Hazards of genetic engineering
Hazards of Genetic Engineering
Editorial, Daily Mirror (Sri Lanka), 10 September 2008
Genetic engineering (GE) is currently the largest human and ecological experiment in history. GE enables scientists to manipulate the genes of all living things in ways that never occur in nature. The new bio-technologies that manipulate the genes of micro-organisms including bacteria and viruses, seeds, fish, animals and humans are dogged by controversy and uncertainties. We do not have clear answers to many questions.
What does this mean for human, animal and plant health and safety? How does it affect biodiversity, food security and environmental integrity? How do we prevent scientific knowledge from being overshadowed by the greed of commercialism? How do we prevent genetic engineering being science driven to a business driven enterprise? These are some of the fundamental questions that challenge society and those who govern and thus bear a major responsibility in making technological choices that impact on life itself.
Over the next two decades the US industry carried on research on GE and introduced the Flavr Savr tomato, engineered to delay softening and thus extend shelf life. The biotechnology company was Calgene. Flavr Savr tomato was the first commercial GE food in the world. Some of the questions on the safety of GE foods mentioned above were aired when the Flavr Savr tomato came up for commercial approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), US.
Controversy dogged the approval process with scientists warning of potential health hazards that had not been properly explored. Despite the limitation of the risk assessment, the FDA in approving the tomato also decided that subsequent GE goods would not require similar reviews.
Worse, a voluntary consultation process replaced the formal approval by the FDA. The industry's push to deregulate was successful. Currently there is no mandatory labelling requirement for GE foods in the US even though more than 80 percent of polled consumers want it.
In contrast, the European Union has a strict bio-safety legislative framework in place which requires developers to submit a comprehensive risk assessment for GE foods prior to any commercialization. Any approval is given for 10 years and is subject to review. There are labelling requirements for GE foods.
Today, even as the biotech and agricultural industry continue to aggressively push for commercialization of GE crops and food, evidence is emerging of risks and hazards. The major concerns are the perils of GE Rice.
Rice feeds more than half the worlds population. In much of Asia, including Sri Lanka, rice is the staple food. China is the world's largest producer and consumer of rice. But the discovery of GE rice, unapproved for human consumption, in Hubei province in China brought out the worst fears of critics that contamination of the food chain has occurred. The Chinese government has not authorized GE rice for commercial planting. Field tests have been permitted, to grow rice resistant to herbicides or producing endotoxins to kill insects and pests; but there have been cases of contamination by these unapproved varieties of Chinese rice and Chinese products in the market. This led to the EU applying measures to deal with these unapproved products for example by testing products and removing contaminated products from the shelves.
Research carried out by Chinese scientists show that there are environmental risks such as gene flow from GE rice to wild and weedy relatives of rice, which could affect the weedy rice populations which are a problematic weed. These weeds pose an environmental threat and controlling them will be a major problem facing rice farmer.
At present GE rice is not commercially cultivated anywhere in the world although the US has deregulated two traits of rice resistant to herbicides.
Despite the apparent positive outlook for GE rice, serious concerns have been raised on its impact on human and animal health, the environment and socio-economic situations. It appears that GE rice research has so far outpaced safety considerations.Against this backdrop, many developing countries, including Sri Lanka, are lured into ambitions for a biotech future. But these countries do not have the capacity to thoroughly assess these new technologies and to monitor GE plants and other organisms in the environment and food chain. The Assistant Director General/Regional Representative of the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the UN Regional Office for Asia and The Pacific in 2004 advised that Asian Governments should move cautiously before approving commercial planting of GE rice. He urged governments to undertake extensive risk assessment on food safety.