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Is Genetically Modified Food Safe for Consumption?

A cross-continental radio-interview with Dr Chiu-Nan Lai over the 95.8 wave band on the 14th of June 1999.

The scientists’ ideal of food production is to cultivate a new kind of vegetation that is not only good to look at, but also free of pests and pesticides. Thus, cultivators will be ensured of bountiful harvests and consumers supplied with cheap and good produce. This scenario is too good to be ignored. As such, we hear that European and American scientist introduce penicillin into potato genes in the attempt to eliminate pain in those who consume them; thus, giving these potatoes a medicinal value. On the flip side, do we need to have painkiller every day? Is such food safe for consumption on a daily basis? What kind of impact could such genetically modified food, the product of experts, have on the market, the world as well as the future? We are indeed very happy and honoured to have Dr Chiu-Nan Lai in conversation with us today. Dr Lai, who holds a doctorate in Chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is an expert in cancer research from California, USA. She is also the founder of Lapis Lazuli Light Global Centre.

Q: Good morning, Dr Lai.

A: Good morning.

Q: Thank you for joining us. First of all, can you please explain to our listeners what genetically modified (GM) food is.

A: This can be viewed as the evolution of the study of genetics; equivalent to say modifying the basic gene of the plant, contrary to the outcome of natural reproduction. In other words, to change and recreate the blueprints of life. The method involves the use of viruses that can penetrate the animal or plant gene, delivering different gene. Therefore, plant genes can be attached to animal genes and vice versa.

Q: Why do they want to transfer the virus’ genes to the genes of a plant or a fruit? Why do they want to do that?

A: This is because virus has the ability to invade. In nature, plant and animal cannot mate, and will naturally eliminate each other so that there is a natural protection for the species. However, in genetic engineering (GE), such transfer of genes between plants and animals is facilitated by the invasive nature of these viruses, thus crossing the forbidden boundary of nature.

Q: So, when the gene of the virus is allowed to penetrate a normal gene, what benefit is there? Or what kind of function can we expect?

A: Many scientists consider this more dangerous than nuclear power. Evolution of life forms takes thousands of years to accomplish; and if we were to accelerate it suddenly the consequences would be unimaginable. Besides, as virus is being involved, it may also multiply in the body. Should there be the slightest error that cannot be rectified, the situation would go completely out of control.

Q: If it is indeed so dangerous, why do scientists still carry on with the research?

A: Scientists had realised the danger of such research way back in the seventies. They had decided not to pursue any further. However, they subsequently restricted the activity to plant research, citing the reason that plants are more primitive living organisms. In actual fact, all researchers in the world have an understanding that they shall not involve any animal tissues in this nature of research which they acknowledge is extremely dangerous and may lead to the extinction of some species from this world. Those who are still working on this research did it with plants, which is supposed to be of lower ranking in the world of organisms. Honestly, many have already stopped this kind of research work because it is truly too dangerously.

Q: Since scientists have acknowledged the danger of this technology, why then were there information on the Internet regarding such thing as GM food, i.e., Genetically Modified Food in America recently?

A: The chemical industry has found that the usage of chemicals is dwindling, and there is a need to look for new outlets. Initially, they felt that this was a good direction to take. In fact, GM corn, soybean and cotton have appeared hastily in the American market since 1996. Presently, about 60% of food products sold in American market have some kind of GM food component. However, most American consumers are unaware of this because there is no indication on the package labels; it made its inroads into the market quietly without any warning. Countries in Europe and Africa have rejected such food because they can bring about big problems. For instance, a recent research project found that the pollen of GM corn can kill caterpillars that eat it and this has led the American public to debate over the issue. In England, research results showed that upon eating GM yam, the immune system and internal organs of the rat became damaged within ten days. This prompted the English Medical Union to issue a statement to stop people from cultivating this food.

Q: Are these results of research done in the laboratories?

A: Not only in laboratories, but some are also gathered from outside…

Q: Already in the market? Why didn’t America…

A: Take for example GM corn, America has classified it as pesticides and not food. In other words, modified corn is a pesticide for killing pests and no longer fit for human consumption.

