SCIENTIST: We are already probably on the path of no return.
SCIENTIST: A new technique of molecular biology appears to have
allowed us to outdo the standard events of evolution.
NARRATOR (ADEN GILLETT): These voices were recorded 25 years ago
at a conference of the pioneering scientists of genetic engineering.
They had come together to discuss their fears of this new science.
SCIENTIST: There may still be sound reasons why the Pandora's
Box should not be opened.
NARRATOR: These scientists worried that some of the new life forms
they were creating, organisms never seen in nature, could escape
from the laboratory. For fear of alarming the public, they ordered
the audiotapes of the conference to be locked away until the year
2000. This is the first time they have been heard.
SCIENTIST: It is not known what sort of risk this is going to
create because we have no tests.
SCIENTIST: Such experiments must at a minimum be postponed for
an indeterminate period of time.
NARRATOR: But since this conference, many scientists have become
convinced that genetic engineering and the genetic modification
of food is safe. What has happened in the last 25 years to change
their minds? There is a worldwide movement spreading out from Europe
to get rid of genetically modified crops, a movement based on the
fear of two key things: that GM food is dangerous to eat and that
GM crops will damage the environment.
(ACTUALITY PROTEST CHAT)
It is a protest movement that is gathering pace and it has brought
the biotechnology industry to its knees. Even the GM giant Monsanto
has had to bow to public pressure.
ROBERT SHAPIRO (Monsanto): Our confidence in this technology and
our enthusiasm for it has, I think, widely been seen and understandably
so, as condescension or indeed arrogance.
NARRATOR: After years of pointing out the dangers of genetic modification,
the protesters finally have the scent of victory.
JEREMY RIFKIN (Environmental Campaigner): Genetically engineered
foods will be one of the great disasters in the history of introducing
a new technology into the market-place. It may be looked back on
as a case study of a technology that had no purpose, no market and
no reason for being. It probably will fail.
NARRATOR: Are the sceptics right? Are these foods potentially
dangerous or will they feed the world in the 21st-century?
(ACTUALITY PROTEST CHAT)
In Monsanto's research centre there are 1500 PhDs, one of the
biggest concentrations of scientific brain power in the commercial
world. It was here 20 years ago that they did some of the first
experiments to genetically modify plants. This is what it's all
about - genes, DNA, the blueprint of life. Inside every cell of
every living thing there is DNA which is made up of thousands of
Genes produce proteins that have specific functions and it's these
proteins that give every plant and animal its unique characteristics.
Scientists can manipulate the genetic code of life to produce plants
with new characteristics never seen in nature. They can isolate
any one gene from any organism like an animal or bacterium and insert
it into a completely unrelated species like a plant.
That gene then becomes part of the genetic instructions that make
these tiny plants grow. It will give them the same unique characteristic
as the original species. The possibilities are almost endless. Scientists
can insert a gene from a bacterium into a grape to make it resistant
to viruses, or they can engineer maize that resists drought, or
potatoes that resist pests, so farmers can use less pesticides on
their crops. But these are all plants unknown in nature. They have
a foreign gene inside them. People are sharply divided on whether
this can be safe.
SIR ROBERT MAY (Chief Scientific Advisor to UK Government): There
isn't anything significant to worry about because after all an area
twice the size of Great Britain is, and much of it has been for
some years, under cultivation with GM foods that have found their
way into the food chain elsewhere in the world when there hasn't
been a single incident demonstrating anything to worry about.
JEREMY RIFKIN: It's a radically different approach to breeding.
Some of it's going to be safe, I have no doubt, but there is not
a scientist doing this work that can tell us that all of it will
DR. ROBB FRALEY (Monsanto): Our knowledge and the precision at
which we can work with biotech is actually far greater than what
we've experienced traditionally in the thousands of years we've
been breeding plants.
NARRATOR: For thousands of years we've been tampering with the
genes of plants by traditional breeding. Traditional plant breeders
use cross-pollination to introduce new characteristics from one
plant to another giving them the genes to grow bigger or taste better
than nature intended. Even common plants like the tomato, which
for hundreds of years was considered inedible, has been bred to
make it palatable, but there's a key difference here. With traditional
plant breeding genes cross within the same species, but GM allows
plant breeders to break the species barrier and for critics this
is fundamentally unnatural.
