Ireland says Hello to the Frankenstein-Potato
Genetic modification risks dangerous unintended consequences
By Frank Armstrong
“Ireland could have its very own Cane-Toad-moment if Teagasc has its way.
“The simple equation contained in Leaving Certificate Biology textbooks: Genotype + Environment = Phenotype no longer applies”
In 1935 Scientists from Queenland’s Bureau of Sugar Experimental Stations released into the wild what became known as the Cane Toad, a species native to South America. They were attempting to introduce a predator for the native Cane Beetle which was reducing sugar cane yields. The toad has since multiplied, evolving long legs to travel significant distances. Its population now stands at 200 million with a habitat stretching from Darwin to New South Wales. This amphibian proved ineffective in controlling the beetle but has caused untold ecological damage.
Some years ago avocado-picking near Bundaberg in Queensland I encountered these foul-looking creatures that secrete a poison harmful to most species including humans. These are tough buggers as an Aussie would say. I remember a local jumping on one and pressing it with his boot into the ground only for the toad to hop casually away.
Ireland could have its very own Cane-Toad-moment if Teagasc has its way. The Environmental Protection Agency will make a determination in May as to whether trials on genetically modified, blight-resistant potatoes are conducted in Ireland.
The Irish population, along with fellow Europeans, exhibit a deep suspicion of genetically modified foods. A 2010 poll conducted by the European Commission revealed that only 21% of Irish people believe that GM food is ‘safe for them or their family’, and a mere 17% disagree with the assessment that GM food is ‘fundamentally unnatural’.
Yet a state agency is undemocratically pursuing a policy completely at odds with the assessment of most of the population.
In 1998 when Monsanto conducted trials on genetically-modified sugar beet in Wexford, activists ripped the plants out of the ground and there may be a risk of similar opposition to Teagasc’s trial.
The problem with genetic modification is its unpredictability. Doubt has been cast over the whole field of genetics by the limited insights gained from the human genome project. As Rupert Sheldrake put it: “The optimism that life would be understood if molecular biologists knew the ‘programs’ of an organism gave way to the realisation that there is a huge gap between gene sequences and actual human beings”.
Moreover, the field of Epigenetics indicates that heritable changes in gene expression are caused by mechanisms apart from changes to DNA sequence. The genetic fundamentalism espoused by Richard Dawkin in The Selfish Gene has been superseded.
It seems that the characteristics of offspring are dictated by DNA codes and traits acquired by parents and even grandparents over the course of their lifetimes. This iconoclastic research was initiated by Dr Lars Olov Bygren, a Swedish preventive health specialist, and is now entering the mainstream. The simple equation contained in Leaving Certificate Biology textbooks: Genotype + Environment = Phenotype no longer applies. The serious implications of the emergence of the field of Epigenetics for genetically-modified organisms has not been examined.
The scientific establishment is uncomfortable with research that confounds established ideas, and tends to dismiss outsiders who have the temerity to enter scientific debates. Yet intuition can be as powerful as a scientific hypothesis. The laws of physics, let alone biology, are not fully understood and never will be.
Opponents of GM are routinely dismissed as Luddites who ignore the utility of genetically modified foods such as Golden Rice. In April, Professor Matthew Harmey of UCD in a letter to the Irish Times argued that genetic modification is a natural process because gene transfer occurs in microscopic organisms.
Humans have been breeding plants and animals for thousands of years. This is based on observable patterns rather that are isolated and gradually enhanced. Most of the results have been beneficial to humanity although certain plants and animals (such as wheat) have been over-bred to a point where they are highly productive but potentially harmful.
Genetic modification by humans is fundamentally different: it involves the immediate formation of a new organism that we cannot understand. The slow process of breeding is bypassed in favour of a quick fix. The outcome is unknown and the logical extension of Professor Harmey’s position is that there is no limit to this ‘natural’ process, so long as there are potential benefits to humanity. We might justifiably start tweaking our own genetic codes.
Scientists cannot predict what will emerge when species are merged unnaturally. The Frankenstein-potato might turn out to be poisonous as a monstrous pea-bean developed by Australian scientists proved. The point is that the genetic code provides only a limited preview of what an organism will become.
The effect of introducing genetically modified crops may be irreversible if genetic contamination occurs. Even if blight-resistant potatoes prove ‘safe’, we won’t know what hybrids will emerge. Just as the Cane Toad developed long legs and was not content to feed on the Cane Beetle the Frankenstein-potato might evolve in unexpected ways. Insofar as possible, genies and genes should be kept within bottles. Besides, there are already blight-resistant strains of potato under cultivation.
Perhaps scientists in Teagasc want to condition us into a permanent acceptance of GM. GM blight-resistant potatoes could act like a gateway drug seducing us into further encounters. If Ireland gets hooked on GM there is a risk to the international reputation of our agriculture.
The development of GM plants is motivated by lucre rather than an altruistic spirit of scientific enquiry. We have ample food in the world. There are currently a billion people obese. Up to half of all food is actually wasted. Golden Rice does not ‘spare’ millions of people in the Third World from blindness as Professor Harmey suggests. Increasing crop diversity and reducing poverty would have the same effect; famines, as Amartya Sen has pointed out, do not occur because of lack of food but from inequalities built into the mechanisms for distributing it.
A far better use of government resources than the proposed Teagasc adventure would be to assist people growing their own vegetables including potatoes, and to encourage bio-diversity such as that found on the few biodynamic farms in Ireland. Alas, the trend in Ireland is towards satisfying the demands of agribusiness and the interest of large food retailers rather than producing healthy food.
The major problem with modern agriculture is a lack of diversity. As Fraser and Rimas in Empires of Food put it: “Nature is most resilient when it is diverse”. Over-cultivation in the nineteenth century created the conditions for widespread blight infestation which caused the Great Irish Famine. Similarly, planting vast fields of potatoes makes the crop vulnerable to blight due to a lack of ecological diversity. The quick fix of genetically-modified blight-resistance could generate unpredicted results in our ecosystem, just as the Cane Toad caused unexpected damage.
Considering our special historical relationship with the spud and clear public hostility the proposed trial of genetically-modified potatoes by Teagasc is unusually insensitive even in this environmentally-profligate land .