Elements of genetic engineering
Elements of genetic engineering (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here in the UK, it’s now 13 years since the GM Nation debate created a highly charged atmosphere around the use of genetic modification in food crops. Since then, the prospect of climate change coupled with its likely effect on food insecurity in many regions of the global South has placed questions about the social acceptability of GM crops in a new context. On Tuesday 17 May, Dr Hilary Rogers (Cardiff University, Biological Sciences) and Karolina Rucinska (Cardiff University, Geography and Planning) surveyed the current state of play in relation to GM crops, and the persistent ethical questions that surround them.

Hilary pointed out that different countries around the world have, thanks to their different regulatory systems, taken very different attitudes towards GM crops. The USA, for example, treats producers as responsible for the safety of the crops they grow, with the expectation that lawsuits will be brought against anyone who endangers safety. In Europe, the precautionary principle means that the EU itself has responsibility for overseeing safety. This has led to GM being licensed in the USA, and being subject to significant restrictions in the EU.

But these kinds of different attitudes towards risk aside, what risk issues might arise around GM crops? Hilary gave us a whistle-stop tour of key aspects of the scientific techniques through which genetic modification is performed. Individual genes have coding regions, which govern the production of proteins, and on-off switches (transcription factors), which turn on or off production of individual proteins. The ‘switches’ are unique to an organism. But coding regions can, using specific techniques, be transposed between organisms. Herbicide resistance or pest tolerance are typical traits that the introduction of transgenes is designed to introduce to an organism which doesn’t possess them. Typically, the production of GM crops involves altering 2-5 genes, whereas traditional selective breeding (which, Hilary insisted, is very different from new approaches to genetic modification) may change up to 20% of an organism’s genes. While there has been a great deal of research into the potential healthy risks of humans eating GM crops, there have been no replicated instances of harm being proven. Other concerns relate to the potential allergenicity of transgenes, to the capacity of insects to evolve the capacity to damage resistant crops, to the possibility that pest-resistant crops might harm beneficial insects, and to the possibility that transgenes can escape and become transposed into non-GM crops.

Beyond these environmental and health risks, other more political concerns arise. In relation to climate change, the possibility of creating crops that are drought-resistant and can cope with other environmental stresses is attractive. The Green Revolution in the 1960s and 70s (despite its resource implications in relation to the use of fertilisers and so on) reduced global hunger from 40% to 20%. Can GM crops achieve a similar effect for a climate changed world? Will the application of GM crops in these circumstances be accepted by publics around the world? There are many different views in the global South as well as the North. Generally, producers directly benefit from GM crops rather than consumers (which means that consumers in the rich North may often be less keen on GM crops than farmers in the rural South). Yet even within developing countries, there are wide differences of opinion. Subsistence farmers in Brazil, for example, are more negative about GM crops than export-oriented farmers. In other cases where technologies have been the focus of concerns about uncertain risks (such as mobile phones, for example), the benefits of these technologies for consumers have been readily apparent, leading to the possibility of risks being ignored.

Karolina noted that media representations have played a big role in polarising debates over GM crops, and that this means that most people’s access to information about GM crops is distorted by forces which shape decisions by media outlets about what to publish – which includes economic incentives that incline these outlets to focus on controversy and to revert to churnalism. This reinforces concerns among the public about the trustworthiness of scientists, technologists and also regulators. It then becomes difficult to understand the ways in which genetic modification (as a technique) is the latest expression of a general interest in ‘optimising’ agriculture through science, which is at least a century old.  The sense that it is genuinely novel is what creates concerns, along with the ways in which regulators do not consistently acknowledge this novelty (the Food and Drug Administration in the USA, for example, treats GM foods as additives rather than novel products).

In discussion, audience members asked whether a lack of food would indeed be a problem in the future – was it not the case that, instead, the ways in which food is distributed were the problem, thus making it a political issue? Although ‘naturalness’ is difficult to define, some people still felt that this was a key source of objections to GM crops. But does this translate into anything more than a marker of visceral, automatic dislike – a kind of ‘yuck factor’? Questions of trust and regulation were also raised, and the feeling that the main drivers behind the development of GM crops were to do with capturing public goods as private property.

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