JEREMY RIFKIN: For 10,000 years since the advent of the Neolithic
revolution in agriculture we have been breeding within families,
but not beyond families. Here we have powerful tools, especially
recombinant DNA, that allows scientists to move from the species
and organism level to the genetic code level and treat the genes
as independent pieces of information that can be stripped out of
any organism in the world and inserted into the code of any other.
Example, the gene that emits light in a firefly. Scientists take
that gene, they strip it out of the genetic code of the firefly,
they insert it into the genetic code of a tobacco seed. The mature
tobacco plant lights up 24 hours a day.
NARRATOR: Tobacco can be engineered to glow when it needs watering.
By inserting a gene from a foreign species GM is able to add to
crops qualities that no amount of traditional breeding ever could.
For instance, scientists could isolate the gene that prevents a
flounder from freezing in Arctic waters and engineer it into a strawberry
so that the strawberry is not destroyed in heavy frost.
(ACTUALITY PROTEST CHAT)
It is precisely because these genes cross the species barrier
that protestors believe they could be dangerous.
(ACTUALITY PROTEST CHAT)
They believe it is impossible to know once we have tampered with
nature what will happen.
PROTESTOR: When we change the fundamental recipe for life on this
planet we have no idea what's going to happen and what we do is
permanent and it's forever and we can't ever reverse that.
NARRATOR: The fear is that the proteins produced by these foreign
genes might be dangerous, either because the protein itself is poisonous
or because it might alter the chemistry at the plant so that the
plant becomes toxic.
JEREMY RIFKIN: When we introduce genes into these food crops from
unrelated species these are genes that code for proteins many of
which we have never put in to our bodies. We don't know what the
reaction will be.
ROBB FRALEY: The point is these products are the most thoroughly
studied, most thoroughly reviewed agricultural products ever developed
by man and I believe that that, in addition to the inherent safety
record and the thorough review, is what establishes their safety
in the marketplace.
NARRATOR: So who is right? The biotech industry believes that
checks are in place to vet their GM food for any health hazards,
but the critics say that science cannot predict the unknown. There
are a series of specific tests now being used to help government
regulators decide whether GM food is any more hazardous to eat than
PROF. TOM SANDERS (UK Committee on Novel Foods (ACNEP): In the
case of genetically modified food we want to know exactly what the
nature is of the genetic modification, how precise it, the genetic
modification that's been and whether there are any unintentional
changes that occurred in the food.
NARRATOR: For example, GM soya. We have been eating this ground
up ready GM soya in processed food for 3 years, but it contains
a gene from a foreign species, a bacterium that lives in soil. Scientists
have identified the gene that makes this bacterium able to survive
being sprayed by weedkiller. They have extracted this gene and inserted
it into the cell of a soya plant and developed this into a crop.
In the plant's cell the gene inserts itself into the DNA where it
produces a protein that give the soya the same resistance to weedkiller
as the bacterium.
Now a farmer can spray his field and kill the weeds but leave
his soya crop undamaged. Whether we have eaten this gene before
or not its protein has to be tested before it is put into the plant
to ensure it is not toxic or allergenic. First, is the new protein
TOM SANDERS: This was looked at quite carefully by the committee.
It took the protein and asked for toxicology test to be done on
a protein to see whether the protein itself was toxic.
NARRATOR: The protein has to go through years of testing. For
instance, to analyse its chemical properties and heat stability.
To test the new protein for toxicity they mass-produce it and feed
it to mice. The mice are fed the protein in doses 1,000 times greater
than a human would consume by eating GM soya. In these tests no
ill effects on the mice were observed from the GM soya protein.
Many tests like these have convinced regulators that the protein
produced by the bacterial gene is not itself toxic, but there are
still many others things to test for.
Everything we eat contains
proteins. Even if a food is not actually toxic it could still be
dangerous because it might cause an allergic reaction, so the GM
protein also has to be tested for allergenicity. Proteins are made
up of amino acids. Certain combinations of these amino acids can
cause an allergic reaction in humans that can even lead to death,
for instance peanut allergy.
