feast on deadly nightshade because it does.

Then there is the notion that genetic engineering has a unique capacity for harm. The technique is simply a more modern way of achieving what plant breeders have been doing for centuries — adding new genes for beneficial traits. If anything, it is more precise and predictable than traditional methods: these have produced common vegetables, such as potatoes and kidney beans, that are poisonous if wrongly prepared. No food comes risk-free, and GM food is no different in this from anything else.

Others worry about studies that purport to show grave risks. The most notorious of these was conducted by Arpad Pusztai, and claimed that the GM process made potatoes toxic to rats. The experiment had serious weaknesses, most notably the absence of proper controls. It also involved potatoes modified to produce lectin, a known toxin. If you add poison to a vegetable, whether by GM or any other method, it is likely to be poisonous. But doing so does not make genetic engineering dangerous in its own right.

There simply isn’t any laboratory evidence to indicate a risk attached to GM. Even after consulting critical researchers, the Science Review was unable to find “any peer-reviewed scientific article which reports adverse effects on human health as a consequence of eating GM foods”. There is no known molecular process that could make so-called Frankenstein foods any more dangerous than their conventional counterparts.

The practical evidence backs this up. GM crops have been eaten by hundreds of millions of people, mainly but not exclusively in the United States, since they were first introduced over a decade ago. Not a single instance of harm from a GM product licensed for human consumption has yet been reported. If the GM process had any significant health effects, we would have seen them by now. Frankenstein has a safety record that the purveyors of peanuts and beer, to take just two examples, would die for.

None of this, of course, guarantees that every GM product is safe. It is perfectly possible to create crops that are toxic or allergenic by introducing new genes, such as the ones Dr Pusztai fed to his rats. That is why all novel foods, GM and conventional, are subjected to rigorous safety tests. Even the ogres of the agricultural product giant Monsanto, after all, gain nothing by poisoning their customers. With proper regulation in place, there is nothing to fear. The 93 per cent who are worried about their health are plain wrong.

Mark Henderson is The Times science correspondent

September 27, 2003 The Times