Why must man play God in the food chain?

There was a time when the phrase ‘cloning’ only really existed in science fiction novels and the minds of small boys. However, our ability to progress scientifically blossomed in 1996 in the form of Dolly the cloned sheep; hitting the headlines, she caused quite a stir, highlighting the endless possibilities of such a feat as well as many ethical dilemmas. Dolly was cloned from a single mammary cell (and therefore very aptly named after the singer Dolly Parton) by a process called ‘nuclear transfusion’ in which the nucleus of one cell is injected into the empty shell of another, creating a ‘new cell’ with the ability to divide like a normal developing embryo. Dolly lived for 6 years and produced 6 lambs of her own, remaining the most famous sheep in the world. Whilst cloning of animals can be viewed as a viable tool for preventing the extinction of species, and even possibly for reviving extinct species, it seems that such a procedure is being vastly misused. I awoke this morning to the news that milk from the offspring of cloned cows has made its way into UK supermarkets. As a result the Food Standards Agency, the authority responsible for accepting novel food applications, is currently investigating such claims, as the sale of milk from such cows is currently illegal under UK food regulations. It both amazes and concerns me that we don’t seem to have enough dairy cattle in the first place, and that as consumers, we have no say in such processes, and no ways of identifying such products on our shelves as, apparently, the milk in question is neither labelled nor identified in any way.

There are huge ethical concerns over the long-term health consequences that arise from such procedures as cloning, and consequences that we should really have learn from past errors in playing God in the food chain. Take transfats for example. The hydrogenation process by which trans fats are formed was first discovered around the turn of the 20th century, and so with it was born the first man-made fat to join the food supply. American kitchens were the first to introduce partially hydrogenated vegetable oil in 1911 with a product called Crisco®. The incorporation of transfats in to many food products soon became popular with consumers and food manufacturers because they acted as a preservative, giving foods a longer shelf life but also giving foods a more appealing taste and texture. The devastating effects of these fats are now abundantly clear, with links to cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome, and consequently we are now desperate to deplete these fats completely from our diets. So it seems we have learnt very little from past mistakes.

Cloning is one form of genetic manipulation to suit a dietary ‘need’; another is the genetic modification of plants to produce genetically modified (GM) end products. This process isolates and modifies genes, usually so that they function better, before inserting into a new species. The end result is to develop an organism that expresses a novel trait that is not normally associated with that species. GM foods first hit the market in the early 1990s and were restricted to transgenic plant products such as soybean, corn, canola, and cotton seed oil. The objections that are raised against GM foods include possible safety issues, ecological and economic concerns – all of which are still prominent and, consequently, use of GM in the food chain is still of great concern.

Another such potential use of a GM plant species is to genetically modify plants to produce essential omega-3 fatty acids that are usually only associated with fish and fish oils. The drive behind such a process is an attempt to increase omega-3 in human diets without adding pressure to fish stocks. If successful, the resulting plants are aimed at feed for farm animals, and for incorporation into the food chain through direct inclusion in food products as an indirect way of increasing our omega-3 levels. Consequently, the consumer may be completely unaware of such processes, and that GM products are even being incorporated into every day food products. Whilst GM omega-3 may not be the next trans fat, and that it is hoped that the heath positive benefits outweigh any heath negative attributes, we do not know at this point the long term heath consequences of such actions.

I would like to have the choice to make up my mind and not have to actively seek out foods that are free from GM. Would you?