Archived news articles - 2001

The Straits Times Forum Page, 27 January 2001
By Yvonne Chew Lai Yeen

GM food debate: room for scepticism

THE Spotlight article, 'Vigilance needed on GM foods, but not overkill' (ST, Jan 23), was useful in putting the issue of genetically-modified foods in perspective.

Most interesting were the observations that opponents of GM foods tend to come from developed countries and that such foods might eliminate hunger and provide cheap vaccines.

Let me add to the plus list. Genetically-modified microbes produce large amounts of cheap insulin for diabetics around the world today, where previously the chemical could only be obtained in small (and expensive) amounts from pigs.

However, science and technology are amoral. They can be used for good or bad ends.Genetic engineering might indeed hold the key to ending starvation and disease, or it might be the dawn of a new age of biological warfare and ecological disasters.

For better or for worse, the genie is out of the bottle and, like nuclear technology before it, genetic engineering needs to be controlled carefully.

The Spotlight article pointed out accurately that public fears are often based on hysteria and ignorance, that all GM foods are screened carefully before public consumption and that foreign genes are digested, like everything else we eat.

The real threat is not the product, but the process of genetic engineering.

It was stated in the article that the risks from pollution and pesticides are greater than those from GM foods. But two wrongs do not make a right, and a lesser risk is still a risk. And I have yet to be convinced that it is a risk worth taking. After all, do we really need to eat super salmon?

Also, pesticides are chemicals and do not reproduce and evolve like organisms do. They are, therefore, less dynamic and more easily controlled.

Perhaps the risks are worth taking if GM foods can end starvation. But there are alternative solutions. It is widely acknowledged that our world produces enough food to feed the earth's human population.

Starvation is not a problem of supply, but one of distribution. Some farmers in developed countries routinely burn crops to keep prices from tumbling, while whole populations elsewhere starve. Perhaps the money put into GM food research can be better spent on distribution and storage technology.

It is also sad but true that in some developing countries, starvation is not due to limited technology but a lack of political will to fight hunger. Limited funds are spent on political and military agenda instead.

My fears may prove to be unfounded eventually.

After all, when vaccines were first developed, people must have been terrified at the thought of introducing microbes (albeit mild strains of them) into their bodies to trigger an immune system to fight stronger strains of the same microbes. Yet vaccines are now proven to be a safe and very effective form of disease prevention.

If GM foods do prove to be the ultimate safe solution to starvation, I will happily eat my words - and GM foods. But till then, there is room for healthy scepticism and a devil's advocate.

Copyright @ 2001 Singapore Press Holdings. All rights reserved.

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