TOM SANDERS: We know that most of the allergens have certain amino
acid sequences and we can look at the proteins that are introduced
in a crop and ask the question: are any of these sequences present
in the novel protein and if they're not present in novel protein
and we feel more confident that we haven't got a new allergen so
it is a safety procedure.
NARRATOR: Scientists have compiled a list of more than 500 combinations
of amino acids in proteins that are known to cause an allergic reaction.
Every newly introduced GM protein has to be tested against this
DR. ROY FUCHS (Monsanto): We have a number of analytical methods
that compares the properties of our protein compared to the properties
of allergens. That's very important in a predictive mode and those
procedures allow us to predict the safety from an allergenic perspective
for the proteins we introduce into a plant.
NARRATOR: A key characteristic of these known allergens is that
they resist digestion in the human gut. That is one of the reasons
they can be dangerous. So among other tests scientists must check
that the new protein is easily digested. To do this they recreate
the chemical conditions of the human gut, the enzymes and acids,
in the test-tube.
ROY FUCHS: We subject any protein that we've introduced in a biotech
product to the process we call protein digestion to evaluate whether
the protein would be digested when consumed by humans comparable
to proteins that are currently in our food supply that are deemed
to be safe, so we expose our protein to a solution that mimics mammalian
digestion of proteins and ask the question of how quickly that protein
NARRATOR: The protein to be tested is added to the acidic mixture
mimicking the gut in the test-tube. Fast is better. The longer the
protein takes to degrade the more concerned regulators will be.
If the protein degrades in less than a minute the chances are it
will not be allergenic. Then they stop the digestion process by
neutralising the acidic solution with alkali. They test to see if
the new protein has disappeared broken down by the acidic mixture.
The results for GM soya were clear.
ROY FUCHS: In this particular experiment this represents the protein
at time zero. Within 15 seconds the protein is completely degraded.
Because of its rapid degradation, we can predict that this protein
and any other protein that rapidly degrades, will not be an allergen.
NARRATOR: There are a number of other tests to check if the protein
itself is an allergen, including a detailed analysis of its precise
molecular structure. If a new protein fails these tests it is thrown
out. The bacterial protein in the GM soya has passed all these tests.
So has every other GM food on the market.
There's yet another stage of testing. Biotech companies now have
a range of prototype GM vegetables - tomatoes modified to taste
sweeter and lettuce that stays fresh longer - but they have to convince
regulators that after the foreign gene is engineered info the plant
it won't alter the plant's own chemistry and make it dangerous to
eat. This is the concern of critics. When the gene enters the plant's
cell it inserts into the DNA of the plant and starts to produce
a new protein.
The fear is that this protein could interact with the plant's
own proteins and alter the chemistry of the plant itself and the
way it functions. So that's why the modified plant now has to be
tested on a molecular level to see if there's been any change in
TOM SANDERS: If the metabolism of a crop is deranged you will
start seeing changes in the composition of the food. It'll either
produce more toxins, less toxins, it will start changing its nutritional
composition of the crop.
ROY FUCHS: 80% of all the testing we do for our biotech products
addresses that specific question: Have we in any way changed the
composition, the presence of important nutrients, are the presence
of factors may not be safe for human consumption?
NARRATOR: To test that the edible parts of the GM plant are substantially
equivalent to the non-GM version they grind up both and compare
their chemistry in minute detail.
TOM SANDERS: We would want to be looking at it for protein composition,
fats, carbohydrates, minerals, all the naturally occurring toxicants
in there and we have to make a comparison of a food with something,
a base and what we would normally take would be the ungenetically
NARRATOR: Piece by piece they compile the chemical blueprint of
the GM plant and compare it with the original unmodified plant.
They must prove to the regulators that despite the one gene change
overall there will be no difference and if there is no difference
they conclude that the GM food is safe to eat.
ROY FUCHS: We've done over 1800 different analyses on 400 different
components to show that Round-up Ready soya beans are the same as
other soya beans that we consume every day except for the one introduced
gene and the protein that gene produces in the plant.
NARRATOR: The system has already caused one problem. A gene from
a Brazil nut was engineered into soya to make it more nutritious.
During testing, scientists discovered that the protein produced
by the gene was allergenic and that the modified soya plant had
also inherited the nut allergy and so it was abandoned. Examples
like this convince regulators that the testing system works.
