As more genetically modified foods are being produced and marketed and as many different types of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) continue to be released into the environment, the debate on the safety of genetic engineering has intensified. Some adopt the view that there is no real evidence of negative effects, some believe that any adverse consequences will only be evident in the long run and therefore we should adopt the ‘precautionary principle’.
The precautionary principle is well established in international declarations and agreements. It implies that responsibility for future generations and the environment is to be combined with the anthropocentric needs of the present. Where there is a reason to suspect threats of serious, irreversible damage, lack of scientific evidence should not be used as a basis for postponement of preventive measures.
The controversy surrounds the production, marketing and consumption of GM food. Should GE be carried out? To what extent? What about the ethical issues? How should GE food be labelled – if at all?
Some scientists tell us there is no evidence that GM foods are harmful – after all people have been eating them for several years. Comments such as these are disingenuous and credit us with little grey matter. Without food labelling and without trials how could we know if a person’s ill health is a result of GM food? They say there is no evidence of harm, but that is because there has been no way to track the harm, and perhaps too little time for the harm to be noticable.
The industry of developing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) goes by several names: transgenics, animal and plant biotechnology, genetic engineering. GE researchers prefer to use the term ‘biotechnology’. This is a term that hides ‘genetic engineering’ from the general public.A transgenic crop plant contains a gene or genes that have been artificially inserted instead of the plant acquiring them through pollination. The inserted gene sequence (the transgene) may come from an unrelated plant, or from a different species, eg a bacterium. Plants containing transgenes are often called genetically modified or GM plants.
Some people think genetic modification (GM) is invariably about moving genes from one species to another, or ‘adding’ genes to an organism’s normal complement. When it comes to considering ethical and other issues, it is useful to understand that GM covers two types of activities:
- Altering the genes normally present in an individual in such a way that the alteration is passed on to (at least some of) its descendants.
- Transferring a gene or genes from one individual to another of the same species, or of a different species.