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8-Misc: A geneticistÔs view of the dangers of GM

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TITLE:  A geneticistÔs view of the dangers of GM
SOURCE: Ethical Consumer Magazine, UK, June/July 2000 edition
        edited and sent by Agnet, Canada
DATE:   August 8, 2000

-------------------- archive: --------------------

A geneticistÕs view of the dangers of GM 

GM food issues are likely to be in and out of the news, but what 
other genetic experiments should we be worrying about? Sarah Irving 
talks to Dr Michael Antoniou, genetics researcher at GuyÕs Hospital 
in London and commentator on genetic engineering issues.

As a scientist studying genetics daily, Michael Antoniou is very well 
equipped to comment on the dangers of genetic experimentation: "I 
took the initiative to raise my concerns publicly on GM food because 
I thought that what was being claimed was simply not representative 
of the truth...if you move genes around in the very imprecise way 
that gene technology does, youÕre simply going to disrupt normal gene 
function and youÕre going to bring about unpredictable outcomes that 
are far greater than the intended changes. I felt that what was being 
put out by the government and industry scientists about the 
technology was simply inaccurate."

Taking such a stance has not necessarily been easy: "IÕve had quite a 
lot of sympathy from my colleagues. But I know from the pro-GM side, 
especially from the research institutes, they think IÕve broken 
rank...What really offends me is that if you read the scientific 
journals theyÕll openly acknowledge the imprecision in the technology 
and the difficulty they have producing the desired outcome. Yet when 
theyÕre trying to sell it to the government or the public, this is 
the most precise and predictable thing thatÕs ever come around."

Dr Antoniou attributes part of the failure to acknowledge the 
problems of GM to the commercial interests behind much of the 
research: "GM and agriculture have become so commercially driven that 
the applications of the technology have become severed from their 
basic science roots - itÕs moving forward at a tremendous pace to 
produce all these crops for commercial use, but at the same time it 
doesnÕt heed the warnings of our deepening understanding of biology, 
ecology and genetics." He also questions the arguments used to 
justify GM crops: "Golden Eye rice has been engineered by a Swiss 
researcher to have genes from daffodils to make the rice have vitamin 
A in it, because there are all these people in the world who eat 
mainly rice so theyÕre deficient in vitamin A and they suffer from 
blindness; sounds great - we engineer the rice to have vitamin A in 
it, so now at least they wonÕt suffer from blindness.

The question not being asked is WHY are these people having to live 
only on rice? Firstly, there are natural varieties of rice what are 
rich in vitamin A, but theyÕve been displaced by the so-called high-
yielding, Ôgreen revolutionÕ rices. In addition, because of the high 
chemical inputs in rice production, they canÕt grow anything but rice 
in paddy fields, whereas before they used to have quite a diverse 
agriculture...What is the cause here? ItÕs using genetics to try and 
cover up world problems that we need to face up to now. ItÕs the 
demands that the North puts on the developing world that is depriving 
some of these local cultures. Because we want cash crops, theyÕre 
producing things for us and not for themselves."

The great danger that Dr Antoniou sees for future GM is the 
manipulation of human genes. Highly emotive issues such as hereditary 
illness make the debates on this subject difficult and complex, but 
Antoniou draws the line at any GM which would affect future 
generations. He sees public regulation as vital in restricting 
abuses: "...given the very consumerist society we live in, the 
temptation to select and do genetic manipulation to enhance certain 
characteristics is, I think, there, especially if this kind of 
technology gets into the private sector and is offered on a 
commercial basis. If you start thinking that genes = life and start 
selecting for this gene or discarding that gene and imposing your 
desires on your child and future generations, youÕre reducing life to 
a commodity product. ItÕs like going to the supermarket and picking 
one brand or another of breakfast cereal."

Antoniou also expresses his fears of the potential eugenic uses of 
human GM, allowing traits perceived as ÔundesirableÕ to be totally 
eliminated from society: "What we need to make sure is that things 
remain very, very tightly controlled and regulated, because very soon 
weÕre going to have a total human genome map which means that you 
will be able to screen for any gene you like.

People have tried to do it in the past - the eugenics programmes in 
Nazi Germany or the US or in other parts of the world earlier this 
century were aimed at that sort of thing - the elimination of 
undesirables, selecting for what you thought were the prettiest or 
smartest people. And this issue is going to affect everyone; I think 
what we learnt through GM food can be applied equally here: we need 
to make our voices heard if weÕre concerned."


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