TOM SANDERS: What we have to do is look at each GM food on a case-by-case
basis. We cannot generalise and say all GM food is going to be safe.
It will depend on the nature of the modification, how precisely
it's done, whether there are any unintentional effects and whether
the food itself when it's processed undergoes under further changes
that may lead to, you know, unwanted changes.
NARRATOR: But critics believe that no amount of testing can insure
that GM crops are completely safe. They believe that there is too
much we don't understand about the complex genetic make-up of living
organisms and that even though there is little evidence so far,
there may be a risk that genetic modification could cause effects
so unexpected that they will be missed by all the tests biotech
scientists carry out.
DR DOUG PARR (Chief Scientist, Greenpeace): What can happen as
a result of these insertions is that you can in food domain, for
example, one can find new allergens, new toxins appearing that weren't
expected and because of the complexity of the living organisms these
are extremely hard to predict effects.
NARRATOR: Genetic engineers feel the risk of unknowns is extremely
small and they argue that as far as safety goes it is unreasonable
to demand zero risk for GM crops because that isn't what is expected
from traditional methods of plant breeding. For thousands of years
traditional plant breeders have improved crops by taking pollen
containing all of one plant's genes and cross-pollinating it with
all the genes of another. Tens of thousands of genes cross over
at random. This system does not require rigorous testing and yet
things can go wrong.
In the 70s traditional breeders crossbred two types of potato
to transfer the genes for insect resistance. Unwittingly amongst
the thousands of genes crossed they also transferred a gene for
a toxin that made people ill. In contrast genetic engineers claim
their work is safer and more predictable because they are moving
just one or two specific genes and they can more easily test the
ROBB FRALEY: A plant breeder crosses two plants and in doing so
creates a completely random recombination of 20, 30 or 40,000 genes.
Every time you make a cross that, that's what's going on in nature.
With biotech what we have is a very precise knowledge for understanding
where did the gene become inserted and how is it being transmitted
like all the other genes when people make a cross?
NARRATOR: But critics keep returning to the crucial difference
that genetic engineering moves genes across the species barrier.
This they say makes it inherently more unpredictable and risky than
DOUG PARR: I don't think anybody can say that traditional breeding
is risk free because it clearly isn't, but in genetic engineering
when we're using new techniques and inserting genes in a different
way then the risks are qualitatively different. They are not the
same kind of risks as you get from traditional breeding and where
there are examples of foods becoming toxic because of traditional
breeding methods, but because they're qualitatively different we
are actually quite ignorant about the sort of effects that can arise
as a consequence.
SIR ROBERT MAY: On the one hand so-called GM techniques which
in the precise and targeted way bring in a couple of genes that
you know what they do and you know where they are is vastly safer,
vast, vastly more controlled than this so-called conventional breeding
that reshuffles about a tenth of the genome. On the other hand,
it is true, you can bring in genes from further away, but insofar
as I worry about unintended consequences, I worry much more about
what we did in the past when we in an unintended way were doing
all sorts of things we didn't even know what we did.
NARRATOR: Ultimately, for the protestors, questions about safety
and testing of GM food miss the point.
DOUG PARR: Rather simpler to cut through all that and say well
why are we needing these things in the first place, what's the point,
is there anything particularly wrong with the food we're got at
the moment? Well quite clearly for many of the consumers in the
UK and Europe the answer's no.
NARRATOR: A year ago there were more than 2,000 processed foods
on sale in this British supermarket with GM ingredients. Now there
are less than 100. They have been rejected by the British public
who see GM benefiting farmers and biotech companies, but not themselves,
but there are different concerns for people in the rest of the world.
Mexico, like many sub-tropical countries, has poor acid soils and
that means that the crops don't grow well. A Mexican peasant farmer
has, on average, 5 acres of land to grow the staple crop of maize
and unless it is a good year it is hard for him to feed his family.
Luis Herrera, a pioneer of genetic engineering, has been studying
the stunted growth of Mexican maize for years.
DR LUIS HERRERA-ESTRELLA (National Polytechnic Institute): This
maize is not growing very well because the soil is not very fertile.
