Genetics Committee Briefing

The Question of the Safe Production of Genetically Modified Crops

Genetically modified crops are grown from organisms that have had their DNA modified to promote certain characteristics. For example they can be made resistant to pesticides, made to take longer to ripen and grow more quickly than normal crops.

Key areas of dispute around GM crops include:

  • Whether GM food should be labelled
  • The role of government regulators:  whether these can be trusted to be objective and whether their checks are thorough enough
  • The effect of GM crops on the environment both positive and negative including: damages to non GM crops and the effect on global warming
  • Economic concerns as GM crops are subject to intellectual property laws
  • The impact of GM crops on famers (especially farmers in developing countries)
  • The role of GM crops in feeding the growing world population.

At the moment countries regulate and control the production of GM crops individually and therefore the regulations vary from country to country, with the most significant differences being between Europe and USA. Some NGOs such as Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund have raised concerns that the environmental risks of GM food have not properly been identified and managed and question whether regulatory authorities can be relied upon. However other environmental NGOs such as The Nature Conservancy support the use of GM crops.

The Question of Therapeutic Cloning

Therapeutic cloning is when the nucleus of a normal body cell is removed and placed into an egg cell from which the nucleus has been removed. This means that the new cell has exactly the same genetic material as the organism it was taken from. This cell is then stimulated and begins to divide creating many stem cells. These stem cells can then be used to treat many medical conditions, as they can replaced dead, damaged or dysfunctional cells. Stem cells created from therapeutic cloning are also less likely to be rejected by the body as they contain the same DNA. Therapeutic cloning is different to reproductive cloning, which is banned, as in reproductive cloning the embryo is grown into an organism, whereas in therapeutic cloning it remains an embryo.

Ethical problems for therapeutic cloning include the destruction of embryos after the stem cells have been removed and the fact that the same technique could be used to make a human clone. Scientific problems include the fact that it takes about 100 egg cells to be used before an embryo that stem cells can be taken from is made successfully.

The General Assembly has passed a resolution that bans ‘all forms of human cloning inasmuch as they are incompatible with human dignity and the protection of human life’. Some countries were opposed to this as they believed that this could include banning therapeutic cloning which they believed should be used for medical research.