Response to GM food article

It's as if Village described the PDs as having decontaminated politics in Ireland and made he political system here utterly inclusive: in other words, Rosemary Dolan's description of GM foods in the November issue of Village – 'GM foods are older than we think' - is so far removed from the reality of the GM foods issue that it reads like a fairy story.

Was this another one of those puff pieces conjured up by the GM industry from “worthy” scientist types and inserted, “innocently” or with PR-directed deliberation, into a current affairs publication, even one not noted for its coverage of environmental issues? The article has a tag line which coyly states that Rosemary Dolan is a geneticist but fails to identify what aspect of genetics she is professionally involved with or what that involvment is. 


As presented in Village, all it means is that the author has a post-graduate qualification in science gained sometime in the past seven decades. As it does not state the company or institution in which Rosemary Dolan operates as a geneticist or otherwise, readers are not given the opportunity to identify the author's field of expertise, her work to date, her standing in the scientific world, or to identify whether there are factors regarding the author's professional position or employment that could affect the objectivity of her perspective on GM foods. And believe me, objectivity in scientific perspective appears to be thin on the ground these days.

The degree of disingenuity in Rosemary Dolan's article reaches new heights in the GM disinformation
saga: it requires total disregard for accuracy, validity and specificity to imply, as she does, that GMOs – as the term is used in the 21st century - has any relationship to the breeding that “has been around for a long time” merrily producing Friesan cows and merino sheep. What has been going on for a long time is that favoured traits have been selected, often over many generations, within a breed, strain or variant of domesticated animal or plant usually of the same species. Genetically modified (GM) crops or food, as the term is now used, on the other hand involves recombinant RNA technology whereby genetic material from one species is manipulated into the genetic material of an entirely unrelated species, eg, a bacterium gene into maize, a fish gene into a tomato. Given what we know of the nature of genetic material and the pleiotropic effect of genes, it is not reasonable to conclude that the resultant transgenic organism may not have negative effects down the line, be it for itself, its environment or whatever food chain it enters (including the human one) in this or future generations.  This technology was developed in the 1970s, hardly 'a long time' in evolutionary time or in terms of Friesan cows and merino sheep!

While there has undoubtedly been explosions of knowledge regarding many aspects of biology and the human genome has been successfully mapped, there are still vast gaps in our knowledge and understanding of living things. Quite frankly, despite many claims to the contrary, we are not quite ready to play God yet! Note the words of Craig Venter, credited with cracking the human genome in 2000, who at that time stated: “with this technology, we are literally coming out of the dark ages of biology. As a civilisation, we know far less that one percent of what will be known about biology, human physiology and medicine. My view of biology is 'we don't know shit'. (Source: The Genome Warrior, The New Yorker: Richard Preston)

And Rosemary Dolan thinks she knows it all including the specifics of all 'the safety tests' undergone by the GM foods now on the supermarket shelves (please provide references!), or that 'it is most unlikely that there will be a wild species for a GM crop to hybridise with' (what about the 'GM-contaminated' rape seed plants all over Japan) or how the 'mechanisms of evolution' can withstand the effects of recombinant RNA technology. Spare us the fairytales, please, Rosemary, or at least acknowledge the limitations of what we know. The author of a recent in-depth examination of genetic engineering in a global context (Intervention: Confronting the Real Risks of Genetic Engineering and Life on a Biotech Planet. 2006. Denise Caruso) described her research as she “began sifting through the claims of cheerleaders and the declamations of the activists. I ferreted out the less vocal stakeholders and the scientists whose work and perspectives defied pro and con polarisation. I read hundreds of documents on genetic engineering and transgenic organisms and genomics. I combed through reams of social science literature on risk and probability and science and public policy. After all that, I came to the conclusion that I don't know enough to decide what's risky about the products and processes of genetic engineering”.