It has problems of soil acidity which lead to aluminium toxicity
and low nutrient availability, so what happens is that the root
system of the plant doesn't grow and it cannot make, it cannot supply
the plant with enough nutrients to grow and what the farmers find
is that the productivity of the plant is, is not good. Usually you
should have this big and you have very little production.
NARRATOR: Increasing the yield of this maize in the low quality
acid soil has become Herrera's lifetime work.
LUIS HERRERA-ESTRELLA: In this acid soil there are two major problems.
One is that in these soils aluminium becomes soluble and it's a
very toxic compound so in, it reduces root growth and in that way
it reduces plant yield. The second problem is that very important
nutrients such as phosphate become insoluble and plants cannot use
NARRATOR: Herrera has managed to engineer a gene into the maize
that makes it release a natural chemical called citrate which latches
on to the aluminium toxin trapping it into the soil away from the
LUIS HERRERA-ESTRELLA: They bind together very tightly and when
they are bound this complex of citrate and aluminium is not toxic
NARRATOR: But the added beauty of this system is that at the same
time the citrate releases phosphate from the soil which helps the
plant to grow.
LUIS HERRERA-ESTRELLA: So you can see here that the root formation
of a normal plant in an acidic soil is not very good and in plants
that we produce citrate the root growth is much better and this
is a way we have to demonstrate that the system is working.
NARRATOR: Herrera says that if his GM maize was planted in Mexico
it could double the yield of farmers' crops, but the Mexican government
has stopped Herrera from testing his GM maize in field trials because
groups like Greenpeace have been lobbying to halt what they see
as a dangerous and unsustainable technology.
LUIS HERRERA-ERSTRELLA: This environmentalist groups have come
to Mexico and transferred their emotional interpretation of the
technology. They have been putting some pressure into the Mexican
government, they want to stop GM plants being grown in Mexico. People
speak selectively, only the negative thing and they totally ignore
the, the positive benefits.
NARRATOR: There are many genes that could be put into plants to
make them grow better under harsh conditions. For instance, genes
that promote salt tolerance or drought control. But despite the
potential advantages what really worries protestors about Herrera's
work is its capacity to damage the environment. It is a concern
held by critics world-wide.
Apart from any health risks, those who campaign against GM have
another environmental fear, that the genes from the engineered plant
will spread throughout the plant world creating new strains of superweed
and superbug we cannot control. First, superbugs. At the moment
a third of the world's crops are lost every year as a result of
pest damage and cotton is one of the crops most badly affected by
the pink bollworm.
GREG WUERTZ (Cotton Farmer): We had a insect problem that was
probably costing us between $100 and 200 an acre per year due to
one insect which would also trigger other problems for other insects
and a kind of a chain reaction for spraying. It causes a lot of
damage in the lint and as you see it's inside a boll so it's very
hard to control or kill as it's inside. It was just a monumental
problem. It was to the point of cotton production was going to stop
in the state, I think it was that serious a problem.
NARRATOR: At the University of Arizona Bruce Tabashnik has spent
years studying the pink bollworm.
PROF. BRUCE TABASHNIK (University of Arizona): If you have lots
of pink bollworm caterpillars boring into your cotton bolls you
won't get nice, nice healthy bolls like this one. Instead you get
something like this. So if growers have a high population of pink
bollworms they won't get a decent yield at all.
NARRATOR: The problem is that because the bollworms burrow all
the way inside the cotton boll they're very hard to kill with pesticide
sprays. Biotech companies began to devise another solution by introducing
a gene into a cotton plant that would kill the bollworms. With an
extraordinary irony it was organic farmers who had the answer.
For 40 years organic farmers have been spraying their crops with
a bacterium that is poisonous to certain insects, including the
pink bollworm. This organic insecticide is called BT. It is not
toxic to humans. Monsanto took the insecticide gene from the BT
bacterium and engineered it into cotton to give the plant 24 hour
protection against the pink bollworm.
ROBB FRALEY: We could take that gene out of the bacterium and
introduce it so that a cotton plant or corn plant was now producing
this protein in its leaves that it would allow for the plant to
control these important pests without the use of chemical insecticides.
GREG WUERTZ: It sounded like too, too unbelievable. It was just
miraculous, but we did try it and it does work.
