GMOs: Eat not, want not

by Henrylito D. Tacio

BIOTECHNOLOGY has a bright future in the Philippines, said Dr. Filemon Uriarte Jr. when he was still the head of the Department of Science and Technology.

Modern techniques in biotechnology have vastly increased the speed at which nature could be manipulated to serve society’s needs,” he explains. “Biotechnology, in conjunction with other emerging technologies, will undoubtedly be a major source of innovation and growth in coming decades.”

Biotechnology is the use of microorganisms, plants, animals, their parts, or their products to make or improve materials such as food, medicine and chemicals that are useful to man. Yeast, for instance, is a microorganism that was first used to make beer and wine for as early as 6000 BC. Cheese made using bacteria has been produced for hundreds of years. Other products of biotechnology are vinegar, soy sauce, patis, pandesal, and nata de coco.

The modern era of biotechnology, however, had its origin in 1953 when American biochemist James Watson and British biophysicist Francis Crick presented their “double helix” molecular model of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). Both received a Nobel Prize for their collaborative work in 1962.

DNA, the genetic material of all cellular organisms and most viruses, carries the information needed to direct so-called “protein synthesis” and “replication.” Protein synthesis is the production of the proteins needed by the cell or virus for its activities and development. Replication is the process by which DNA copies itself for each descendant cell or virus, passing on the information needed for protein synthesis.

In the 1960s, Swiss microbiologist Werner Arber discovered special enzymes, called restriction enzymes, in bacteria. These enzymes cut the DNA strands of any organism at precise points.

In 1973, geneticist Stanley Cohen and biochemist Herbert Boyer – both Americans – removed a specific gene (a piece of the genetic material that determines the inheritance of a particular characteristics, or group of characteristics) from one bacterium and inserted it into another using restriction enzymes.

This event marked the beginning of recombinant DNA technology, commonly known as genetic engineering. Also known as genetic modification or bioengineering, it is the alteration of an organism’s genetic, or hereditary, material to eliminate undesirable characteristics or to produce desirable new ones.

As early as 1982, the first commercial application of biotechnology was used to develop human insulin for diabetes treatment. In 1990, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved chymosin – the first product of recombinant DNA technique – for food use. By 2000, more than 50 per cent of all cheeses produced around the world make use of chymosin.

In 1994, food manufacturer Calgene obtained the first approval to commercialize a genetically modified food product in the United States when it marketed its Flavr Savr delayed-ripening tomato. As much as 70 per cent of the foods on US grocery store shelves may contain ingredients derived from genetically-modified (GM) corn, soybeans, potatoes and other crops, in everything from cereal to salad dressing to potato chips.

When a gene from one organism is inserted to a recipient plant’s DNA through molecular techniques, the plant that acquires the new gene is now called a genetically modified (GM) plant. As gene insertion is not limited to plants, the collective term becomes genetically modified organisms, or GMOs,” explains the Biotechnology Coalition of the Philippines (BCP).

The selected individual gene being transferred is scientifically called the transgene, which is why a GM plant is also called transgenic. Food grown from the GM plant is called GM food.

But are GM foods safe to eat? The Royal Society (UK National Academy of Sciences) concluded in its 2002 report noted: “There is no reason to doubt the safety of foods made from genetically modified ingredients that are currently available. Nor is there reason to believe that GM makes foods inherently less safe than their conventional counterparts.”

Since 1990, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have been conducting joint expert consultations on GM food safety. The WHO/FAO Reports concluded: “Foods from modern biotechnology are inherently not less safe than those from traditional biotechnology.”

Von Hernandez, regional campaigns director of Greenpeace Southeast Asia, reports that in Europe GM soya can be found in bread, biscuits, baby milk, pasta, pizza, instant meals, meat products, flours, sweets, ice cream, crisps, chocolate, soy sauce, veggie-burgers, tofu, soya milk and pet foods.

In the Philippines, some products available in local supermarkets have GMOs. To allay fears regarding the safety of GM foods, the Bureau of Food and Drugs (BFAD) of the Department of Health released this statement in 2002: “Based on our findings, we have determined that all processed and pre-packaged food products which are currently in the Philippine market have passed the food safety evaluation and met international food safety standards.”

Meanwhile, proponents of biotechnology claim that the system could transform agriculture, giving the world the ability to “design” crop plants to produce increased yields – even in difficult conditions – with far less reliance on chemical inputs. Studies have shown that GM crops can better resist destructive pests and diseases, reducing pesticide and herbicide applications in the field and producing enhanced yields for farmers.

Dr. Saturnina Halos, chairwoman of the Department of Agriculture-Biotechnology Advisory Team, said GMOs are the wave of the future for Philippine agriculture because “it offers the best option against viral diseases in crops.”

Viral diseases are affecting tomatoes in Misamis Occidental and Oriental while infestation continues to destroy abaca and palay. “Only biotechnology offers the best hope against these diseases,” Dr. Halos said.

But agriculture is the not only recipient of good things about biotechnology. Even medicine. Dr. Benigno Peczon, BCP president, said that with biotechnology, cheaper insulin has been produced for diabetics. In fact, Filipinos now have access to human growth hormone – an “impossibility without biotechnology.”

All is not rosy, however. While “there is much euphoria about developments in biotechnology and about the benefits they promise to bring to society, there are also risks and dangers associated with this technology,” warns the United Nations Environment Program. “But there are also risks and dangers associated with this technology.”

I believe that this kind of genetic modification takes mankind into realms that belong to God, and to God alone,” deplored Prince Charles in 1998.

Dr. Peter Wills, a theoretical biologist at Auckland University, agrees: “By transferring genes across species barriers which have existed for eons, we risk breaching natural thresholds against unexpected biological processes.”

In May 1999, the British Medical Association warned: “Adverse effects are irreversible. Once GMOs are released, they cannot be subject to control.” — ###

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