Precaution or caution? Attitudes to genetically modified organisms

I see that I have got an honourable mention – actually, I suppose it’s a dishonourable one – in Frank McDonald’s article in today’s Irish Times. The main drift of the article is his opposition to the decision by the European Commission to authorise the cultivation of genetically modified (GM) potatoes. He outlines various views and opinions around the European Union, and concludes that the Commission’s decision is wrong because ‘we still do not know enough to say for sure that such genetically engineered crops are safe.’ Along the way he cites an article I wrote for the same newspaper arguing that a country seeking to establish its credentials as a centre for innovation could not afford to rule out exploring the potential of GMOs. This is what he says about my arguments:

‘Writing in The Irish Times last month, Dublin City University president Ferdinand von Prondzynski complained that opposition to GMOs “has often been influenced by various campaigns using scaremongering labels such as ‘Frankenstein foods’ ” – before going on, in the next sentence, to indulge in scaremongering himself. “Indeed,” he wrote, “if we are to take the Government’s commitment to having Ireland as a GM-free zone seriously, one of the first steps we have to take would be to advise all diabetics to leave the country as we would have to ban insulin” – a patently ludicrous claim, given the way insulin is manufactured from GM bacteria in secure laboratories.’

I accept of course there is a difference between planting GM seeds in a field and manufacturing GM-derived products in a laboratory, but both come under the commitment to maintain Ireland as a GMO-free zone, so I would argue that there was nothing ludicrous about what I wrote.

But my argument in any case had a wider purpose. Saying we don’t know for sure whether something is safe is a silly argument against exploring it. Almost every product or process ever invented had aspects that could be unsafe if improperly handled. If Frank McDonald’s test is to be the bar we have set, it is a very high one, and GMOs would not be nearly the first thing to be removed. We might start with those we know to be unsafe but which are authorised, such as alcohol and cigarettes. We should consider banning cars, knives, petrol and goodness knows what long before we start bothering with GMOs.

If we are to be a centre of innovation we cannot go about it quite like that. I am not of course arguing that we should not take precautions to protect us from risks we can identify or reasonably suspect, but we should not allow ourselves to be driven by gut fears that we cannot really pin down. There may be GM foods that are unsafe, but there are organic ones also which, if misused, can be lethal. For example, eating a raw potato, whether GM or not, will inflict severe damage on you. What we need to do is to explore, and explore energetically, whether and how we can harness the potential of GMOs to address food failure and hunger across the world. I suspect that at least some of the angst about GMOs is a peculiarly western, middle class pre-occupation. We can afford our attitudes, and we may not be aware how they could damage others less wealthy than we are; not even particularly because we are depriving them of the potential of such innovation, but because we may push the less conscientious development of such innovation their way if we refuse to host a better regulated model.

Time to think again.

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7 Comments on “Precaution or caution? Attitudes to genetically modified organisms”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    For some reason GM foods attracts some really barmy opposition. For a sane, informed discussion of the science see:

  2. Well said!

    Anti-multinational sentiment has been a big factor in the scaremongering about GM food. Of course, the US firm Monsanto shouldn’t have the potential of a monopoly on global seed production but in Europe, the anti-science environmentalists have politicians on the run and public research institutes are subject to threats of violence to prevent them from engaging in research.

    In fact, these people are more dangerous than the anti-science climate change deniers.

    Despite the scaremongering and the violence to prevent scientific experimentation – for example in June 2008, 35 masked intruders destroyed genetically modified wheat being tested by researchers near Zurich and threatened staff with harm – there is no evidence that GM foods have had any negative impact on human health.

  3. Curate's Egg Says:

    @Michael Hennigan there is no evidence of harm on human health because no medium-term testing on humans is carried out! There is, however, evidence of harmful impacts on the health of animals (notably rats) of certain GM crops. The issue is not just – or even primarily – about health though.

    The main and most convincing arguments concern cross-contamination, mono-cultures and the IP rights surrounding GM crops (also related to the cross-contamination issue). This is what has convinced regions and countries to declare themselves GM free.

    Every contentious issue will attract loons but to describe all who give credence to the arguments against GM crops as loons undermines your credibility.

    • Curate’s Egg: ‘Evidence of harmful impact’. Can you give chapter and verse on that?

      • Curate's Egg Says:

        Surely, given your public pronouncements on the issue, you will be aware of the research on Monstanto’s NK603 maize? I presume you are but in any case, the CRIIGEN research was updated after EFSA decided not to heed it: – this is just one prominent example.

        However, as I note, my concerns with GM crops are not really regarding the impacts on human health. “The main and most convincing arguments concern cross-contamination, mono-cultures and the IP rights surrounding GM crops (also related to the cross-contamination issue). This is what has convinced regions and countries to declare themselves GM free.”

  4. Vincent Says:

    I’m sorry but the GMO is a product of the 1950/60 when there was an absolute belief in the correctness of all Science. A time when exploding fission material in mid Asia mid Pacific and mid Australia was the done thing. A time when kids in National Orphanages were subject to drug experiments. And a time when drugs like thalidomide was given years after it had been defined as insanely dangerous. It was also the time when cutting the cartilage in the pelvis of women giving birth was seen as being normal.
    So forgive me if I’m a bit sceptical of the people involved.
    Now I’m not one who demands that we wait the length of time that the Ginkgo Biloba is sitting on the earth before we allow free rein to GMO. But 40 years is not enough. And as to how exactly the GMO Corporations carry out their trade, that is in another province all-together. One where members of the legal profession far out number those from Science.

  5. In reply to Curate’s Egg. OK, that’s what I assumed you were referring to. I am certainly no apologist for or defender of Monsanto; in fact one thing I would say is that the more hysterical anti-GMO campaigns have tended to strengthen Monsanto’s monopolistic tendencies, not least because they scare off competitors. But even then, the scientific evidence is not as straightforward as the article you link to would suggest. Here’s the New Scientist:

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