When presenting the relatively wide range of topics in this column, one risks offending some persons with each article. I have had the pleasure of reading several responses over the past year from persons from many countries and their letters were always written with a high standard of civility regardless of their views.
Dr Robert Lucas’ letter in response to my article on Genetically Engineered Foods, which was published last Sunday, was a departure from this standard. His submission essentially supported my article. However, this was not immediately obvious given his style of writing. Introducing extraneous issues and using insulting language can be an effective method of distracting readers from considering the essence of an argument. Dr Lucas’ letter provides an opportunity to return to this important topic of genetic engineering.
Of the approximately 30 points raised in my article, Dr Lucas focused on five of them. I stated my concern about the link between genetically engineered foods and the transfer of allergies. Dr Lucas confirmed the link but incorrectly assumed that allergies were long-term health effects.
I wrote that the long-term effects of consuming genetically engineered foods are unknown. Given the relatively short time that humans have been consuming genetically engineered foods this fact is obvious. However, Dr Lucas had some difficulty resolving this with his earlier assumption about allergies.
I wrote about the coincidence of the HIV/AIDS appearing during the time of the genetically engineered experiments on viruses, and the similarity of HIV/AIDS with genetically engineered viruses. Dr Lucas did not dispute this fact. Neither did he dispute the fifty new human attacking viruses that have been discovered during the period of these experiments. However, he did clarify that antibiotics and vaccines are used to treat bacteria and viruses respectively.
I wrote that antibiotic markers in genetically engineered foods may contribute to the decreased effectiveness of disease fighting antibodies. After introducing extraneous issues and arguing with himself, Dr Lucas did not challenge this fact.
There are some scientists who are so blinded by the novelty of new technology, and the lure of the opportunity to participate in scientific history, that they refuse to allow themselves to acknowledge the potential harmful aspects of the technology until it is literally too late. Engaging in scientific debate with such persons is therefore futile.
Scientists risk compromising their integrity when they choose to represent the industry in which they conduct their research. Examples are evident with scientists who represented the tobacco, toxic manufacturing, pesticide, and herbicide industries and who refused to acknowledge the clear link between their products and the damage to human health and the environment until the damage was overwhelming. Regrettably, some scientists in the biotechnology industry are following a similar pattern of refusing to consider the potential harmful effects of this industry.
The essential thrust of the article was that genetic engineering is a relatively new technology that was allowed to operate with very limited to non-existent government regulations worldwide. The risks to human health and the environment can be higher in unregulated or inadequately regulated scientific environments.
Genetic engineers were generally ignorant of the potential consequences of this technology on human health and the environment. The combination of this ignorance, and being allowed to operate in a relatively unregulated environment, raised the risks to human health and the environment to unacceptable levels, and unplanned negative consequences associated with genetic engineering have already been well documented. Some governments have since instituted better regulations, but risks remain.
Barbadians are currently being forced to eat genetically engineered foods, since it is estimated that most of the imported foods in supermarkets in Barbados are genetically engineered. The article called on the Ministry of Commerce and Consumer Affairs, which has the responsibility of protecting Barbadian consumers, to do so by ensuring that such foods are properly labelled so that persons can choose whether they wish to consume them. The article also recommended that the genetic engineering laboratories at the University of the West Indies, both in Barbados and Jamaica, should be independently audited. Dr Lucas did not address any of these concerns.