Rosemary Dolan could be an innocent 'cheerleader' who has allowed her critical faculties to be damped down while authoring the article in question. In this case the guilt lies with whoever persuaded her, however subtly, to put pen to paper. But she must take responsibilitiy for the inaccurate, disingenuous or otherwise misleading statements in her article. 'Cheerleaders' have been quite a weapon in the the pro-GM armoury to date. Or she may not realise that simplifying complex matters usually ends up with misleading the reader. Or Rosemary Dolan may have no qualms in using her scientific credentials and expertise to confuse the non-specialist reader and the general public regarding the risks of GM food and crops.

Someone else says it all much more succintly than I could: Michael Meacher, former environment minister in UK government, recently wrote “So much has been written about GM – some of it thoughtful and interesting, much of it mischievous or downright deceitful . . . . For too long this war between the pro- and anti-GM factions has been fought in a fog. The anti-group (independent scientists, environmentalists, and millions of small farmers) insisted there has been no systematice testing of GM crops or food, so we cannot be sure whether GM products are safe to eat or not. The pro-group (Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta, and the other agri-business majors, plus the US and UK governments) claimed that GM food was safe because there was no evidence to suggest otherwise, and there was no need to look
for it because GM and non-GM crops were “substantially equivalent”. (Michael Meacher in Foreward of Genetic Roulette: The Documented Healths Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods, 2007, Jeffrey M Smith).

Caruso, the investigator quoted earlier, after her intense broad search into the risks of GM food, states: “Nobody knows: No one person or group knows or understands enough about the complexity of living things or their intimate interactions or what affects them to declare that biotechnology and genetic engineering are riskfree. In fact, the only thing we all share – scientists, citizens, regulators – is the profound uncertainty of this moment in history.” (Intervention: Confronting the Real Risks of Genetic Engineering and Life on a Biotech Planet, Denise Caruso, 2006)

I am more inclined to give credibility to Caruso's conclusions than to those of the fairy tale penned by Rosemary Dolan. Furthermore, if Dolan can state that “transgenics is still in its early stages and at present neither the benefits nor any possible hazards are fully apparent”, how can she stand by her earlier glib statement that “there is no reason to think that there is anything in GM foods that take them more harmful than conventional goods”?

Have genetecists and other scientists learnt nothing from the historic scandals of DES (diethylstilbestrol), asbestos, DDT, PCBs and ,more recently, BSE where evidence of problems was repeatedly dismissed by scientists and regulatory bodies way past the point of irrefutable evidence of harm and furthermore, stifled by the vested interests involved. I suggest a study of Late Lessons from Early Warnings: for the ultimate information about risk and warnings regarding some past problematic techological developments. That same report asks a very interesting question:
“Why were not only early warning but als the 'loud and late' warnings often ignored for so long?...(we note) that the absence of political will to take action to reduce hazards, in the face of conflicting costs and benefits, seems to be an even more important factor in these histories than is the availability of trusted information. However, as Aristotle observed, the way we perceive the world determines in large part how we act, and information plays a critical role in how we see the world. But whose information is received? Is it 'true, fair and independent'? (Late lessons from early warnings: The precautionary principle 1896-2000. European Environment Agency. Read online at

So it would seem prudent to be a lot more sceptical of scientists' claims and scientists' articles than Village has been in presenting this article to us without any contextualisation.

A further point to remember is that if GM food and crops are found to be problematic (if ever a comprehensive appropriate series of tests is applied, do note) then it will not be possible to recall the crops already in the system – they are now out there in the gene pool, perhaps merrily reproducting and cannot be recalled or eradicated: Pandora's Box has been well and truely opened.

So please, you geneticists and other scientists out there, please acknowledge scientific uncertainty as you write articles for our consumption. My own considered position is that all GM crops and foods should be withdrawn and new ones withheld from the market until adequate testing has been done regarding their
impact on the environment and all aspects of the human food chain.

Stella Coffey (Involved in organic farming and consumer of food)

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