Anti GM resolution progress or regress?

17/04/2011

Whangarei District Council has voted to investigate regulating genetically modified organisms (GMOs) through the District Plan in conjunction with other councils in Northland and Auckland.

There’s nothing wrong with caution. But discussion suggests that rather than recognising a need to progress carefully  this is a step towards banning GMOs altogether:

“At the very least, we need GE to be a prohibited activity until the liability issues are resolved, and preferably, prohibited for good,” Cr. Deeming said.

Whether this is progress of regress depends on whether genetically modified produce is the means to a better fed world with healthier people or a blind leap into darkness.

Public opinion seems to go for the latter yet in the widest sense genetic modification is just what happens naturally through reproduction. However, the intervention of scientists has sped up the process so changes which used to take place over generations can be achieved in a much shorter time and that’s what’s fuelling fears that the stuff of science fiction nightmares might soon be unleashed on an unsuspecting world.

Biotechnological developments ought to be an improvement on nature because they allow a far greater degree of precision in determining the outcome. So in human terms, for example, instead of the lottery we now face when we have a baby we could pick the best of both parents to produce healthier and more talented offspring: the shape of his teeth and the quality of mine; his spelling, my grammar; his musical ability my …

The idea of such designer babies might be amusing in theory but in practice it’s only a small step away from the Nazi idea of producing a super race. However, does the risk of genetic modification being used in this way mean we shouldn’t allow its development when it might also be harnessed for good to circumvent hereditary illnesses?

There are probably enough ethical guidelines in medical science to safeguard the use of biotechnology with people but it’s not so easy to draw lines between benefit and risk in agriculture.

On one side there’s evidence of an increase in not only yield and quality but also health giving characteristics, for example animals with less fat and more protein or a super tomato with more of the caratoid which protects against cancer. We could also get improvements in flavour and while the thought of chocolate flavoured broccoli doesn’t do much for me I can see advantages in vegetables which appealed to children more than junk food.

The potential gains appear to outweigh the risks in these examples.  But there are fears the technology which does this could also result in environmental mayhem as genes from animals and crops bred for a specific purpose transfer to other species with potentially disastrous consequences.                                                                

People on both sides of the argument use history to back up their case: miscalculations about the dangers of DDT, dioxin and mad cow disease are reminders of what happens when science gets it wrong; but there are equally compelling examples when science has got it right such as vaccinations which have rid the world of small pox and reduced the risk of polio.

The debate in New Zealand isn’t just about consumer choice, it’s also about the future of farming.  Do we exploit the fears to sell our GM-free produce at a premium or embrace the new technology in the hope it will give us productive and marketing advantages?

There is no certain answer because there are both risks and benefits in whatever we do. But while concern is understandable and caution essential, I wouldn’t want to see a complete moratorium on biotechnological development.

There’s no progress without risk. I

I’d be prepared to take the risk of experiments with proper safeguards if it increased production and/or meant food which now needs to be sprayed or drenched  with potentially toxic substances could be bred to resist pests and disease in the first place.


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