Intended for healthcare professionals


The paradoxes of genetically modified foods

BMJ 1999; 318 doi: (Published 19 June 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;318:1694

Protection of the public health should underpin all decisions

  1. Emma Plugge, Senior registrar in public health medicine (emma.plugge{at}
  1. Buckinghamshire Health Authority, Verney House, Aylesbury HP19 3ET

    EDITOR—In his editorial on genetically modified foods Dixon eschews certain important issues.1

    Firstly, he does not point out that, although scientists claim this technology will help to feed the world's burgeoning population, food production is not the problem. There are enough natural resources for us all to be fed: inequity of food distribution results in the starvation of millions in poorer nations.

    Secondly, he dismisses the campaigners who draw parallels between bovine spongiform encephalopathy and genetically modified foods. The connection between the two in the public's mind has little to do with genetic manipulation and everything to do with a lack of faith in policy makers. Not so long ago the government reassured the public that beef was safe. We now know that there was a risk of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, albeit very small. The public is right to be cynical and mistrustful.

    We must ask why we need these foods when there are no obvious benefits to the population from their immediate introduction. The driving force behind genetically modified foods is neither need nor demand but certain multinational corporations. Thus, it is important to ensure that a desire to protect the public health—not the profits of multinational organisations—underpins all decisions on the introduction of genetically modified foods.



    1. 1.

    Summary of electronic responses

    We received 12 rapid responses to Dixon's editorial1 on our website.2 Only one defended genetic modification of food. “For thousands of years farmers have used crossbreeding to genetically engineer crops, mixing genetic material on a large scale. But now, when genetic mixing is performed on a tiny scale, it suddenly becomes unacceptable” (S Root).

    In general, there was a sense of fear. “It is the question of crossing species' boundaries and that, as yet, we have no answer regarding the possible long term effects” (S Shropshire). Resistance to herbicides and pests might have unwarranted effects on the ecosystem and possibly also directly on health. “It cannot be assumed that crop resistance to pests is merely due to ‘good genes.’ These genes may well be responsible for chemicals produced by the plant that in themselves are responsible for the resistance” (J R Murray).

    The subtitle to Dixon's editorial says that a climate of mistrust is obscuring the many different facets of genetic modification, and according to N Raithatha this is right: there seems to be scientific evidence that the public trust neither politicians nor scientists working for the government.

    The higher motive for producing genetically modified food was also questioned. “Biotechnology companies … want to use this technology primarily to make money” (A Dowd).


    1. 1.
    2. 2.
    View Abstract

    Log in

    Log in through your institution


    * For online subscription