NARRATOR: By planting BT cotton farmers have reduced the amount
of chemical pesticides they spray.
BRUCE TABASHNIK: So what it means is they can eliminate about
6 insecticide sprays per year in the areas where pink bollworm was
GREG WUERTZ: Sometimes we'd spray every acre with a plane with
pesticides and that'd just stay in the air and that was, those things
are, I know they're deadly and I just, it's so much better for kids
to have cotton where you don't have to spray and you don't put those
pounds and pounds of insecticides in the soil, so environmentally
to me it's much, much safer.
NARRATOR: But critics say there are potential environmental concerns.
JEREMY RIFKIN: When you place the BT gene into those crops it
means that every cell of every plant is producing toxin 24 hours
a day over millions of acres and every plant becomes like a little
mini-factory producing toxin. The good news for the industry? They'll
say you're going to kill a lot more insects. The problem is you're
going to kill good insects as well as bad insects.
NARRATOR: It is true that pollen from BT crops could kill insects
related to the bollworm, like butterflies. Biotech scientists point
out that spraying with chemical insecticides kills both butterflies
and a much wider range of non-target insects.
JEREMY RIFKIN: The other bad news? How long do you think it's
going to take for all those insects out there to build the resistant
strains? You won't kill 'em all and the ones that are left that
don't die because they're resistant they reproduce and then you
have superbugs against one gene here and one gene there.
NARRATOR: The more a bug is exposed to any pesticide toxin the
more resistant it becomes and this is true for bollworms which are
exposed to the GM toxin 24 hours a day. The question is: can anything
be done about it? This is where Monsanto breeds the bugs that it
aims to kill with its genetically engineered plants. They are already
a step ahead of BT resistant bollworms. By finding new BT genes
from bacteria to engineer into their cotton Monsanto already have
new plants to replace the old if the bollworm does become a resistant
bug, but so far independent studies on BT cotton have shown that
resistance has not yet become a problem.
BRUCE TABASHNIK: We haven't seen that yet, but even in that case
it would have meant there were 3 full seasons of protection with
a very widely used method and so there are examples with conventional
insecticides where they've lasted comparable periods or even shorter
periods, so so far it's performing extremely, extremely well, if
anything better than expectations.
NARRATOR: But superbugs are not the only environmental fear. These
protestors are destroying field trials of GM crops.
(ACTUALITY PROTEST CHAT)
They believe genes will flow travelling from GM crops to contaminate
the environment and disrupt and damage the delicate balance of our
eco-system and one of the things they're worried about is superweeds.
JEREMY RIFKIN: Those genes will flow and there's no doubt that
some of those genes will attach themselves eventually to wild weeds.
What happens if your weeds pick up the gene for herbicide tolerance
or for pest resistance, they reproduce, they spread, you find out
8 years later that an entire region of the country has a weed that's
tolerant of herbicides and resistant to pests. You can't get rid
of it, you can't recall it, you can't clean it up.
NARRATOR: The theory is this: biotech companies engineer herbicide
resistance into crops, allowing farmers to spray against weeds but
leave their crops still standing. But then there's the bee. Protestors
fear that bees will carry pollen from GM crops for miles around
and transfer the same herbicide resistance to a related plant making
them better able to survive and turning them into weeds that will
eventually take over the countryside, superweeds.
DOUG PARR: Now in the case of say oil seed rape we know that genes
can transfer to wild, weedy relatives. At the moment there's nothing
saying it's going to become a big problem, but it could. There is
evidence that it will cross, there is evidence that it can persist.
NARRATOR: Phil Dale has to judge that evidence. He worked on the
government committee that assesses if it is safe to release GM crops
into the environment. He carried out tests to see how genes can
spread from GM crops.
PHIL DALE (John Innes Centre, Norwich): I don't believe that gene
transfer is intrinsically hazardous. It depends very much on the
gene and that is the focus of the risk assessment process.
NARRATOR: To be any danger at all the GM pollen must travel far
enough and in sufficient amounts to actually pollinate a weed. The
further the distance the less pollination.
PHIL DALE: If you imagine these two plants here at this kind of
distance there would be about 5% pollination between them. If we
separate these apart the frequency of pollination would, would decrease
very sharply. At say 15 metres there will be very little pollination.
