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'Genetically Modified Food is Safer than Water'

An American scientist on a visit to Sweden.

Dagens Nyheter (Stockholm, Sweden)
C.S. Prakash and Andrew Apel
September 11, 2001

(Translated from Swedish "Genmat sakrare an vatten")

'More than two billion people have eaten genetically modified food in the past five years without becoming ill. Genetically modified food is less dangerous than stairs, bicycles or medicine. It's even safer than water. This is the assertion of the American experts C. S. Prakash, Professor at Tuskegee University, and Andrew Apel, editor for Agbiotech reporter. Prakash will be visiting Stockholm this week for various meetings, including with experts at the Ministry of Agriculture. The two experts are of the opinion that biotechnology allows for the environmentally friendly plants that provide rich and nutritious harvests in the developing world'

As the home of the Nobel Prize, Sweden is justly proud of its heritage and its commitment to scientific progress. For this reason, Sweden's place in the debate over agricultural biotechnology can be influential and inspiring for those who want to understand the value of this science. It can perhaps best be understood in the spirit of what Alfred Bernhard Nobel expressed clearly in his will, saying that the prize he established should go to those who "have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind."

Do genetically enhanced crops confer benefits to mankind? Some consider this question debatable. We know that crops benefit mankind, since they feed us. This has been known for 10,000 years, so for the same period, we have sought to improve the food value of crops-which are merely plants that used to be weeds in the wild. Through every trick mankind has been able to devise, from cross-pollination to mutating chemicals and the random effects of radiation, we have worked with nature to vastly speed evolution in a new direction. While weeds exist only to serve their own purposes, mankind has made them into crops that serve human purposes.

This has been difficult, but even with crude traditional methods there has been much success. The tomato, originally no larger than a grape, is now as large as an apple. Wheat, originally little more than a type of grass, feeds billions.

Conventional breeding uses techniques that are hundreds of years old and rely on the accidental mixing of genes to improve what originally were merely tasty weeds. Scientists now understand that DNA, a molecule containing genes that instruct a plant how to grow, can be read like magnetic tape. With that discovery, scientists have been able to add in new instructions that allow the plants to protect themselves from pests, chemical herbicides or difficult growing conditions. New research will allow these plants to be more nutritious, as success with 'Golden Rice' - fortified with a pro-vitamin A nutrient - has already shown.

Is this science beneficial? Yes, because it can often accomplish what the old, imprecise methods cannot. The classical methods can only mix genes that are already in the plant. Consider the potato, which wise parents boil before feeding to their children. Even though the potato has been bred to be more productive, the potato naturally contains genes that produce a harmful toxin which is mostly destroyed by boiling. There are still toxins in potatoes, and allergens in peanuts and wheat, because they inherited them from ancient weeds. Scientists will soon solve these problems as well, and instruct these plants to behave more like crops than ever before. The scientists will do this not by mixing genes accidentally, but by inserting specific known genes into the plant. This would help us to develop crops that produce more abundant and nutritious food with less impact on the environment. In the developing world, this science used in conjunction with traditional methods provides a major opportunity to foster food security for the burgeoning population.

Some worry about whether plants improved in this way are safe to eat. First of all, genes are already present in the cells of all plants. The genetic code in one plant cell is about two meters long, which means that when you eat one cabbage leaf, you are also eating thousands of kilometers of genes! Yet this is perfectly safe, and no human or animal has ever become ill from eating genes, because they can't.

There is a very large consensus in the scientific community that genetic modification is a safe method to improve our food production. Seven national academies of science have endorsed this approach, and sixteen Nobel laureates along with 3200 scientists have supported this position at www.agbioworld.org .

The important thing about genetic technology, like any technology, is the final product. In genetic modification the final product is the plant, and scientists make sure they know what a gene does before they insert it into a plant that is grown for food. Because of this, more than two billion people have eaten foods made from genetically modified plants over the last five years - and not one person has been shown to become sick. This makes them safer than stairways, bicycles and pharmaceuticals, even safer than water. Changes made in our food using genetic modification, while significant in some ways, are simply more precise than the traditional methods.

Some worry about whether genetically modified plants are safe for the environment. Unfortunately, nothing is safe for the environment. Everything mankind does changes the environment. The question we must answer is whether genetic engineering is safer for the environment than other ways of growing food. Already, genetically enhanced plants have saved the environment from millions of kilograms of pesticides and millions of liters of the petrol burned to power farm tractors. This is because scientists have the same goal as organic farmers-to produce more food, more safely, and more inexpensively than ever before. In the developing world, biotechnology provides a valuable tool to help produce more food and fiber without cutting down valuable forests to make room for more farms, while reducing the use of chemicals.

Finally, some worry if there are "unknown risks" of genetic modification. Many things are unknown, and may never be known, and some of them will be risks. Still, everything we know shows that genetically modified plants are safer for the environment, and produce wholesome, nutritious food. Would Alfred Nobel approve of genetically modified plants? Very likely, as sixteen recipients of his prize do.

C.S. Prakash is a professor at Tuskegee University and President of Agbioworld Foundation, http://www.agbioworld.org. Andrew Apel is the editor of AgBiotech Reporter, http://www.bioreporter.com.