Tomatoes, Babies and the New Biology

Edmund Nash FAITH Magazine May-June 2004


'Grandmother Gives Birth To Octuplet Piglets Cloned From Genetically Modified Tomato,' ran a recent headline in one well-known satirical magazine. Whilst I was pleased to notice the jibe at the artificial fertility industry, I found the reference to GM food mildly irritating. There has emerged an understandable if rather tiresome tendency of those with genuine concerns for human, animal and environmental welfare to lump all products of the new biology together. It is not uncommon for even the better educated commentators to mention human cloning and GM food in the same breath: scientists, they say, are playing God by meddling with the stuff of life in this way. Such a catchall approach may be sufficient for those who take a more diffuse approach to natural law but for those who uphold theabsolute sanctity of human life against the worst elements of modern technology it is not good enough. It is always disappointing when otherwise excellent pro-life discourses are contaminated by hyperbolic anti-GM speak, and such sentiments may alienate conscientious biologists – yes, they do exist – who are otherwise sympathetic to the pro-life cause. Though it is tempting for Britain’s unpopular pro-life movement to jump at issues which command popular support, we must prevent ourselves from being sidetracked in this way.

Aside from the fact that many of us have, pre-‘Frankenfoods’ hype, been eating GM food for years, use of GM technology stretches far beyond the supermarket shelf. An ever-growing number of therapeutic agents such as hormones are produced using GM organisms harbouring human genes. More sophisticated use of GM plants and animals to produce human medicines – dubbed 'pharming' – is a new field which promises to deliver drugs too complex to be synthesised in the test tube. Those who feel there is something ‘unnatural’ about introducing human genes into animals or plants forget that we share a high proportion of our genes with these species already: it is precisely this collective heritage that allows experiments on frogs to spawn treatments for human cancer. The idea that induced change to aplant’s genetic code is a phenomenon of the DNA age is also untrue: modern hexaploid wheat possesses six times as many chromosomes as its prehistoric ancestor, thanks to tireless selection and breeding over ten thousand years of human farming. In contrast, modern GM plant technology typically involves the addition or modification of only a few genes in the organism’s genome. Though accidental production of toxins or allergens is a valid concern of GM protesters, conventional plant breeding has achieved this too. Today all new viral strains used to make vaccines must be generated by specific artificial genetic modifications rather than by ‘breeding,’ so as to prevent possible reversion back to a virulent form. Is there not therefore a logical case for applying such safeguards to new cropvarieties as well? Major disasters have ocurred with conventionally-bred plant strains in the past. The fungal destruction of monocultured T strain maize in the US – one of the worst agricultural disasters on record – pre-dated GM technology by almost a generation.

The main reason why GM technology is facing such strong public opposition in the UK is that no GM foods currently on the market offer any visible benefits to consumers. So far only traits that assist farmers or retailers, such as pest resistance and enhanced shelf life, have been developed. Consumers need to be wooed by products which help prevent cancer or contain less fat than their non-GM rivals. And on the subject of public health, it is worth exploding the number one myth of anti-GM lobbyists that the antibiotic resistance genes carried by some GM crops might lead to devastating human epidemics if transferred to bacteria. The chances of a bug swallowing up and keeping a functioning plant gene in the absence of any selective pressure to do so is vanishingly small. Even if it did, theantibiotics to which the bug would be resistant have long since fallen out of routine use in humans. Dangerous resistant bacteria tend to develop spontaneously in the bodies of patients being given powerful antibiotics for long periods, and virtually never by accident in the laboratory or in the field.

Aside from consumer opposition, there are economic reasons why GM crops are not used more widely in the West. The EU spends millions of euros every year making its farms less efficient and distributes stockpiled food free to institutions to keep market prices artificially high. We already produce far more food than is possible to sell and are therefore hardly in need of the increased yields that GM crops are supposed to provide. In contrast, environmentalists who call for the developing world to return to a non-existent organic arcadia are forgetting the reality of farming in a subsistence economy. In the UK, organic food is either an expensive indulgence, an environmentalist bastion or a sop to paranoia, depending on your politics. In sub-Saharan Africa, it is small children missingschool for having to trudge through the family fields picking caterpillars off leaves, by hand, day after day. We have no right to haul up the technological ladder our civilisation has climbed to advance itself materially.

Campaigners on both side of the GM debate have discovered shared ground in agreeing that, as is currently UK law, all food containing more than 1\% GM content - however that can be defined - should be labelled so that the public can decide for themselves. Whilst it is hard to argue against increased consumer choice, the current situation is hardly satisfactory. A Europe-wide survey by Seed magazine a few years back asked members of the public if they considered the following statement true or false: genetically modified tomatoes differ from ordinary tomatoes in that genetically modified tomatoes have genes in them and ordinary tomatoes do not. Incredibly, 40\% of those questioned in the UK thought the statement was true (in fact the majority, as a large proportion didn't know). It is verydifficult to see how the 'rational and informed debate' desired by politicians, biotech companies and greens alike can proceed while this astonishing level of ignorance prevails.

The debate surrounding the use of genetically modified food emphasises the need to distinguish between technologies we know to be intrinsically wrong and those which merely have the potential to be so. If an experiment involving the deliberate destruction of a single embryonic human were to uncover the cure for every known disease, it would still not be morally permissible to condone that experiment. On the other hand, GM technology as applied to plants and animals certainly has the potential for both grave harm and great good but cannot be considered intrinsically evil in this way. Thus, it is perfectly rational to have specific concerns over individual developments in the GM world but irrational to oppose the technology per se. Regarding the spectres of human cloning and the like,public opposition can be generally put down to the 'yuk factor': a gut reaction that as such is basically healthy. But, devoid of well-founded moral conviction and accurate scientific information, such a persuasive emotional response can be over-ruled by an even more persuasive one, as has been illustrated by the recent Hashmi case and others like it. We must be careful that our objections to the monstrosities created by artificial fertility technology do not appear to be based purely on naturalistic criteria. Otherwise, we leave ourselves open to the accusation that the same argument, taken to the logical extreme, would see air travel and microwave ovens banned on the same grounds. To some, the ethical distinction between tomatoes and babies seems much less clear when both appear to becells in a dish. From a perspective which respects life, we must nevertheless be careful not to fall into the same trap.

Faith Magazine

May - June 2004