Getting to the grist about GM (part 5)

My fellow blogger applpy at Thought + Food draws attention to a series of articles about genetic modification. That’s GM, also called genetic engineering or GE. It’s a kind of biotechnology.

These articles (see my ‘biotechnology’ tag) are by Nathanael Johnson at Grist. His fifth in this series is Genetically engineered food: Allergic to regulations?

In this article, Mr Johnson explains how new GM crops are tested for food safety. He points out weaknesses in that safety-testing regime, but he doesn’t mention the overall story of allergy. I think that’s an important hole in his article.

As you know, I get frustrated when people talk about GM purely in terms of food safety. But it’s important to ask the food-safety questions. Especially if you suffer food allergies, or your child does, it’s a serious matter. So serious that the World Allergy Organization exists ‘to be a global resource in the field of allergy.’

Here’s an article about how people develop allergies. The point that Mr Johnson should mention, in my opinion, is that allergy is more common in rich countries than poor countries. That might be due to our unnaturally clean lifestyles here in the rich world, as suggested by the hygiene hypothesis. In that context, the idea of testing GM foods for possible allergens looks important, but the idea of giving kids’ immune systems chance to develop properly looks important too.

I think it’s important, also, to go beyond the three kinds of safety testing Mr Johnson explains in his article. He tells us about in vitro tests (test tubes and petri dishes), in silico tests (searching gene sequences and protein sequences on a computer) and digestion tests (making fake stomachs and guts in a lab). But he says nothing about in vivo tests. When the topic is GM, in vivo testing is when you feed GM food to lab animals and watch for whether the animals get ill. Animal testing can be very useful, as Understanding Animal Research tells us. There’s been some interesting in vivo science about GM foods. I’m gestating blog posts about that.

But none of these safety tests can tell us everything. Mr Johnson points out, ‘As always with GM food, there’s this problem of unknown unknowns.’ Let’s be blunt. As always with any new technology, we get some unknown unknowns.


About argylesock

I wrote a PhD about veterinary parasitology so that's the starting point for this blog. But I'm now branching out into other areas of biology and into popular science writing. I'll write here about science that happens in landscapes, particularly farmland, and about science involving interspecific interactions. Datasets and statistics get my attention. Exactly where this blog will lead? That's a journey that I'm on and I hope you'll come with me.
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2 Responses to Getting to the grist about GM (part 5)

  1. applpy says:

    as you point out, there are always unknowns with any new technology.In the case of IVF or cell phones, concerns were/continue to be expressed. At the end of the day, we have to decide based on what we know. The issue with GMOs is also a lack of trust of scientific information so people tend to make decisions which are not based on all the information available. Looking forward to reading your posts on in vivo science!

    • argylesock says:

      I’d better write them then, eh? My to-blog list keeps growing but I’ll get around to discussing animal work in relation to GM. I’ve written about some of the other uses for animal work, under my ‘lab animal’ tag. As you know this gets people’s dander up.

      Previously I’ve gone in where angels fear to tread about shooting, including game animals and wild badgers. Now I’m discussing GM. Thank you for finding the Grist articles which are some of the most open-minded I’ve seen. I’ll probably finish reviewing this series before I tackle the lab animals story.

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