A New Test For Genetically Modified Food
January 20, 2014

A New Test For Genetically Modified Food

Chinese scientists are reported in Analytical Chemistry, the journal of the American Chemical Society, to have developed the first comprehensive method to identify genetic modifications in food. The test is, they say, simple and accurate; the first that is so wide-ranging when previously there have only been several different less efficient tests.

In the US, labeling of the genetically modified (GM) status of food is one of the major issues connected to the on-going debate about GMO’s. It would be difficult to argue that there is enough evidence of dangers related to GM to ban it completely (although much of the world has partial bans and strict controls) so for the consumer the main question is one of awareness. The argument that people should at least have the option of knowing if food has been genetically modified is a strong one.

The new testing system should aid in the transparency that is required. Its name is, “MACRO,” which apparently means “multiplex amplification on a chip with readout on an oligo microarray.” Hopefully everybody is clearer now; I for one understood at least half the words in that sentence. But regardless of the complex scientific names, the test is said to be easy to use and the American Chemical Society say that ‘It combines two well-known genetic methods to flag about 97 percent of the known commercialized modifications, almost twice as many as other tests.’

The European Union established GM labeling laws that have, among other reasons, led to a reduction in the amount of GM food consumed in Europe, compared to the US. Despite much debate, the US has largely not yet chosen to go with labeling of GM food although Connecticut did pass a law recently.

The majority of scientists believe that genetically modified food has not been proven to be harmful. Because of the relative recentness of the whole idea, around twenty years, it may be too early to tell in terms of effects on the human body, but there are very strong, vocal arguments in favor of GM crops as a weapon in the battle against global food poverty.

Opponents say that lowering genetic diversity weakens organisms and that mutations will spread around natural environments, not only sticking to the crop they were intended for. They say that even if genetic modification can help to improve crop production at first, a contention they dispute anyway, ultimately the weakened genetics of the crops will lead to them being less resistant to pests and other threats to production.

I am interested in food and believe that consumers should have access to as much information as possible about what is in their food, an issue which rose to the surface in the UK in 2013 when it was discovered that horsemeat was in a lot of products that were supposed to be beef. Many countries eat horse routinely, but in the UK people were upset by the thought of eating it, especially unwittingly. On the particular issue of genetic modification I can’t claim to be strongly on one side or another, although I do get the sense that there is a traditionalist fear of progress at work on the ‘no’ side, which may not be helping a balanced argument. The Church of England has refused to allow GM crops to be grown on its land, and one of the strictest anti-GM laws in the world is in the strongly religious Saudi Arabia: ‘playing God’ is one concern that some people have about GM. How far do you take that argument, though? Isn’t healthcare sort of playing God, if that is the argument?

But rather than getting deep into the philosophy of religion and ethics of science, here are some horsemeat scandal jokes instead:

I went out for dinner and ordered a burger; the waiter asked if I wanted anything on it. I said “yeah, $10 to place.”

My doctor told me to watch what I eat, so I went out and bought tickets for the Kentucky Derby.

I selected some burgers on the supermarket’s website, and then clicked ‘Add to cart.’

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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John is a freelance writer from the UK, currently living in Japan and thoroughly enjoying their food and whiskey. His first novel, Three Little Boys, and his travel book, Following Football, are currently available on Amazon.com.

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