Genetically Modified Foods: Some Issues

Sharron Cole
Issue 1, August 2000

In its simplest terms, genetically modified food is food from plants which have had their genes altered in a laboratory. These modifications might confer resistance to insect, viral or fungal pests. They might foster herbicide resistance, meaning that weeds can easily be killed by spraying standing crops with the herbicide to which they (and not the weeds) are resistant. Finally, they can improve taste, colour, shelf life and the overall quality of a product.

A good example is the New Leaf Superior potato which has been genetically engineered by Monsanto to produce its own insecticide. The introduced gene is from the soil bacterium that produces the organic insecticide known as Bt. The Bt gene is in every cell in every part of the plant. When any pest takes so much as a nibble of a New Leaf potato, it will die immediately from the effects of the bacterial toxin manufactured in the cells of the potato plant. Instead of the insecticide Bt having been sprayed on the potato crop to protect it from pests, the crop in itself becomes an insecticide. [1]

Possible Advantages

All agriculture is destructive of the natural environment but genetic modifications to crops may potentially help rather than damage the environment. In developing disease and pest-resistant crops, the use of pesticides and herbicides could be reduced. It is thought that this in turn will enhance biodiversity and increase the opportunity for wildlife.

Transgenic crops may make agricultural production more efficient and less susceptible to the forces of nature. There has been a growing realization that the increased yields in rice and wheat production in the green revolution in the 70's and 80's have come at a high cost as the intensive farming has required huge amounts of agrochemicals, resulting in environmental damage, soil erosion and pesticide resistance. Transgenic crops may lead to increased yields which may help to feed the world's hungry. Monsanto for example has been working with scientists from Kenya to develop virus-protected sweet potatoes - a staple food source in their country.

Alterations to the genetic make-up of plants are now possible, and this may radically change the environmental conditions under which particular foods may be grown. This means that plants that have been grown in very restricted conditions may in the future be able to be grown almost anywhere.

Possible Risks

Because genetic engineering can involve crossing the species barrier, there can be a transfer of genes not previously present in a species gene pool in a way that would never happen in nature. We cannot predict the effects of this on food crops and the environment because genes can act in random and unpredictable ways.

The monitoring period has been very short. The techniques involved in genetic modification have not been around for long and therefore there is a need fob caution. There has not yet been enough time to see what long term effects genetically modified food may have on human metabolism. In Europe the mad cow disease epidemic has led to a lack of trust by the public in scientists and regulatory processes. For the government, scientists, and producers of food to tell consumers that foods are safe to eat, is no longer sufficient reassurance.

There is also the concern that we may release genetically-modified organisms into the environment which may have adverse effects. Once released, recall or containment will be very difficult, if not impossible. Insects, birds and wind will inevitably carry genetically altered pollen and seeds into neighbouring fields and beyond.

The claim of the biotech industry that genetically modified food will benefit poor nations is questioned, and the term 'biopiracy' has been coined. This recognises that some of the raw material used by the biotech industry comes from third world countries, and that very little profit returns to those countries.

Those suspicious of the multinational companies and their claim that increased yields will help to alleviate poverty and hunger in the third world. Others point out that world hunger is extensive in spite of sufficient global food resources. Increased food production is not necessarily the solution to the problem of poverty. The reality is that many people are too poor to buy readily available food. Genetically modified food will not change that and indeed, may make the present problem of poverty worse.

Rather than benefiting poor nations, it is claimed that livelihoods could be destroyed, as genetic modification might enable plants to be manipulated to grow in a wider range of environments, meaning that some countries may lose their environmental advantage for some crops. Such a scenario would have a major effect on third world agriculture. Research is already under way to genetically engineer crops crucial to the third world economy, such as coffee, cocoa, sugar and ginseng. An example is vanilla, which currently produced naturally costs about US$1200 per pound. Genetically engineered vanilla could cost about L25 per pound (around US$150). It has been estimated that this would wipe out the livelihood of 100,000 farmers in third world countries. As about 70,000 of these farmers live in Madagascar, the economic impact would be devastating to that single country. [2]

As well as the potential risks to humans, there may also adverse effects on animals. For example, the transgenic salmon was the result of the introduction of growth hormone genes into a wild North Atlantic salmon. This caused the fish to grow rapidly and reach 37 times the weight of normal salmon, but also resulted in significant abnormalities for the salmon.

