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.