Could the health benefits of GM foods outweigh their risks?
Today, genetic modification seems to be the answer to everything. Yesterday the Times revealed plans for breeding genetically modified pigs in order to produce organs accepted by the human body to reduce waiting times for transplants. In the current global hunger crisis, GM foods could prove useful in producing more yield for less acreage and thus feeding more of the population. However, there is more to GM food than its quantity and colour; within the past two weeks the media have drawn attention to a purple tomato created to fight cancer and a soya bean that could help prevent heart attacks. So if GM foods provide solutions not only to malnutrition but health issues, why has Europe taken a stance against them?
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Absence of reports of human illness or environmental hazards implies safety
Furthermore, though no evidence of such effects in humans currently exists, research carried out on animals is partly responsible for our suspicion of GM foods. Dr Pusztai found that rats fed on GM potatoes developed a lowered immune system and various damage to vital organs, including a shrunken brain (4). If a GM product was approved for sale which bore similar risks, the human race could be quickly diminished, rendering any efforts to improve quality of health a complete loss.
(3) (4) http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/background_briefings/food_safety/278240.stm
Revolutionary techniques aimed at battling fatal illnesses should not be abandoned
If all goes to plan and GM food is proven to be safe, much strain could be removed from the NHS. People might prefer to eat fruit containing vaccines rather than to undergo injections and may build up their immune systems and reduce their reliance on the health services. As a result this could impact hugely in society in general; if numbers requiring healthcare were small enough, the government could dedicate more of its budget to other worthwhile causes.
(5) The Independent, Monday 27 October 2008
Several specific concerns have been raised with regard to the potential health risks. In addition to its unpredictable nature, the genetic modification of food may give rise to a whole host of new allergies, many of which would not be known at the time the food was put on sale. Scientists also suggest the use of antibiotic-resistant ‘marker’ genes in GM crops will make humans resistant to antibiotics and less able to fight disease (6). Clearly the health benefits are not all they are made out to be.
Arguments against GM food are purely environmental; health is a more significant concern
Despite society’s modern commitment to the interests of the environment, it seems difficult to argue that its safety should be prioritised over health. The majority of us wouldn’t notice the harmful effect of herbicide, but we would certainly be aware of the estimated strength of our immune systems if we were to consume certain GM foods, once approved, which would develop our health.
While saving health is undoubtedly of more value than saving the environment, concerns are not on such a small scale. The threat of antibiotic resistance is a serious one and should not be ignored, particularly as we may not be able to control GM crops once they have been released into the environment. In Europe it was found that sugar beet which had been genetically modified to resist a certain herbicide had inadvertently acquired the genes to resist another (7). Surely this would defeat the object of GM foods made for the specific purpose of improving health if the crops themselves managed to escape human control.
GM can make crops easier to grow by making them resistant to insects and herbicides.
We don’t need to eat GM food to be healthy
If people put a bit more time into considering the value of the food they eat, and did regular exercise, we wouldn’t always be on the lookout for some artificial means to restore us to health. It seems that scientists today welcome any excuse for experimenting with revolutionary technology. Arguably, there is only a perceived need for GM foods, not an actual one.
In today’s society, many people simply don’t have the time to cook a proper meal, let alone think about what it consists of. Perhaps if GM foods were available in supermarkets people could reap the health benefits without devoting considerable amounts of time to the subject.
It is a huge waste of money to spend on something which carries a lot of risks
However, while these large farms benefit from higher profits, the Monsanto corporation, responsible for the overall engineering of GM products, is described as a ‘multi-billion dollar world-wide outfit” (9). The testing process of GM foods is not only controversial but hugely expensive. Vast amounts of money are spent on extensive, complex testing of the foods which is essential if they are to be put on sale for human consumption. But is it really worth the hassle and resources? It seems absurd to invest millions of pounds in preparing food which supposedly will provide health benefits if detriments to health appear inevitable in the long run.
However, this is not the case. Many in Britain instantly criticise GM foods on the basis of supposed risks which have not yet been discovered in human testing. Once the foods have been approved and have passed the criteria of several different phases of experiments, they will surely be safe for human consumption. Given the success of GM foods in other countries during the past decade, it is likely any risks which do occur will be much smaller in proportion to a stronger immune system.
If we allow GM foods, where will science stop?
However, this is the least of our problems. Like any new development, it is unlikely that the developers of technology will be willing to stop there. Traditionally doctors prevented illness through medicines, and now food is suggested as a more direct route. But how much more direct can developments get? It has already been announced by scientists that it will be possible to create GM humans by 2020. Prof Collins suggested in 2001 that only a decade later, most disease genes would be recognised. While this could prove advantageous as drugs could be tailored to the individual’s genetic make-up to provide against side-effects, it could also encourage people to exploit such knowledge to enhance their own genetic health (10). If GM foods are going to be implemented, strict boundaries must be imposed with evidence of which food is suitable and which is not.
Big business has demonstrated predisposition to valuing profit over community interests.
This is reinforced by the nature of many of the GM modifications, including terminator seeds (infertile seed requiring a re-purchase of seed stock each season), various forms of pest and herbicide resistance potentially leading to pests (and weeds) resistant to the current crop of chemical defences. One of the more disturbing manifestations of this is the licensing of genes that are naturally occurring and suing those who dare to grow them, even if they are there because of cross contamination by wind-blown seeds or some other mechanism.
One has only to look at the history of corporations under North American and similar corporations law to see the effect of this pressure to perform on behalf of the shareholder. The pollution of water supplies, the continued sale of tobacco, dioxins, asbestos, and the list goes on. Most of those anti-social examples are done with the full knowledge of the corporation involved, e.g. tobacco sales. Incidentally, one effective (though difficult) way to reduce pressure on your national health service or public health system is to stop people, selling, buying and using tobacco.
An article by Michael Pollan  illustrates this quite starkly:
"By ''opening and using this product,'' the card stated, I was now ''licensed'' to grow these potatoes, but only for a single generation; the crop I would water and tend and harvest was mine, yet also not mine. That is, the potatoes I will harvest come August are mine to eat or sell, but their genes remain the intellectual property of Monsanto, protected under numerous United States patents, including Nos. 5,196,525, 5,164,316, 5,322,938 and 5,352,605. Were I to save even one of them to plant next year - something I've routinely done with potatoes in the past - I would be breaking Federal law."
 Dr Janis Sarra quoted in Bakan, J. The Corporation: The pathological pursuit of profit and power.
 Michael Pollan (1998-10-25). "Playing God in the Garden", The New York Times Magazine, [online] available at http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9D03EFD8143DF936A15753C1A96E958260&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=all
What do you think?