Wouldn't be impossible, there would be a, a low level of pollination.
NARRATOR: So strategic planning is required. Importantly, although
small amounts of GM pollen can travel big distances, it can only
fertilise related plants, for example, the pollen from GM rape seed
will only fertilise a handful of other plants like the wild turnip,
but even if this happens, the plant will only become a superweed
if the new gene enables it to compete better with other plants.
That's what weediness is.
ROBB FRALEY: The real issue is do these genes really confer weediness
properties and there's been, you know, research from many, many
scientists that show that, you know, what makes a, a plant weedy
is many, many, many genes. It's not a single trait and it's certainly
not a trait like herbicide tolerance.
DOUG PARR: These risks may actually be quite small, but we don't
know and they're being released into the environment in such a way
that they're unrecordable. It's an irreversible step that we're
taking by doing so.
PHIL DALE: I'm not belittling the importance and the significance
of moving genes in the way we do, but because we're transferring
one or two genes we can ask very specific questions about the impact
of those genes.
SIR ROBERT MAY: The public in general hear voices reassuring them
and voices offering them legitimate apprehensions in some instances
about the environment and what I think are extraordinarily exaggerated
concerns about food safety, but the public don't have to weight
this the way they do the similar contending claims about mobile
telephones because there's no clear consumer benefit yet.
NARRATOR: In the developing world priorities are different. While
in the West people ask why they need GM food when they already have
so much choice, not everyone has this luxury. There are over 100
million children in the world for whom vitamin A deficiency causes
catastrophic effects, including blindness. This blindness is caused
by a poor diet. These people eat mainly rice and rice has no vitamin
A. The only way they can receive enough vitamin A is by costly distribution
of supplements that don't reach everyone.
Ingo Potrykus is a genetic engineer who had a brilliant and simple
idea. If he would genetically engineer rice to produce vitamin A
then this rice seed could be distributed to the poorest areas of
the world, he could help prevent this blindness. Potrykus identified
the two genes in daffodils that produce vitamin A. They're the same
genes that turn the daffodil yellow, but the daffodil is poisonous.
PROF. INGO POTRYKUS (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology): This
gene was actually isolated from daffodil which are the basis for
the production of vitamin A where some of them make daffodil poisonous
so we leave out the poisonous genes, we transfer just 2 genes which
help us to produce pure vitamin A.
NARRATOR: Potrykus has now engineered the vitamin A into rice.
After testing, he hopes it will feed millions of people around the
world preventing vitamin A deficiency and blindness.
INGO POTRYKUS: My entire scientific career has been devoted to
this dream to be able to help to solve burning problems of humanity
and food security in developing countries is one of the most important
problems we are facing for the next decade.
NARRATOR: Critics don't think the high tech fix of genetics should
solve the problems of deprivation in the world.
DOUG PARR: I think when you try and, and fix a problem simply
by adding another innovation to problems that arise because of political,
social, economic problems then you're not going to solve it, you're
going to find, find the problem squeezes out somewhere else.
INGO POTRYKUS: To dream of equal distribution of money or food
resources world-wide is a nice dream but it can never be achieved.
Nobody will have the power to distribute money equally throughout
the world. The only solution is to build in vitamin A in their basic
food and that's exactly what we are doing for 2.4 billion people
and I hope that people who are so far extremely sceptical of this
new technique will see that here is an example where this technique
has been used for something beneficial for the consumer.
NARRATOR: 25 years ago these scientists voiced their fears about
the potential danger of genetic modification causing a health and
environmental disaster. Now many scientists believe that a system
of checks is in place to prevent this happening and the benefits
are real, but there is still a groundswell of public opinion that
remains to be convinced.
JEREMY RIFKIN: Is it worth the risk of bypassing thousands of
years of classical breeding, putting new GMOs into the environment
with genes from unrelated species and then afterwards find out whether
it's safe or not. That's the question.
ROBB FRALEY: I don't think any science is inherently good or bad,
or safe or unsafe. It's what we do with it, it's how we use it and
I believe biotechnology if used appropriately and appropriately
regulated has a tremendous benefit. The script will appear here
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