Who benefits from GM?

10 January 2017

Interview with

Donald Bruce, Edinethics

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As well as the legal restrictions around planting and selling genetically modified crops, there are also ethical and public considerations. Even if it’s legal to grow GM or gene edited food - will the public be prepared to buy it? And who should benefit from this technology? Those are the kind of questions being investigated by Dr Donald Bruce, director of Scottish consultancy firm Edinethics, which focuses on ethical issues in science and technology, speaking here with Kat Arney.

Donald - We set up a working group to look at this issue in the early 1990s. In those days, it was hardly in the media at all. The first example available in the UK was a tomato paste which Zeneca produced, sold by Sainsbury’s and Safeways. They took advice and heard we market this and the message of it all is label it. Give people a choice and tell them why you think it’s important and for them, they saw it as a marketing plus, that this is all the wonderful things they thought will be good. In general, people had a choice. Monsanto in the states were developing genetically modified soy and maize which came over as imports. They didn’t do any labelling. They said it’s been through the Food and Drug Administration and all the processes it has to do in the states. If we label it, that means there's something wrong. In the UK, a label meant more, that it’s something informational. They did not make any system for segregating or labelling. I mean, it’s not just them. I mean obviously, it’s all the milling or other processes that occur. The result was that people suddenly discovered they were eating GM food without knowing it. Maize and soy goes through what counts of the food processing and then in February 1999, there was a concerted campaign by a number of NGOs, development agencies, a couple of the major newspapers got together and said, “We want to freeze a moratorium on GM applications. We don’t know enough about this.” They had a series of things in the press, one day after another, after another over 5 days, a scandal of some sort. At the end of that, everyone said, “Oh Gosh! Is it really that bad?”

Kat - I remember this. This is like “Franken foods” kind of stuff.

Donald - Green Peace got one of their absolutely extraordinary pieces of soundbite of Frankenstein foods. It was a joke, but the stigma stuck. So the result was, people said, “Hang on a moment. What's this stuff for?” Well, the tomato paste was obvious. It was slightly cheaper and it tasted better because they used less squashy tomatoes because they switched a gene off that made tomatoes squashy. So in fact, it was actually more energy efficient to produce it and it costs less. And so, I asked a supermarket manager in Edinburgh sold this stuff. He said, “We had students buy it quite a lot because it’s cheaper.” So there was a tangible benefit. With the stuff Monsanto are producing, there's no tangible benefit at all. I mean, lots of things do to its environment and farmers but it didn’t affect the average consumer and there were these concerns about risk, “Gosh! Is this going to harm my child? If I eat the stuff, do they know enough?”

Kat - “Am I going to get this DNA and all these sort of things?”

Donald - Or something, yeah. And so, the consequence of that was, “If there's no benefit to me, there could be a risk. I can't have any choice here with this matter.” In a sense, it’s pretty obvious you think, “We don’t want this” which is a sort of fairly natural reaction which didn’t happen in the states. In North America, they trusted their regulators a lot more. In the UK, we had only unfortunately, just had the mad cow diseases where the government is saying it’s safe to eat British beef and then the CJD Surveillance Unit in Edinburgh found actually there was a link. And so, “You told us it was okay over British beef and CJD. How do we know it’s okay over GM?” So, regulators have very little trust at that point. So, it was a very different context.

Kat - You say that at the beginning in the US, they were okay with it and now, we’re seeing a bit of a backlash, in particular social media people being very worried about GMs and sort of fighting against them and arguing for compulsory labelling again when there was none. Now we’re moving into a potentially new phase of genetic modification of crops of agriculturally important organisms. How should we think about that from the sort of ethical point of view from the risks?

Donald - Genome editing is making the claims that GMOs were making – people promoting GMOs were making - 20 years ago, this is much more precise than the technologies we’ve had before. Well, GMOs as we’ve had them are more precise than selected breeding where somebody once said, “Cross the best and hope for the best.” So it was more precise than that. But it wasn’t that precise. Here, we have a technology that has a great deal more precision and so, I think the claim is a genuine one. People talk about off target events where you insert your GM or do the modification in more places than you intended to. Is that a significant risk? I think at this stage, people don’t know enough to be really quite sure but the indication is looking pretty good that that’s a very small risk. The question is, is it significant enough?

Kat - But then there's off target risks with GMO, with selective breeding, and with the kind of mutation techniques that people use already.

Donald - Well, the Food Standards Agency in the UK said there was no particular intrinsic reason why GM food should be any more or less safe than conventionally grown or organic food. As such, the technique doesn’t make it more or less unsafe. So, I think it’s the same with the part of genome editing. You should not look at this as being something that’s intrinsically dangerous. But one of the problems is, people tend to regard some of GMO issues as if it was radioactive substances. I used to be in the nuclear industry.

Kat - Scary! Scary! Bad! Bad! Bad!

Donald - Well, more of a sense of something that is insidious and might get to me as it were if I eat it. It’s a really different concept to that. I think that there are a number of perception issues here, but I think for those for whom just tinkering with our genes is an issue, that will not change people’s viewpoints. If what people are worried about is switching genes across species then genome editing may address that question. But we’re still going to have to regulate some of the more advanced forms of this. Particularly for having multiple additions then it will be something like GMOs. But the precision hopefully, gives you a better chance of addressing some of the concerns of risk.

Kat - Finally, is there one thing or even one fact that would help people to think about this in a clearer way and maybe avoid the sort of the “GMO panic” that we’ve seen?

Donald - I don’t think there is any one factor that would do that because the way people constructed their own view of risk is a complex affair and there's no one simple message to give because it depends how you see it and you got to work with that. It’s not something which has a simple answer, but I think one very significant fact is if you made genome edited foods or other products that people saw an actual benefit to then that has something substantial to weigh against whatever risk perception they’ve got.

Kat - So, that’s a benefit for them directly, for people eating this stuff.

Donald - Yes. So it could be towards a health issue. It might be something for a developing country. You might think there's a pest that’s unique to Uganda or somewhere. If you could use something with the local crop that they have, wouldn’t that be valuable? So, it might be a whole range of things that people saw it as a benefit or disease resistance in pigs. If people saw a benefit coming from it then that’s something tangible to weigh against whatever risks they will perceive. I think it’s really up to those promoting the technology to say, “We will only really develop upfront the things that are going to be a benefit” and not just take things that were just useful for seed companies but nobody else.

Kat - Donald Bruce from Edinethics.

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