This week's GM news
Scientists from Cambridge University this week have published test results on genetically engineered crops that effectively degrade hazardous chemicals from sites contaminated with explosives. Talking to the BBC, the study's leader Dr Neil Bruce described one of the benefits of this new technology: "bacteria would take centuries to break down the explosives, but the plants would clean up the soil in just years." Present practice for removing dangerous chemicals from land surrounding ammunition dumps and factories involves the excavation and incineration of the contaminated soil. This new method would provide an alternative that is far more rapid while at the same time being far less brutal to the environment. Dr Brian Hooker, commenting on the study published in Nature Biotechnology: "Some of these sites are literally on the verge of exploding. They also present a serious risk to humans and to wildlife. This is a new option for cleaning up these toxins and mutagens and could soon become a reality." It is positively refreshing to see an item of news that displays a semblance of balance when discussing issues of genetic alteration and the environment.
Writing in the Independent, Geoffrey Lean's comment page celebrates consumer victory over biotechnology. Towards the beginning of last week, in what Mr. Lean sees as a rather surreal "last-ditch attempt to make peace", the heads of Unilever attended a meeting at the head office of Greenpeace to continue discussions on GM foods. The following day Unilever announced that it would be removing all GM ingredients from products destined for the UK market. Mr. Lean waves his banners and suggests that grass roots action in this country may actually be the precursor to a worldwide rejection of GM foods. The article is not exactly devoid of self-congratulation however: "The speed and suddenness of the flight from Frankenstein Foods has surprised everyone, humiliated the Government and provided the most spectacular example to date of consumer power.What made the difference, both they [anti-GM pressure groups] and the industry say, was press coverage, including the Independent on Sunday's campaign." Although, according to Unilever, the encounter was "part of a general ongoing discussion" Greenpeace's Executive Director, Peter Melchett, zealously refutes that claim: "Their suggestion was that some sort of full debate might be valuable. We said that things had moved beyond that point." To re-assert his position Geoffrey Lean also provides us with a timetable detailing significant dates in the GM food debate. Not surprisingly it begins on February 07, the date on which the Independent on Sunday launched its campaign to get a three-year freeze on the development of genetically modified crops.
A confidential report from the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser this week recommended that the Government set up a monitoring unit to determine whether the consumption of GM foods could cause serious health problems in humans. All well and good you may think, but testing the health effects of any food is not without its problems. Unpalatable Truths, an article originally published in the New Scientist and reprinted this week in Canada's National Post as part of their "Junk Science Week", seeks to address exactly this. Debora MacKenzie, the author, contends that the only conclusion that could be successfully drawn from Pusztai's original study – the controversial study which launched the whole GM debate – is that "rats hate potatoes". Suggesting that animal models are simply not sensitive enough to reveal differences between modified and unmodified foods, she surmises that radical alterations in the animals' diet alone is enough to result in malnutrition and thus negate any conclusions these studies might reach. Ms MacKenzie also cites the sheer quantities of test foods used as being problematic.
A study in the Netherlands, in an attempt to obtain a significant result, fed lab rats freeze-dried GM tomatoes to the point where the levels of potassium in their diet was approaching toxic levels – they were forced to consume the equivalent of 13 tomatoes a day! It would therefore appear that a stalemate situation has been reached. The opponents of GM foods continue to demand more tests while scientists from the 29 OECD countries concluded at their Paris conference in December that these tests were largely inconclusive. Indeed, with the exception of potatoes, few tests on the toxicity of conventional foods have as yet been conducted which leads to obvious complications when trying to identify a control figure. Despite the reservations of the scientists themselves, the media, with a few notable exceptions, continues to base its stories on the 'science equals truth' equation.