Being cautiously scientific
Let me start this discussion with a rhetorical and dramatic poser: If a wonder drug was invented today which promised to make your children strong and resistant to various diseases, with the only condition that your children would be sterile and unable to procreate unless they bought another set of medicines from the same company, would you still give the wonder drug to your children?
A debate on genetically modified food is generally a debate with a lot of heat and less light. It triggers a lot of passion on either side of the divide, with each side holding forth: one as a torchbearer of scientific conquest of hunger and other as a torchbearer of independence from surrender to corporate greed. Given the two extreme positions, it is reasonable to assume that the truth must lie somewhere between. Genetic modification of food is modifying or altering the DNA sequence of food by incorporating a new gene from some other source. Hence, if a gene X responsible for higher protein content in a plant/Organism G is introduced in a different seed, say, wheat, it is assumed that that genetically modified wheat will have higher protein content and thus, be more nutritious.
Is it as simple as that?
It is too simplistic to assume that genes work in such a linear fashion and that there is a one-to-one correspondence between a gene and a trait. One would assume that a gene would work on its own as well as “in consultation with other genes and group of genes” and thus, it can display various traits based on the permutations and combinations possible within the total number of such possible groupings of genes. To give a small example, let us assume that there are four normal “native” genes A,B, C, and D in a seed. Let us also assume that gene A on its own is responsible for protein content on the seed. It is easy to visualise the scenario of groups where A can work: on its own, with B, C, D, BC, BD, CD, and BCD together. Thus, there are a total of 8 scenarios. As the number of genes increase arithmetically, the “inter-gene interactions” increase exponentially. So when there are five genes A, B, C, D, and E, then A can act on a standalone basis or with B, C, D, E, AB, AC, AD, AE, BC, BD, BE, CD, CE, DE, ABC, ABD, ABE, ACD, ACE, ADE, BCD, BCE, BDE, CDE, ABCD, ABCE, ACDE, ABDE, BCDE, and ABCDE. A total of possible 31 scenarios. Hence, with just one increase in the number of genes, the possible scenarios have increased exponentially, just as a mere increase of 1 gene (E) increases the total scenarios from 8 to 31. If the research and scientific rigor is not complete and exhaustive, it may be possible that gene A can behave differently in nth iteration when implanted in a “foreign environ” and without the presence of threshold amount of genes B, C, and D, and thus, produce toxic proteins of the types found in snake venom. If that be the case, referencing a gene only by a single trait without understanding its impact in nth iteration or/and in the presence of other genes would be too dangerous an omission to contemplate.
The above example is important because unless all the genes of all organisms are identified and mapped physically, functionally, and attribute wise, in isolation and in groups, it is not possible to tell for sure what all may possibly be the ramifications of certain transplanted gene on a certain organism. And this mapping is going to take forever! As an illustrative example, Human Genome Project started in 1990 and was declared complete in 2003. Then started the process of Genome Annotation through which biological, structural, and functional information is attached to the genome sequence (obtained through the first process of Gene Sequencing) which enable us to know the physical and functional traits. This process of Genome Annotation is continuing.
The process of creating a GM plant is not easy. One, the foreign gene is implanted in a crop, “promoters” or “activators” are used to switch on this foreign gene. This may, inter alia, accidently switch on other natural plant genes, cause overproduction of allergen, toxin, carcinogen, antinutrient, enzymes that stimulate or inhibit hormone production, RNA that silences the genes, produce regulators that block other genes, and/or switch on a dormant virus that might cause great harm. In addition, evidence suggests the promoter may create genetic instability and mutations and studies on this are very sketchy. It may sound alarming and Doomsday scenario, but the possibilities are there which cannot be discounted scientifically yet.
From the above, we come to the following conclusions:
An arithmetical increase in the number of genes increases the “inter-gene” interactions exponentially.
Arrogating one-to-one correspondence between gene and trait in a linear fashion may not be correct in the absence of conclusive studies. Genome Sequencing and Annotation is a “Work In Progress” project, and as such gives insufficient scientific data to back genetically modified products. The impact of transplanted gene on organisms can only be found when the recipient (host) organism, as well as the, consuming organism have their entire gene sequence mapped, annotated, and health of consuming organism monitored over a long time so that the effect of that gene in the long run can be anticipated.
Unintended consequences of genetic modification cannot be avoided.
The above points are cautionary and hence, insufficient to raise the red flag unless the studies of some scientists proving alarming trends are shared. Being a question of our hunger, no precaution can be enough and one must not err on the side of caution. With this in mind, certain studies and write-ups available on internet have been referenced and an attempt is made to make a comprehensive presentation.
The most damning point regarding genetically modified foods comes not from the food themselves, but the determination of the big companies to prevent its labelling as GM Foods. This begs the original question of intent. If this is all about the choice of consumers, why not give them the information to make an informed choice? It might seem inexplicable and self-contradictory that a health-obsessed world would demand and get an explicit mention of “food contents” displayed on packaged food but not get the “gene content” displayed!
Given the importance of public heath involved, the L-Tryptophan epidemic of 1980s bears repetition here. L-Tryptophan is a natural amino acid constituent of most proteins produced by many companies including Showa Denko in Japan. In an attack of greed, the company saw a way to increase profits from a product designed to induce sleep naturally, and gene-spliced a bacterium into the natural product to do it. Of course, the company had not mentioned that the product was gene-spliced. This led to many deaths, cripples, and the onset of a new incurable disease called Eosinophilia Myalgia Syndrome or EMS. If this is the known toll from a single product, one can just imagine the combined toll of the potential of all foods which companies are hell bent upon keeping unlabelled.
The issue of unlabelling gets compounded by the facts that WTO’s Agreement on Agriculture and TRIPs deny government’s power to act against such unlabelling. Not only this, WTO’s Sanitary and Phytosanitary Agreements term sovereign national laws banning GMO foods as “Unfair trade practices” even when there are reasonable apprehensions of danger to public health. Other WTO rule – called “Technical Barriers to Trade” prohibit GMO labeling so that consumers don’t know what they’re eating and can’t avoid these potentially hazardous foods. The 1996 Bio-Safety Protocol was drafted to tackle the WTO rule prohibiting GMO Labelling. But this was sabotaged by agribusiness lobby which forced subordination of biosafety measures to WTO trade rules that apply regardless of other considerations, including public health and safety. This cleared the way for the unrestricted spread of GMO seeds and foods worldwide. It seems strange that in a country like the USA where the disclosures and declarations regarding food items are carried to ludicrous proportions, FDA should choose to be silent on the genetically modified nature of the food. So FDA enforces declaration regarding food content of beef or pork, but eschews similar disclosures regarding the food containing a gene from a pig or cow!
Thus, consumers are kept in the dark and are part of an uncontrolled, unregulated mass human experiment the results of which are unknown. It seems more deliberate than desultory and designed with an aim to prevent any establishment of linkages of “cause and effect” relationship between the GMO foods and diseases. As the consumption pattern is not known (due to lack of regulation), linkages, if any, would well nigh be impossible. It will take years to learn them, if at all, as labelling is not being done and effects are undocumented and uncontrolled. Once GM seeds are introduced to an area, the genie is out of the bottle for keeps. And Andromeda Strain unleashed.
(This is the first of a two-part piece by SC Mitra, an IRAS officer )