Nothing to Fear from Genetically-Modified Tomato Paste but Fear Itself
Among its budget measures, the Federal Government announced that it will establish the grandiloquent Office of Gene Technology Regulator. Amid all the excitement over the GST, the initiative caused little comment, nevertheless, it is not at all a bad idea to establish an open process that has a chance of being trusted. Significant numbers of Europeans whose parents had the courage to shrug off each other's bombs have become terrified of tomato paste. It is paste that North Americans are happily eating. Fear of all genetically modified food is so great that Sainsbury's, Tesco and Marks and Spencer have all undertaken not to stock it.
The campaign against genetic modification, and especially GM food, is conducted by the same activists who campaign against many things and, in the case of Europe, is encouraged by anti-American protectionism. It has the hallmark of a beat up. Nevertheless, if the same, I believe irrational, terror were to infect Australians, then our Government would come under pressure to regulate the use of bio-technology in ways that would cause our industries to lose to overseas competitors and our scientists to take their skills elsewhere. Therefore, before assuming the worst Australians should learn what genetic modification is and put its dangers in context.
Following the discovery by James Watson and Francis Crick of the molecular structure of DNA in about 1960, biotechnologists learned how to introduce genes to plants and animals with much greater precision and from species other than that of the host. This technology became referred to as "Genetic Engineering" and the term "genetically modified" came to refer to living or dead matter that carries genes introduced by "gene splicing".
Nothing in life is perfectly safe. We can, however, say with reasonable confidence that GM food is safer than food that has been modified by only the old method of cross breeding sometimes supplemented by the irradiation of seed to induce mutation. Food that has been genetically modified by only nature is virtually unobtainable but, if it were, it would be no safer than the food we do eat. Because plants must protect themselves against their predators, much of what we eat is poisonous. If ingested in sufficient quantity, they would kill us. We have no cause to worry only because long before we eat too much we lose our appetite for the particular substances.
Because the risks in both cases are so small, comparing the safety of GM foods with non-GM foods is almost meaningless. Half of "almost nothing" remains "almost nothing". Eating either is many times safer than riding in a motor car. Nevertheless, since some folk are worried, it is worth observing that GM food is a little safer than other food for two reasons. First, the likelihood of producing a food with an unwanted, say, carcinogen is less when precise methods are employed. Second, GM products are always rigorously tested for human detriment. That is not always the case with other foods.
It is worthwhile to put fear itself in context. Ever since the Japanese army ceased to be a real threat, I have been threatened with so many disasters that I have become somewhat inured to them. I don't think it is that I have become a selfish old man who no longer cares. Rather, I have been made sceptical by the catastrophes that didn't turn up. Recall that the Monte Belos nuclear tests would change our climate. Remember also the coming Ice Age, nuclear winter, World War Three caused by Muslim fundamentalism, the "silent spring", the impossibility of containing nuclear waste, China syndrome reactor melt-downs, rising sea levels, ozone depletion, poisoning of the oceans, the energy crisis, and most laughably the Club of Rome predictions. And these are only some of the "global" worries that threatened not only me, but all of mankind.
Cry "Wolf" too often and people cease to heed warnings. Take a current one. It may be that man really is significantly diminishing future generations' options by reducing bio-diversity, but how amid the hot air are we to distinguish an emergency from a beat up?
Recent report has it that Biotechnology is riding with the horsemen of the Apocalypse---Death, War, Pestilence and Famine. The apocalyptic horsemen ride fast. I predict that in time Biotechnology will fall behind, no longer feared and forgotten, just as every aspirant to join the dreaded Four, save Bad Government itself, has dropped from the demon's ride.