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We Need to Re-Evaluate Our Stigma Towards Genetically Modified Meat

To many of us, GM meat is Frankenstein food. But at some point, when the world runs out of produce, we might depend on it. We spoke to scientists and academics from Edinburgh university—birthplace of Dolly the sheep—who will discuss our GM future at...

by Josh Barrie
04 August 2014, 5:00pm

Photo via Flickr user Jellaluna

Genetic modification is an inflammatory subject. Especially when it comes to food. Crops are one thing, but the idea of eating meat from an animal that has been genetically engineered is, for some, wholly unpalatable. It's Frankenstein food.

As meat consumption rises, though, some figures believe that GM is the answer to finding a way of feeding a growing population (by 2050 it's estimated that there will be another 2.5 billion people on the planet), fighting disease and improving sustainability as our agricultural industry is forced to evolve.

For GM detractors, engineering what we eat to such an extent remains a repellent part of the food industry, far removed from localism and community. There are fears concerning ethics, health and meddling with the natural order of things. As a result of such dismay, since the late 90s, when GM tomato paste was trialled (and sold well), UK supermarkets have been almost entirely GM product-free.

Naturally, there are scientists who believe this has to change. Helen Sang and Bruce Whitelaw, from Edinburgh University's Roslin Institute (the birthplace of Dolly the sheep), are two of them, and are opening up a dialogue on the subject at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this month as part of Beltane Network's Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas. Their mission statement? "We'd eat GM meat, would you?" Professor Sang told me more about it.

MUNCHIES: Hi Professor Sang. Why are people so afraid of genetic modification? Professor Helen Sang: In some cases there's still a stigma attached. I don't think people are always given enough information. There have been negative stories about GM and health and people can be misinformed.

Are none of them true? There's no solid evidence to suggest GM meat (or crops) has adverse effects on human health.

What about animal welfare, meddling with nature? We don't want animals to suffer. If anything, it wouldn't work—animals are responsive. Nobody would want to make lots of animals that have defects or are in pain, because what use would that be? We're not really impacting the natural environment. We're looking at farm animals and processes. These are domesticated animals which have the sole purpose of feeding us—GM chickens aren't going to breed with wild chickens. GM and nature can co-exist.

So you're not playing god, then? We play god already. The pigs we eat were once wild boar and they only exist because of us. We have medicine to cure diseases. Even something like maize is a hybrid—it used to be some puny corn and we've adapted it. Someone, somewhere, once saw a slightly bigger ear and, in that, an opportunity. Genetic modification to some extent has been going on for years. Chickens used to be jungle fowl for instance. We've always found ways of using selection.

How is GM meat different? We don't expect the actual meat from GM chickens, for example, to be any different at all. They might just have a different genetic makeup. They've been selected and bred for the purposes of productivity or the fact they're less susceptible to diseases, like avian flu. GM meat is just very precise genetic selection—it's the more advanced sequencing of farm animals. It's just harnessing strengths such as growth speed and size.

Are there lots of potential benefits to GM? The world's population is growing and it's having an effect on agriculture. There's only so much land to farm on. The industry has to evolve. GM meat is cost effective and efficient and we need to utilise the space we have. I think it can be a tool to fight hunger and poverty. There are ways of enhancing the nutritional benefits too.

Our obsession with protein has gotten out of control. Are we effectively eating our way into a GM meat future? We've got to find ways to meet demand, yes. We consume so much. GM meat is absolutely sustainable, so yes, I do think it's inevitable. The world is changing and we've got to adapt.

Do these kind of innovations mean big business? It could, though at the moment there's no GM meat on sale anywhere in the world. The first is likely to be GM salmon. A company in the US is working on it.

GM salmon? Yes. There have been tests and the meat is no different. It's completely safe—it just grows faster. But nobody's prepared to sign it off.

Why? Public perception. It's a risk.

People are worried about eco-systems coming under further threat from farming. Will GM do further damage? I don't think so. It means using less land. It's modifying farming that is already established.

How are you going to present all this at Fringe? I've talked on GM meat before and I like to start with the fact that every year more than 50 billion chickens are hatched, which is ten per person. It's a shocking statistic. We just want to discuss GM meat and put forward ideas. I don't think we'll have a problem getting a conversation going—food means so much to people.

What do you hope to achieve at the end of it? We want to demystify the thoughts around GM. What we're doing is working with genetic material and DNA—it's not some dark art in a secret laboratory.

gmsalmon

Salmon: Part of our GM future? Photo via Flickr user Mattheux Photo

I also talked to Professor Joyce Tate, an expert in policy, regulation and interaction (between scientists and the public) at Edinburgh University's Innogen Institute, to find out more about how we react to the idea of GM. She explained how GM has long been approved by regulatory bodies and deemed safe for human consumption, but, because of public discontent, no UK farmers are willing to take a gamble.

The conversation surrounding GM needs to catch up with science. If everyone's better informed, Tate claims, it would be more widely accepted.

MUNCHIES: Is our narrow mindedness is stopping GM products from entering the fray? Professor Joyce Tate: Basically, yes. People are cautious, and therefore so is the industry. Public responses are unpredictable. However, the public has not been given a proper opportunity to accept GM—I don't think most people would worry about eating it if they knew all the facts. If you look at GM crops, they're eaten all over the world and used in a great proportion of commodity crops to feed farm animals.

These concerns must've come from somewhere, though. What about the whole cancer thing? It's a myth. There's absolutely no evidence for anything like that.

GM meat is a bit more of a scarier prospect than GM crops, though. Flesh and blood are involved. That's a natural instinct I suppose. Humans are always uncertain of the unknown.

Do you think the Fringe event is a good way of challenging views? Yes. There's been a lot of testing and research and I think they (The Roslin Institute) have some great ideas. They don't just do the research—they work to get it through in terms of application, too. There's so much GM animals could do. I think it's a pity there's this nervousness. The regulatory system has not adapted and we need to remove the barriers.

How long until we might be eating GM meat, do you think? It could be quite soon. There's no big technical hurdle to overcome, it's just about removing the fears around it.

And if not? We have to do something. The world is going to run out of food.