research. SEAN MCDONAGH SSC asks if the scientific community should continue the genetic manipulation plants and animals in the food chain.
WnIH THE advent of biotechnology the human commuity stands on the threshold of an extraordinary revolution which will have profound implications for ourselves and our relationship with other creatures. Already a few introductory waves have hit the shore. Three years ago there was no genetically engineered (GE) food in our shops. Today 60 per cent of processed foods on the supermarket shelf may contain genetically engineered soya beans.
This is only the beginning. If giant agribusiness and pharmaceutical corporations have their way, consumers will be hit with a tidal wave of GE foods and beverages within a few years. At this moment agribusiness corporations are planning to genetically engineer almost all the staple foods of the world. Their justification is that genetic engineering will help in the fight against hunger and malnutrition. Many who work in the Third World me sceptical about claims that any "magic" tech nology will end the curse of hunger for over one billion people worldwide. Land reform and more equitable economic and social policies would accomplish much more.
It is important to state that the demand for genetically engineered food is not coming from the consumer or farmers, but from the corporate world. Corporations like Monsanto are poised to make huge profits if genetically engineered foods are accepted by the consumer. It is projected that the industry could be worth $400 billion a year within a few years. (John Vidal and Mark Milner, "Big firms rush for profits and power despite warnings," The Guardian December 15, 1997.)
More upsetting from the point of view of the consumer is that, presently, GE foods are been foisted on unsuspecting consumers. This is because food ingredients like genetically engineered soya beans are not segregated from naturally grown ones at source. Without segregation labelling is either inadequate or may even be misleading.
George Monbiot, who writes for The Guardian, is alarmed at the rapidity with which "a tiny handful of companies is coming to govern the development, production, processing and marketing of our most fundamental commodity: food. The power and strategic control they are amassing will make the oil industry look like a corner shop." (September 17, 1997).
Many ordinary citizens, scientists and ethicists are worried about this rush to genetically engineer our basic foods. David Bellamy, a botanist and wellknown television personality, admits that "genetically modified products worry him". (Roisin Ingle, "Bellamy happy to be called a bog-man," The Irish Times April 4, 1998)
Dr Richards Steinbrecher, a geneticist, has repeatedly warned against introducing GE products into the food chain until the risks to human health and the environment have been assessed more thoroughly. Dr Steinbrecher represents a minority view within the scientific community, but the minor
ity view of Dr Tim Holt was much more realistic about the finks between ESE and CJD than the views of his more establishment-linked colleagues (James Meikie, "BSE Warning that was ignored," The Guardian April 1, 1998) Ethicists also question whether humans have a right to interfere with the genetic integrity of other creatures by designing mice that produce cancer or salmon that grow so large that they suffocate. Have we finally accepted Descartes' view that other creatures are merely res extensa, animal machines whose genes we can reshuffle as we see fit if there is a crock of gold at the end of this rainbow?
The precautionary principle, often quoted in environmental debates, cautions against the deliberate release of GE organisms until the above questions are settled. With other technologies we can tolerate a wider margin for error. One can rectify a mechanical problem by redesigning the machine. Mistakes in genetic engineering will be difficult to correct as the organisms propagate in the environment.
We also need to look at how GE products impact on human societies, especially poor and vulnerable ones. Will they destroy the lives of Third World people? The livelihood of 70,000 farmers in Madagascar depends on vanilla The price of naturally produced vanilla is $1,200 per pound. Genetically engineered vanilla can be produced at a fraction of the cost. But should it be done even if it produces a legacy of pain and famine? Unless we are totally seduced by our own selfish desire to prosper at others' expense, the demands of human solidarity challenge us to address this problem before proceeding with this radically new technology.
Many non-governmental organisations (NG0s) have called for a moratorium on the deliberate release of GE organisms until these issues have been thoroughly debated in the community. The government
should facilitate the debate by ensuring that it is not weighted in favour of "narrowly" scientific and commercial interests. Thankfully Prince Charles' recent article in The Daily Telegraph has helped to kick start the debate in Britain.
However there is a need for a more extensive consultation to find out whether the public really wants to see genetically engineered crops dominate contemporary agriculture.
The Danish Board of Science has designed such a consultative process. It looks at the economic, political, social, legal and ethical repercussions of GE in addition to the scientific and technological ones. Norway followed this path before deciding whether or not to opt for GM food. Its panel decided that "There is no need for genetically modified food in Norway today, because the selection, availability and quality of ordinary food is satisfactory" It is crucial that a similar debate takes place in Britain before genetically engineered foods are so widespread that it becomes meaningless.