GM Food: Society Could Learn from BSE

PART 1: An Article on Genetically Modified Food in the United Kingdom (Lessons to be learnt from the past)

1) Video on GM Food: Society Could Learn from Mad Cow Disease

The information for this presentation was obtained from a range of sources. This included The Los Angeles Times (2000) for details on Growth Hormone CJD. The same source is available if you scroll down and see 'A wonder drug that carried the seeds of death'. The Guardian, from 1999, provided some details on BSE. A Food Magazine article from 2000: 'Using cattle glands for human drugs' was also used. The final article was an English Literature article about Mary Shelley.

2) The Ability to Avoid Food and Medicine Emergencies

The presentation argued that public policy, regarding GM food, could be informed by the case of 'growth hormone' CJD in the UK. Public policy needs to use warnings regarding the safety of GM food and act upon them where necessary. The example of thalidomide is relevant as warnings were considered in America but not in Britain.

3) The Significance of Frances Oldham Kelsey

She was a pharmacologist at the United States Food and Drug Administration. She helped prevent many birth defects in babies in America. Kelsey reviewed the application for thalidomide and believed that there was not enough evidence to believe that it was safe and refused the application. Her life story shows that regulators such as the American FDA can maintain drug safety. It is this experience which the British Food Standards Agency or the European Food Safety Authority needs to learn from. These regulators need to make sure that future food technologies are safe for public consumption.


4) Further Commentary on GM food and BSE

In September 2010, a former science minister called for a new GM (food) debate in Britain. Such a debate should be informed by the British government's handling of prion diseases between 1960 and 2010. 'Growth hormone' CJD has set a dangerous precedent for the introduction of genetically modified food. Therefore, now, the public should be cautious about new technology. Crops which mix genes from animals (say a horse) with plants (say an apple tree) need to be carefully scrutinised. In particular, scientists need to be made responsible for their actions so that public safety is not compromised.

A UK supermarket executive suggested that the food industry should stand by the science" regarding GM food. However, it is unclear what it is meant by 'the science'. It could imply that there is a single or universal understanding of science; but science is open to interpretation. Discussion over CJD has varied with different interpretations or statements over sporadic CJD and variant CJD.

A former chair of the U.K. Food Standards Agency (FSA) is quoted as saying that there has been "European prissiness about genetic modification". The author’s concern is that the FSA's former chair is apparently not willing to discuss any problems with over-population. Rather, Krebs is suggesting that GM food should be introduced to deal with the challenge of large populations. Over-population is a relevant issue as discussed in the Jonathan Porritt video.


To conclude, consumer concerns should not be dismissed as prissiness. Consumer caution can be justified as a cautious approach would attempt to avoid another crisis similar to BSE. Finally, policy-makers, such as Krebs, should acknowledge that BSE has influenced attitudes towards GM food.

5) Jonathon Porritt on Population

PART 2: A Video on the Potential trade-off between Productivity and Safety

1) The Concern that Safety will not be Prioritised


The presentation suggests that food safety could be sacrificed to make the food system more productive.


2) The relevance of Economics


Economics research has examined a trade-off between money and safety. This is usually what money people are willing to pay for additional food safety.

However, there is a more interesting possible trade-off between productivity and safety. That, biotechnology companies and governments which support them are willing to make the food system more productive at the expense of public safety. Consumers could be concerned over greater levels of productivity, from agriculture and the food system, as this may lead to greater levels of risk.

BSE could have been caused, ultimately, by trying to make livestock more productive. The aim was, presumably, to produce more meat or milk but the public was hardly involved in the decision-making to intensify agriculture. This is because agricultural productivity would have barely featured in UK election debates. The public seemed to have little control over research experiments on farm animals. The possible introduction of GM Food, in the United Kingdom, with the aim of making the food system more productive could come at the expense of safety. In 2011, this remains to be seen. Intensive farming, including the development of super dairy cows, has been criticised for inadequate livestock conditions. It is possible that poor animal welfare standards could manifest themselves in food safety problems later on.

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