Saturday Forum: Genetic Engineering

The debate on Genetically Modified Organisms has been raging, largely unchanged, for some years – Frankenstein Foods are coming to your plate if they are not already there. Aficionados of science fiction may point out that Moreauesque foods may be a better term, since Dr Moreau did genetic engineering, whereas Dr Frankenstein merely assembled a living organism from body parts, all of the same species. But I digress.

Greenpeace lead the charge saying

While scientific progress on molecular biology has a great potential to increase our understanding of nature and provide new medical tools, it should not be used as justification to turn the environment into a giant genetic experiment by commercial interests. The biodiversity and environmental integrity of the world’s food supply is too important to our survival to be put at risk.

On the other hand environmental writer Mark Lynas says

I want to start with some apologies. For the record, here and upfront, I apologise for having spent several years ripping up GM crops. I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid 1990s, and that I thereby assisted in demonising an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment.

But most important of all, farmers should be free to choose what kind of technologies they want to adopt. If you think the old ways are the best, that’s fine. You have that right.What you don’t have the right to do is to stand in the way of others who hope and strive for ways of doing things differently, and hopefully better.

Now according to your point of view, Lynas is either a sell-out, or is just applying the same scientific standards of evidence to genetic engineering and nuclear power, as most environmentalists are happy to do to global warming.

So who is right about the risks and the benefits?

Is there an ethical objection to “playing God” or “interfering with Nature” beyond the calculation of risk and benefit?

And the above is all about agriculture. What about industrial and medical uses of GM? What about alterations to the human genome?

Comments are open.

* Joe Otten was the candidate for Sheffield Heeley in June 2017, is a councillor in Sheffield and is Tuesday editor of Liberal Democrat Voice.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • To give a concrete example, consider ‘golden rice’ –

    “Vitamin A deficiency is deadly. It affects children’s immune systems and kills around two million every year in developing countries. It is also a major cause of blindness in the third world. Boosting levels of vitamin A in rice provides a simple, straightforward way to put that right.”

    Is there an ethical objection to “playing God” or “interfering with Nature” beyond the calculation of risk and benefit? No, absolutely not. And a cursory glance at the world shows that ‘interfering’ has long been standard. Selective breeding is not natural, and nor is systematically irradiating crops to produce mutations that can then be bred into existing lines – yet those are methods that ‘greens’ and ‘organic’ groups don’t seem to have any problem with. GM can be just a more efficient way of doing that.

    We need to feed – and feed well – 9 billion people, preferably at low cost, while minimising emissions, use of land, water, pesticides and so on. We’d be mad to ignore any tools that can help.

    I believe that the Lib Dems should be the greenest party, tackling climate change, biodiversity loss, deforestation, other pollution etc. but that means taking a hard-headed analytical approach to finding the best solutions – not a delusional, politics-rooted ‘Green’ view that the answer to everything is for people to live in communes, making everything for themselves and shunning technology and trade (when they’re not busy destroying evidence-generating trials!).

    The government is emphasising agri-science and synthetic biology as areas for the UK to excel in. Ill-informed opposition to new biotechnology is not going to do the country – or the world – any good.

  • Looking back at the late 1990’s and the attempts at large-scale commercialisation and public engagement, I think there are in fact three very important strands to this debate. Firstly there is the debate about GM itself which I believe is largely what Joe’s article is referring to. Secondly there is the debate about its commercial exploitation, which is quite different. And thirdly the development of GM technology, necessary for GM to move out of the research lab.

    Looking back at the late 1990’s we can see that naive scientists and commercial interests looking for a quick buck played a big part in making extravagant claims about GM, effectively claiming it was some form of food production silver bullet – and as any one working with technology knows there is no such thing as a silver bullet…

    The fundamental question in my mind is therefore whether those with a vested interest in GM have learn some humility and have gained a sense of perspective on the possible role of GM and hence have more realistic expectations of what can actually be achieved.

