EMBO's Statement on Genetically Modified Organisms and the Public
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) were first created about 30 years
ago. Nevertheless, they were for a long time of little interest to the
general public. This disinterest seemed to reflect the ease with which GMOs
began to solve problems in medicine and agriculture. For example, renewable
supplies of human insulin produced by genetically modified bacteria quietly
replaced the failing supply of beef insulin used to treat growing numbers
of human diabetics. This application of GMOs was attended by no fanfares,
despite the fact that it averted an ugly crisis.
Public disinterest changed into fear when it was revealed that
medical blood products had been contaminated by HIV and Hepatitis Virus B,
causing many deaths. More recently, the attempt to contain the BSE (Mad cow
disease) scare created a genuine state of concern, particularly in the UK.
GMOs were not involved in these accidents. Nevertheless in the public eye,
GMOs, viruses, bacteria and DNA are all somehow infective agents, and
therefore dangerous. Such perceptions of GMOs are among the more specific
reasons that Europeans fear food derived from GMOs, and oppose the release
of GMOs in the field. More generally, there appears to be a profound
resistance to global agro-business. Likewise, the generation of a state of
"heightened consciousness" about GMOs is a prerequisite for the survival of
the eco-corporations, such as Greenpeace. Finally, it is important for
scientists to recall the horrible ways that ideas borrowed from Genetics
were contorted and misused earlier this century. More sensitivity to public
concerns is needed in light of history.
In summary, it is important that scientists understand that the public's
fears of GMOs are due to sound scepticism about a more general issue: the
potential for negligence in monitoring food safety and health hazards.
Unfortunately, that scepticism is strongly coloured by ideological
preconceptions and insufficient understanding. There is not much that
scientists as scientists can or should do about the ideological components,
but there are things that can be done to increase understanding.
Is eating "foreign" DNA or protein a health hazard? If so, we have been
living dangerously throughout our entire evolution. Everything we eat
contains foreign DNA and protein. Can we say then that any and all GMOs are
safe? Certainly not! After all we do know about toxins and other poisonous
proteins (many conventional plants contain these naturally). That is why GM
crops and foodstuffs are rigorously tested to determine whether or not they
are "substantially equivalent" to conventional ones (i.e. when analysed in
a laboratory, in all important respects their characteristics are the same
- within normal variation). We can not provide a blanket license for GMOs,
but neither would it make any sense to condemn the technology out of hand.
As scientists we need to insist that every GMO product be treated with the
same concern as any equivalent traditional product. We need to insist
equally strongly that reason and fact temper attacks against science and
research that arise in the GMO debate. Under no circumstances can terrorism
replace rational discussion.
The risk that someGMOs might have detrimental environmental consequences
(many are aimed at reducing environmental damage) must be studied, and
balanced against the certainty that more conventional methods will continue
to seriously damage the environment. Furthermore, perceptions of the risks
inherent in GMOs ought to be tempered by an understanding that we are awash
in a sea of natural mutant variants; populations of all organisms are made
up of mutant variants, and genetic exchange between different species of
organisms is a natural, if low frequency, event. The genetic engineering
that humans perform is comparatively insignificant.
Nevertheless, we need to avoid the very unlikely events that could have
undesirable consequences. That is why many safety tests are carried out on
traditional crops as well as on GM crops. Without correct field tests of
GMOs, the tangible ecological benefits that they offer are at risk. For
example, genetically modified plants can be used to make biodegradable
plastics, rather than using petroleum. Likewise, crops that require less
intensive chemical support, or less water are clearly necessary for a
sustainable agriculture. Also, modified crops that produce cheap, edible
vaccines, or high levels of a vitamin A precursor to prevent a common form
of blindness that afflicts millions in the third world, will soon be a
Some of this research is viewed as "unnatural". Again this is a matter of
perception. Equally "unnatural" have been the millennia of breeding to
exploit the natural, mutant variation of organisms to "create" plants and
animals with more desirable properties eg increased yield or size, pest
resistance and fast growth rates.
The human race (now 6 billion strong and growing) has entered an era in
which conventional approaches to biological problems are reaching their
limits. Agriculture needs solutions to problems such as chemical
dependence, drought, high salinity and pests; solutions that conventional
methods are not likely to provide. Similarly, demands for high quality
affordable medical care for an ageing population, are unlikely to be met by
conventional methods alone. There may be risks associated with some GMOs,
just as there were risks associated with the introduction of other
technologies that later proved safe and invaluable. Consider electricity.
But those risks should be weighed against the potential benefits. Without
doubt many GMOs offer genuine opportunities to solve crucial problems faced
by the entire human race.
For all of these reasons, and in particular in view of the enormous
problems confronting mankind, molecular biologists need to continue both
carrying out research and communicating with the public about the benefits
and risks, as well as the rigour of current testing of GMOs. EMBO
recommends that the current polarising debate be replaced by reasoned
discussions. We must establish a platform that supports all who share an
interest in improving standards of living while balancing the potential of
science, the needs of society and the requirements of long term, safe
solutions to global problems.