Within the context of food and crop production, Genetic Modification is generally used to make an organism more useful to us, such as to create plants with increased nutritional value or to change an organism in such a way that it provides us with a service – such as producing foreign proteins. A primary reason for its initial application to agriculture was to increase the output and hardiness of crops.
Traditionally this was done by selectively breeding plants to create an organism bearing preferable traits. In actuality, these would exhibit both preferable and unwanted traits, so many generations of selective breeding need to occur to wean out the unfavourable traits. The chief difference with this and genetically modifying crops is that you’re breeding the plants that have the traits that you’re selecting for, without introducing foreign genes. This generally takes generations to bear fruit (excuse the pun). This technique is effective when the genetic traits that are to be cultivated already exist within the organism.
When you wish to introduce foreign traits to an organism – genetic modification steps into place. It can involve inserting a gene from one organism into another, but can also be when the organism’s genes are changed.
Genetic Modification is generally achieved using recombinant DNA technology – the blanket term for the technologies of artificially breaking, re-joining and amplifying DNA. Key components of which are the enzymes that cut the DNA strand – namely restriction enzymes; and the enzymes that rejoin it – known as ligases.
There have been many advances in recombinant DNA technologies of late, and as such it is key that these advances are communicated effectively to the public. Sometimes new advances can cause tension between the scientific community and the public. A local example of this would be the purple tomatoes produced by the John Innes Centre in Norwich. These tomatoes are rich in anthocyanins – an antioxidant seen in vegetables such a beetroot. These purple tomatoes are therefore superior to their traditional counterparts in their cancer-fighting capabilities and when they were added to the diet of cancer-prone mice they were shown to significantly increase their lifespan.
I recall personally, when I was conducting my research project at the Institute Of Food Research, a fellow member of the BBSRC – Rothamsted Research – came under fire from activists for a genetically enhanced wheat they were producing – designed to repel aphid infestation.
It is situations like these that require informed conversation between all parties, free from hyperbole and slander. In this example, the scientists at Rothamsted included genes in the wheat plant that produced a pheromone normally produced by aphids when they are fearful – thus deterring other aphids from approaching. This pheromone also serves to attract the enemies of aphids such as ladybirds. The intention behind this was to limit and prevent the use of pesticides.
The concerns from the activists were rooted in the safety of these new crops, with potential cross-contamination into natural wheat crops being a chief concern. As well as this, there were concerns that these crops would be patented and sold at a high price. Most GM crops are the property of companies such as Monsanto, however in this case Rothamsted is publically funded and had no aims to patent and privatise their crop. It is not unreasonable to fear technologies that we don’t understand. There are often misconceptions and doubts regarding the containment of such crops to prevent them cross-fertilising with other strains. Slight tangent – but you only need to think about all the films where the antagonistic scientist with dubious morals and a love of money has inadvertently unleashed disaster on the world, to see how scientists are often portrayed. With private corporations, like the aforementioned Monsanto, they own their crops – their products – and as such can charge what they want for them. It is this very valid fear that I believe is one of the chief concerns behind those against GM crops.
From a purely scientific level, there are numerous benefits to some of the work taking place in genetically modified crops. Crops that can grow in arid and otherwise adverse conditions obviously would benefit some LEDC’s, whilst other crops that perhaps have a longer shelf life wouldn’t go amiss in your local supermarket. With the Government trying to encourage us to eat our five-a-day, crops that boast increased nutrional levels or that last longer in our homes would make perfect sense.
In such a situation as this, both parties need to be acutely aware of the concerns of the other and education needs to flow both ways. Both sides of the story need to be aired and open debate ought to be encouraged. I don’t dispute that there won’t always be a mutually agreeable conclusion – but such open debate is conducive to alleviating fears and concerns.
It is the duty, I believe, of scientists and their representatives to divulge and encourage others to understand what their work entails and why they’re doing it. In most cases, these scientists have been working for most of their adult lives in their current field – obviously there’s a large knowledge gap between these men and women and the average member of the public. Such gaps need to be addressed in order to avoid misunderstandings and conflict.
All we essentially need to do is have a nice, friendly chat. With some tea.