When I walk down to the centre of Cambridge I usually pass the Eagle pub. It was there, on 28th February 1953, that Francis Crick and James Watson strolled in and announced to their drinking pals that they had discovered how DNA carried genetic information. There were no big PR events in those days!
Ten years later this discovery resulted in me almost failing my biology A-level. Our biology master was absolutely engrossed by the developments in the understanding of the genetic code and we spent hours and hours on the subject, despite it not being on the syllabus.
So 62 years after that historic pub announcement how has the general public’s understanding of the genetic code and DNA advanced? Well it seems not very far. A recent survey carried out by the Oklahoma State University Department of Agricultural Economics found that over 80 percent of Americans support “mandatory labels on foods containing DNA”, about the same number as support mandatory labelling of GMO foods “produced with genetic engineering”. This has led one of the Oklahoma researchers to offer a script for a label warning:
“WARNING: This product contains deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). The Surgeon General has determined that DNA is linked to a variety of diseases in both animals and humans. In some configurations, it is a risk factor for cancer and heart disease. Pregnant women are at very high risk of passing on DNA to their children”.
I have been trying to think of a foodstuff that does not contain DNA. The only example that comes to mind is sugar, which is just a chemical molecule. A few years ago sugar was analysed to see if any DNA got through the refinement process and none was found in the final product. This made the statements from those against GM sugar beet that such sugar would be bad for your health vacuous nonsense but of course too much sugar from any source is not to be encouraged.
The level of understanding intimated by the survey makes it easy for the scaremongers to cause concern over GM. They have tried and tried to say that there is harm from eating GM food but of course nobody has caught even a sneeze from eating registered GM crops. I say ‘registered’ GM crops because it must be possible by GM to make a plant poisonous but this would typically be an intentional process. No sane company would develop and sell a GM crop that is intentionally or unintentionally harmful and, in any case, it would not get through the registration process which tests the safety of the trait.
So it perhaps comes as no surprise that with such a pristine health and environmental record, the area of GM crops in the world continues to expand. The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) states in its recently published annual report that the area of GM crops grown in the world increased by 6 million hectares in 2014 to a record 181.5 million hectares, grown by 18 million farmers in 28 countries. It marks the 19th consecutive year of increased global GM crop adoption since the first commercial plantings in 1996. Last year, several African countries including Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria and Uganda conducted field trials on GM food crops such as rice, maize, wheat, sorghum, bananas, cassava and sweet potato.
It is noticeable that newspapers, including the Telegraph, Times and Guardian have recently quoted the health record of GM crops and the Times strongly backed Ann Glover’s (whose role of Scientific Adviser to the European Commission was seemingly discontinued at the behest of the anti-GM movement) case for decisions being made on sound science rather than the lobbying power of interest groups.
Also of significance, Stephen Tindale the former Greenpeace UK executive director (and prior to that special adviser to Environment Minister Michael Meacher) suggests that it is time to move on from an ideological debate over GM crops and accept that the technology can deliver benefits needed to feed a growing population in a warming world. This includes making crops drought- and pest-resistant, increasing yields and improving nutrition, such as in Vitamin A enriched Golden Rice.
It is interesting that some anti-GM groups have introduced a new red-herring. They are now saying that GM is an old-fashioned technology and Marker Assisted Selection (MAS) is the way forward. This is again playing on the lack of public understanding on plant breeding methods. MAS has been around for as long as GM and some claim they have traced its methodology back to 1923. In traditional plant breeding it is a way of guiding selection but it will never be as directly targeted as or have the ability to introduce novel traits as GM.
It may be that the recent changes in EU legislation will mean that we will be able to grow GM crops in a few years time. Perhaps now is the time to consider how to integrate GM glyphosate tolerant crops into rotations without increasing the risk of glyphosate resistant weeds.