What's to be done?

There is a need for caution in genetic engineering as the danger of mistakes is great. Programmes of risk assessment and control of all transgenic crops should not be left to the companies who stand to profit from genetic engineering. Governments, acting for the people they represent, have a responsibility here. Risk cannot be eliminated but it needs to be minimised.

In New Zealand, the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996 is the principal statute that controls the importation and development of genetically modified organisms. The purpose of the Act is to protect the environment, and the health and safety of people and communities, by preventing or managing the adverse effects of new organisms. Approval for any importation, development, field testing and release of genetically modified organisms must be obtained from ERMA, the Environmental Risk Management Authority. ERMA is required by the Act to be risk averse. In evaluating and comparing risks, it must be guided by a rigorous scientific assessment of the evidence and take into account public views of those risks having regard to the strength of the views and the certainty of the science.

Secrecy and lack of information generate distrust and suspicion. There is a need to explain what is going on in language that is understandable. This information must come from good science.

People have a right to make informed choices, according their own individual circumstances. Where possible, they should be able to make choices between genetically modified and traditional products. To do this, the food must be meaningfully labeled. In New Zealand, the principal body involved in setting food standar's is ANZFA whose major responsibility is the protection of public health and safety [and trade]. In May 1999, a new standard (A18) for Food Produced using Gene Technology was gazetted. ANZFA is already under fire from groups such as Revolt Against Genetic Engineering (RAGE), which alleges ANZFA is essentially treating genetically engineered foods as if they were natural products with additives. The genetically modified foods do not need to be labelled if they are classified as substantially equivalent to existing foods.

Gene technology brings with it a power of great magnitude for change. Barbara Nicholas writes that we are now capable of doing so much developing the power to change evolutionary paths of other organisms, ignoring physical barriers to breeding, harnessing myriad biological processes for human gain, being in charge of our evolution and having private ownership of biological characteristics and organisms. Such capabilities bring with them tremendous potential for good but also for harm. They also require us to think in terms of not just calculating benefit and risk for us as humans but how we understand our place in the world. [3]

A Christian Perspective

The very fact that we can now go beyond the species barrier brings with it possibilities for both good and harm. Christians believe that we are called to be stewards of creation, for this and for succeeding generations. The relationship between humans and the rest of creation is an important aspect of this belief - we are an integral part of the community of living organisms which depend upon one another and the physical resources of the earth. In other words, we must respect the integrity of creation.

Do human beings have the right to interfere in such an intrusive way by introducing foreign DNA into the genome of another species? Those who are human-centred would say yes. Others see intrinsic value in other species and the need to maintain their integrity. For them the use of genetic modification is dependent upon the human need being compelling, on testing being reasonable, on genetic diversity not being compromised, and on integrity of ecosystems not being endangered.

As Christians, the values we hold and which inform our choices are shaped by the Christian faith. The Gospel calls us to be in profound sympathy with poor and oppressed people. Each of us has a basic dignity, which the reality of poverty obscures. We also have an obligation to share the world's resources so that all people have what they need to live in dignity. The implications of biopiracy with the exploitation of the raw materials of third world countries and the possible devastation of the agricultural livelihood of farmers in those countries must be of concern to us.

As far as genetically modified foods are concerned, the focus has been on science and technology and whether such foods are safe. The concerns, however, go much deeper than that and involve ethics in its broadest sense - morality, control of technology, accountability, vested economic interests and exploitation, communication and community input into decision making. In voicing our views on genetically modified food, we as Christians must look to the well being and fruitfulness of all God's creation we are its stewards, for both current and future generations.



[1] Michael Pollan, Playing God in the Garden on

[2] Sean McDonagh, Engineering Life: Ethics and Genetic Engineering on

[3] Barbara Nicholas, Gene Technology and Ethics: New Wine in Old Wineskins? in Otago Bioethics Report, vol 6, no 3, Nov. 97

Sharron Cole is a Researcher for The Nathaniel Centre