Editorials

The paradoxes of genetically modified foods

BMJ 1999; 318 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.318.7183.547 (Published 27 February 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;318:547

A climate of mistrust is obscuring the many different facets of genetic modification

  1. Bernard Dixon, Science writer.
  1. 130 Cornwall Road, Ruislip Manor, Middlesex HA4 6AW

    Clinical Review p 581 Reviews p 611

    Celebrity chefs, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, and the Prince of Wales are among the voices that have raised the temperature of public debate in the United Kingdom over what newspapers call “Frankenstein foods.” Their expressions of concern, and in some cases calls for moratoriums, contrast with the verdict of a House of Lords committee that the potential benefits of genetically manipulated foods far outweigh any risks that may be involved.1 The furore seems inexplicable to observers in those parts of the world, including the United States, where genetical1y modified crops are being grown on a large scale and have been widely accepted.

    At the heart of the British debate is a gulf between plant breeders, seed companies, and agrochemical companies —who want to use recombinant DNA technology to facilitate the production of, for example, crops that are resistant to insects, viruses, and drought and improve food quality and nutritional value (p 581)2 —and campaigners who argue that any gene, newly introduced into one plant, may have hazardous consequences if transferred and expressed elsewhere in space and time. Scientists want to exploit the technology —which they also claim to be necessary to help feed the world's burgeoning population.3 Opponents, mistrustful of existing regulatory mechanisms, believe that transgenic techniques are unacceptable because they can ferry genes across “natural” boundaries.

    The decision …

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