Q: So, Dr Lai, being in California, doesn’t the American foods and health authorities interfere with such activities?

A: They did not have any test procedures from the very beginning. GM food are being introduced into the market side by side with other normal food products without any tests.

Q: A while ago mentioned about the English Medical Union. According to our knowledge, they published an article sometime in May that initiated some heated public debates. Can you help to elaborate?

A: In many European countries, including England, supermarkets have removed all GM food from their shelves, 1300 schools have also discarded GM food from their canteens. Other than England, huge supermarkets in France and Germany are doing likewise. Austria is currently working towards eliminating all GM food nationwide. Many European countries have collectively stipulated that all GM food must be labelled before it can be allowed into their markets, and not be slipped in quietly. At present, GM food in America and Canada is mixed with normal food products and is impossible to them tell apart.

Q: We are aware that we have imported this kind of food product from America. If there is no way of identifying them, what can we, as consumers, do?

A: In general, all processed food contains GM food. This is especially so for soybean and corn because 35% to 45% of American soybean and 25% of American corn are already genetically modified. If there is no objection, they intend to convert to GM soybean totally next year. Thus, be wary of processed food that contains corn or soybean. In general, local food should not be a problem; the problem is only with processed food because processed foods usually have a little of everything added to it. Furthermore, be very careful with milk products because it contains GM growth hormone, which is used by all the bigger manufacturers in America. It contains high proportions of IGF1 that is carcinogenic. On top of that, there are also high levels of antibiotics.

Q: Is it the content of IGF?

A: Yes. It is in the milk products.

Q: There is a heated debate on the Internet involving opinions of scientists and consumers. I have personally visited such a site the other day. Their argument is that GM food is basically an answer to food shortage and a great help to developing countries. Can you share with us your personal opinion?

A: The present shortage of food is a result of war, social and politician problems. At present, there is an African country (the poorest in the world) who is prepared to boycott GM food because they know that it is going to bring about much bigger problems. For example, American cotton cultivators discovered that genetically modified cotton seeds fail to germinate properly leading to low yield; and they have collectively sued the supplier of GM cotton seeds in court.

Q: We have also heard of Superseed which were supposed to grow bigger and better vegetables according to experimental results.

A: This is a very new technology which gives results that are very different from what we were expecting; because it defies the law of nature and therefore has many side effects.

Q: So, what you are saying is that you feel that there is insufficient tests being conducted in the field of GE, be it plants or animals being involved.

A: The development in GE is too hasty and it has not been time-tested. The dangers associated with GE are overwhelming because the blueprints of life have been interfered with. I feel that our knowledge is not sufficient, understanding only a part of the whole picture most of the time. It is impossible for us to understand everything, so interfering with nature will lead to a lot of problems.

Q: So, residing in America where GM food is mixed into the market, how do you, in your personal capacity eat defensively?

A: We are very fortunate her to have a farmer’s market where we can purchase organic produce directly from them. In general, organic food is not GM at the moment. We do not buy from the normal markets; we buy only from the farmer’s market or health food outlets that carry organic food. Actually, even organic food is also being threatened in the long run. The reason is pollination of plants. If your neighbour cultivates GM crops, cross-pollination is in the air. Thus, we have to exercise great caution. We must all have the understanding that this form of pollution will eventually affect all of us.

Q: That’s true. I do feel that the consumers need to bear some responsibilities too. I recall having been told by some farmer friends that only ‘perfect’ produce was in demand and therefore they had to find ways and means to produce big and beautiful crops, including escalating the dosage of pesticides used. I think we, as consumers, need to be responsible. We need to understand the workings and courses of nature. I suppose what Dr Lai has pointed our regarding our lack of sufficient knowledge about nature needs to be addressed. We are very grateful indeed to Dr Lai Chiu Nan for having this conversation with us on air. Dr Lai, an expert in cancer research, has shared with us the basic concept of GE and some useful precautions to take. We hope to be able to chat up with you again in future to talk about the further development in this area. Thank you very much Dr Lai.

A: Certainly, thank you.