Archived news articles - 2001

The Straits Times, 23 January 2001
By Chang Ai-Lien

Vigilance needed on GM foods, but not overkill

Researchers are fallible, but genetic engineering is a precise science and biotechnology that goes back to 6000 BC.

You are what you eat. But what does that mean in today's brave new world of genetic engineering?

People are already consuming staples like corn and soya bean - and their many by-products - which are inserted with foreign genes from, say, bacteria, to produce crops with a variety of traits, such as being resistant to pests or producing higher yields.

Soon, consumers will see animals with foreign genes taking centre stage on menus. In fact, super salmon, carrying a growth hormone gene which was developed by a researcher here, could well be the first of such items to land on Singapore tables.

Does that mean that consumers will have foreign bacteria doing the backstroke in their cells?

Writers to The Straits Times' Forum page expressed concern recently over the risks of genetic engineering and what is being done to limit its dangers.

These views should not be taken lightly. For while most scientists agree there is no proof that genetically-modified (GM) food poses a health hazard to humans, this is surely no reassurance.

History has examples aplenty of products that were deemed safe, only for these claims to be rescinded when people were harmed by the products. Cigarettes and the pesticide DDT are just two.

The researchers who say GM food is safe do acknowledge that there is some degree of risk involved in eating it. Science still knows too little, at a genetic level, about how such foods are processed in people's bodies.

And there is also the possibility that pollen from GM plants and animals that have been genetically engineered could kill off animals and insects, and wreak havoc on the ecological balance.

Although these risks are very real, they can be remedied. One way would be by making GM animals and plants sterile.

Moreover, in this less-than-perfect world, people face a greater health risk by simply breathing the polluted air and eating conventional produce sprayed with harmful pesticides and fertilisers, scientists told The Straits Times.

Take the recent example of contaminated salmon, which had no link to genetic modification.

Recent reports found that the Scottish farm-reared variety - which is about 95 per cent of all salmon sold - was fed pellets made from ocean-trawled fish which swallowed cancer-causing toxins.

In any case, public fears of Frankenstein foods seem based on hysteria and ignorance rather than scientific fact.

People are not going to start growing antennae, or be eaten from the inside by alien bacteria.

Since genetic engineering is a precise science where genes are inserted one at a time into a plant or animal, the foreign genes actually become part of the GM organism.

So, they will be digested, like everything else we eat.

Biotechnology has been around for centuries - beer is produced through yeast, to take an example from 6000 BC. Genetic engineering is simply compressing years of work into a shorter time.

So, what might have taken hundreds of years of evolution can happen virtually overnight now.

The most strident opponents of GM foods are from developed countries where people can afford alternatives. But when your stomach is grinding against your spine with hunger, any food is godsend.

GM farming is hailed by its supporters as the second Green Revolution and, perhaps, the only way to end the starvation crippling millions around the globe.

This is because it uses less land, pesticides and fertilisers, and can even produce hardy crops from what was previously barren land.

In Asia alone, close to 800 million people go to bed hungry every night, and food-grain production must increase by 50 per cent in the next 25 years to feed people adequately.

Soon, GM technology will also involve adding vaccines to fruits and vegetables, which would be a boon to poorer countries.

Singaporeans are the most ardent foodies, but they have mostly kept silent on the issue of GM food.

Recent studies have shown that fewer than two in 100 people here even know what such food is, let alone the fact that our supermarket shelves are lined with such products.

In Singapore, the Agri-food and Veterinary Authority and Environment Ministry are in charge of food safety, while the Genetic Modification Advisory Committee oversees the use of GM products and has the job of giving guidelines for evaluating these products, including their labelling.

All foods entering Singapore are tested stringently to ensure they are safe to eat.

Singapore's stance on labelling is, wisely, likely to be based on an international consensus - the Codex Alimentarius standard sanctioned by the World Health Organisation and the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Being a tiny country which does not produce its own food, the Republic can hardly make a stand on labelling on its own. It would be impossible to implement.

Keeping GM and non-GM crops segregated would require separating grain elevators, trucks and barges from the countries of origin onwards, to say the least.

There are also the issues of how to regulate the grain to ensure it is not contaminated, when to do testing and so on.

This could add millions of dollars to the price of producing a food item.

Even the primary question of exactly what can be considered GM food - is it, for example, crops with less than 1 per cent of foreign matter, or pork chops from the pig that ate GM food - has yet to be answered.

Whatever the definition, if you do find yourself expanding at an alarming rate, it's not GM foods you should be pointing the finger at for the weight gain.

Copyright @ 2001 Singapore Press Holdings. All rights reserved.

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