"A geneticist's view of the dangers of GM"

from the Edmonds Institute via Louis De Bruyn in Belgium
Ethical Consumer Magazine
United Kingdom
June/July 2000

GM food issues are likely to be in and out of the news, but what other genetic experiments should we be worrying about? Sarah Irving talks to Dr Michael Antoniou, genetics researcher at Guy's Hospital in London and commentator on genetic engineering issues.

As a scientist studying genetics daily, Michael Antoniou is very well equipped to comment on the dangers of genetic experimentation: "I took the initiative to raise my concerns publicly on GM food because I thought that what was being claimed was simply not representative of the truth...if you move genes around in the very imprecise way that gene technology does, you're simply going to disrupt normal gene function and you're going to bring about unpredictable outcomes that are far greater than the intended changes. I felt that what was being put out by the government and industry scientists about the technology was simply inaccurate."

Taking such a stance has not necessarily been easy: "I've had quite a lot of sympathy from my colleagues. But I know from the pro-GM side, especially from the research institutes, they think I've broken rank...What really offends me is that if you read the scientific journals they'll openly acknowledge the imprecision in the technology and the difficulty they have producing the desired outcome. Yet when they're trying to sell it to the government or the public, this is the most precise and predictable thing that's ever come around."

Dr Antoniou attributes part of the failure to acknowledge the problems of GM to the commercial interests behind much of the research: "GM and agriculture have become so commercially driven that the applications of the technology have become severed from their basic science roots - it's moving forward at a tremendous pace to produce all these crops for commercial use, but at the same time it doesn't heed the warnings of our deepening understanding of biology, ecology and genetics." He also questions the arguments used to justify GM crops: "Golden Eye rice has been engineered by a Swiss researcher to have genes from daffodils to make the rice have vitamin A in it, because there are all these people in the world who eat mainly rice so they're deficient in vitamin A and they suffer from blindness; sounds great - we engineer the rice to have vitamin A in it, so now at least they won't suffer from blindness.

The question not being asked is WHY are these people having to live only on rice? Firstly, there are natural varieties of rice what are rich in vitamin A, but they've been displaced by the so-called high- yielding, 'green revolution' rices. In addition, because of the high chemical inputs in rice production, they can't grow anything but rice in paddy fields, whereas before they used to have quite a diverse agriculture...What is the cause here? It's using genetics to try and cover up world problems that we need to face up to now. It's the demands that the North puts on the developing world that is depriving some of these local cultures. Because we want cash crops, they're producing things for us and not for themselves."

The great danger that Dr Antoniou sees for future GM is the manipulation of human genes. Highly emotive issues such as hereditary illness make the debates on this subject difficult and complex, but Antoniou draws the line at any GM which would affect future generations. He sees public regulation as vital in restricting abuses: "...given the very consumerist society we live in, the temptation to select and do genetic manipulation to enhance certain characteristics is, I think, there, especially if this kind of technology gets into the private sector and is offered on a commercial basis. If you start thinking that genes = life and start selecting for this gene or discarding that gene and imposing your desires on your child and future generations, you're reducing life to a commodity product. It's like going to the supermarket and picking one brand or another of breakfast cereal."

Antoniou also expresses his fears of the potential eugenic uses of human GM, allowing traits perceived as 'undesirable' to be totally eliminated from society: "What we need to make sure is that things remain very, very tightly controlled and regulated, because very soon we're going to have a total human genome map which means that you will be able to screen for any gene you like.

People have tried to do it in the past - the eugenics programmes in Nazi Germany or the US or in other parts of the world earlier this century were aimed at that sort of thing - the elimination of undesirables, selecting for what you thought were the prettiest or smartest people. And this issue is going to affect everyone; I think what we learnt through GM food can be applied equally here: we need to make our voices heard if we're concerned."

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