It all began with determining the structure of DNA in the 1960s. Since then our knowledge of DNA and understanding of genetics has provided scientists with a powerful tool to address world needs in a way that was never possible before. While advances in the pharmaceutical biotech industry receive worthy attention it is the area of food or agricultural biotechnology which has enraged and impassioned and been debated like no other scientific advance before. "Why" we asked Dr Val Giddings, Vice President for Food and Agriculture of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) in Washington, D.C.
Quite simply it is about food, says Giddings. "Food is personal, it is a vital part of personal and national identity and if you are fortunate enough, it touches our lives three times a day and if anyone is seen to be messing with your food, it will lead to scaremongery and hysteria. The only thing people are less rational about than food is sex."
Giddings argues that humans have genetically modified foods for thousands of years, that maize in its present day format is much altered from its distant forebear. It was also through human intervention and experimentation which shaped three different grass strains into today's conventional form of wheat - but it took ten thousand years of genetic modification! Through agricultural biotechnology, scientists are able to achieve this in a much shorter space of time, but the fundamental difference and herein lies the advantage he says is that it is no longer a perilous and lengthy game of trial and error, scientists know precisely which changes are being made in the DNA of the plant, where, why and what the desired product will be.
"Agricultural biotechnology has a huge amount to offer in terms of human health and industry. We have barely scratched the surface and the potentials are much greater."
Americans have been eating GM for the past ten years. There the principle GM crops being produced are soybean, maize and cotton with several in the developmental stages. Between 60 and 70 percent of processed foods on US supermarket shelves contain GM ingredients. As GM crops enter world markets there has been a strong outcry and much resistance but nowhere as much as Europe.
Going against the grain
European activists have launched the largest and most concerted attack against GM crops. Activists argue that there has been insufficient testing to support scientists' claims that GM crops are safe. Yet, tests crops in place in parts of the UK are often undermined and destroyed by the very same activists.
Why Europe is skeptical
Europeans are highly skeptical of new developments after ineffective government handling of health fiascoes such as mad cow and foot and mouth disease. Europe Giddings believes is also in a difficult situation as far as crop farming is concerned, as they need to reduce subsidies in the crop-farming sector. There may also be he says a bit of resentment against perceived US cultural hegemony, which flavors the European approach. Giddings does not however believe that the public opinion poll, which is anti GM, is a measure of human behaviour, when given the choice. He sites an example of tomato paste which was brought to European shelves a few years ago and carrying a bold label stating that the product contained genetically modified ingredients. The product flew off shelves in the UK - it was hard to keep the product in stock. The reason was simple -consumers shop for quality and good value and this product clearly had both.
Furthermore, "Green groups" in Europe are far more powerful than anywhere else as they are well funded by several interest groups. Activists, says Giddings are part of the global protest industry driven more by a need for financial gain than education and they are not accountable to anyone. He believes that they are at the heart of the negative publicity and misinformation and that the global protest industry find it far easier to raise money by playing to people's fears than educating them. Keeping activists groups alive is significant sponsorship from various interest groups who have much to lose from a global acceptance of GM crops. Information gleaned from income tax returns of various organizations sponsoring activist groups can make for some interesting reading!
Scare tactics or truth?
In a recent article which appeared in a South African newspaper, it was claimed that antibiotic- resistant marker genes in GM crops could lower people's resistance to and ability to fight pathogens and that this would be of considerable danger to HIV/AIDS infected people whose immune systems are already compromised. Giddings response to this was "absolute complete and utter nonsense". "Anybody with a background in microbiology would see this as ludicrous". He said that apart from the initial step which uses antibiotics, the crop improved through biotechnology never sees and does not expose humans to the antibiotics. Furthermore there is in fact no known mechanism by which a human can absorb plant DNA from food. If this were the case, "then we would all be green and photosynthetic!" And in any case, states Giddings, the antibiotics used in the initial laboratory experiments are not generally important in treating human disease.
According to Giddings we have only just scratched the surface of the potential in agricultural biotechnology. He described some of the important research directions. Scientists are working at adding value to crops by inserting genes which will express a particular trait under controlled conditions. There are a variety of resistance management projects underway which seeks to prolong the life of the GM product. One way in which to prolong the possibility of resistance being developed, for example in a crop which is engineered to be pest resistant is to only have the plant expressing its insecticidal properties when under attack.
Plants naturally mount resistance to attack from pests. When pests are in high concentration, volatile compounds are expressed and this information is communicated to other plants which then begin releasing substances to resist the pests. So what scientists are aiming to do is to understand these mechanisms and design the GM gene to only express its insecticidal properties when pests are in high concentrations, a clever way to forestall resistance developing.
GM crops could become mini-pharmaceutical factories says Giddings, and their production capacity is high. The cost of planting and harvesting a pharmaceutical crop is much lower than building factories. This according to Giddings will have direct benefit for the poorest of the poor.
"But perhaps the most exciting challenge is that through biotechnology we can develop an understanding of the genetic architecture of photosynthesis. If we could increase the efficiency of photosynthesis by one percent, we could significantly increase available biomass fuel and lower human dependence on the scarce resource of fossil fuel. If this were possible it would change the world's political landscape and the very poorest of the poor would benefit."
Giddings comments that there is an enormous need in the public sector for governmental support of biotechnology research. In Africa this can be of particular benefit. He sites cassava production as an example, an important staple food in West Africa. Cassava mosaic virus lays waste to many cassava crops, but a cassava crop improved through biotechnology can improve production by as much as 70%. Giddings believes that biotechnology will deliver its benefits to the poor.
Unfortunately in Africa, where many regions face famine, their acceptance of the environmental and human safety of GM crops may come much sooner than the changes in trade laws and limitations which could effectively bar them from accepting GM.
Article by Dr Janice Limson, Science in Africa.