  • Richard Dean 16th Feb '13 - 2:44pm

    One of the possibilities of GM is presumably to enable food to be grown more cheaply, or in environments that food would not naturally grow in. It therefore may have huge potential in alleviating undernourishment in the world, and in helping countries that have periodic famines. Put another way, not doing GM may carry with it the risk of not being able to alleviate significant human suffering. How does that balance with other risks?

  • Neither Lynas nor Greenpeace has anything of value to bring to the debate, both are ideologues with little scientific understanding of GM.

    As productive as watching monkeys fling excrement at one another.

    Stick to the scientific press – Nature and Science regularly have thoughtful op-eds on GMO’s and less specialist rags, such as New Scientist, often have decent pieces aimed at the interested lay audience.

    As for the author’s concerns about industrial and medical uses of GM – that horse bolted around 30 years ago. It’s routine in basic research and many medical advances are based on its use.

  • Richard Church 17th Feb '13 - 10:37am

    The vast majority of the plants and animals on our farms today are not the products of natural selection. They are the product of thousands of years of selective breeding by humans. The things we eat have already been massively altered from their natural ancestors and would be unlikely to survive naturally for more than a few generations in the wild.

    Selective breeding can have inhumane consequences. Animals can suffer appalling pain and discomfort due to breeding for specific charactersitics to boost production and profits, but I don’t hear anyone arguing for an ethical ban on all selective breeding.

    Genetic engineering is another tool to boost production which could have dreadful consequences if used irresponsibly, but we cannot deny it as a tool to help tackle the massive environmental challenges we face. Ethically, it is little different from selective breeding.

  • Geoff is wrong when he talks about “a genetic makeup that could not possibly occur through natural selection”. Genes regularly jump species. Viruses work by introducing foreign genes to organisms. In fact, anti-gm groups oddly argue that this adds to the risks of artificial genetic modification. But, one could equally argue that it means that genetic modification isn’t an unnatural process at all.

  • Richard Dean 18th Feb '13 - 1:08pm

    But isn’t Geoff s right in the sense that natural selection means that new forms of life die out naturally if they are not fit for the environment in which they find themselves? Would the genetic makeup of modern “natural” crops really survive outside an environment containing farmers providing fertilizers and other chemicals for plant food and disease resistance?

  • Geoffrey Payne 18th Feb '13 - 1:19pm

    I think Ian is wrong in that the kind of genetic modifications taking place are from species so different from each other that they could not realistically take place in the natural environment.

  • Thanks for all the comments.

    A further question: Why does it matter (and does it matter) – if it is true – that GM will lead to organisms that couldn’t arise naturally? Is natural evolution intrinsically morally superior?

    And if it is true that such organisms are likely to be weak, isn’t that a good thing? Strong organisms could be a threat to biodiversity.

  • Richard Dean 18th Feb '13 - 5:31pm

    Also, since we ourselves are a natural product of evolution, aren’t our inventions also natural products of evolution?

  • Liberal Eye 18th Feb '13 - 6:28pm

    For me many opponents of GM miss a key point when they rely on scare tactics to frighten people with tales of Frankenfoods. For all the supposed justifications of feeding the hungry etc, the real driver is, of course, profit. Monsanto does NOT to any significant extent develop seeds for Africa but rather for US farmers who are very much tied into the cash economy in a way many African ones are not. Hence it is very litigious; the aim was never really to feed the world but to make farmers captive consumers of agrichemicals.

    That said, there is increasing evidence that making crop plants poisonous to bugs also makes them poisonous to people and animals. (Of course, there are many poisonous plants already but we don’t eat them).

    At the very least we should treat new GM varieties like new drugs and put them through proper testing to understand the side effects.

  • @Liberal Eye
    Your point also applies to many supporters of GM. They pick up the worthy underfunded R&D into crops such as “golden rice” but totally ignore how the agrichemical businesses such as Monsanto have and are using GM purely to drive profits.

    This is why I raise the question over the commercial exploitation. GM may have many beneficial uses but if they don’t translate into profits then agrichem (and pharma) business’es won’t be spending money on the necessary R&D.

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