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GENETICALLY MODIFIED FOODS: TECHNOLOGICAL BREAKTHROUGH OR ECOLOGICAL NIGHMARE?
Fairbrother, A. GENETICALLY MODIFIED FOODS: TECHNOLOGICAL BREAKTHROUGH OR ECOLOGICAL NIGHMARE? Presented at SETAC Asia-Pacific meeting, Christchurch, New Zealand, September 28-October 1, 2003.
Fifty years ago, Wastson and Crick described the structure of DNA, setting the stage for the past decade's biotechnology revolution. Scientists have now broken the code of the entire human genome, and delineated the function of multiple genes; similar strides are being taken with several other species. Another important facet of the genetic revolution is the development of methods for inserting genes from one organism into the DNA of another. Using this technology, food crops have been modified to be resistant to specific herbicides for more efficient weed control, induced to produce insecticidal toxins, enhanced with vitamins not normally produced by plants, and altered to resist viral diseases or temperature extremes. Livestock have been manipulated to grow faster, produce more milk, or have leaner meat. Both plants and animals can now produce pharmaceuticals, making production, distribution, and consumption highly efficient. But such breakthroughs are not without risk, and detractors of the technology warn about "frankenfoods" and "pharmageddon." Concerns have been raised about allergenic reactions in people consuming plants with novel proteins or risks to people unknowingly exposed to drugs. Ecological risks stem from possible gene flow from modified crops to non-crop species thereby altering fitness traits and ecological competitiveness, or risks to wildlife consuming drug-producing plants. Already, over 140 million acres are planted with GM crops, and biopharming with both plants and animals has begun on a small scale. Because of perceived risks and lack of data to support a rigorous risk analysis, many countries have invoked the Precautionary Principle and restricted trade of these products, leading to international tensions. This presentation will examine the controversy surrounding GM foods, and discuss the role of risk assessment in directing the future of this emerging technology.