Chewing over GM foods

Nothing can ever be 100 percent safe. So why do we demand a risk-free life?

Professor Vivian Moses

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The UK seems beset by fear: many people want absolute safety before they will move a muscle or make a choice. Except, of course, when it comes to patently dangerous activities like smoking or bungee-jumping, in which more and more individuals are indulging.

Whether it is air or rail travel, food, medicines, or even personal relationships – we want to know that we are free from risk. Bewailing the state of Britain’s health services, the Sunday Times (1) claimed that ‘no patient is safe, whether or not the hospital has a fancy menu and five-star decor, if it is substandard and mistakes are covered up’. So could safety be guaranteed if hospitals were not substandard and mistakes were admitted? How would that work?

All new technologies generate fears of unknown and perhaps unknowable potential harm, but reassurance is demanded nonetheless. Take a look at history: the riots that took place when a vaccination for smallpox was introduced; the fear that railway trains might cause illness as it was clearly unnatural to travel at 20 miles an hour; the man with the red flag who had to walk in front of motor vehicles for safety reasons; the condemnation of pasteurisation as the end of healthy living.

In time, of course, people got used to these developments and they are now regarded as commonplace. But many still remain uneasy about nuclear power, 50 years after its introduction.

What do safe and safety mean? Can something be ‘proven’ to be completely safe? Dictionaries define the concept in negative terms: an absence of harm, danger or other undesirable consequences. Since we cannot know the future, it is, of course, impossible to claim total safety for all time for anything. The best you can say is that so far the product or service appears not to cause harm or to constitute a danger, but tomorrow…who knows?

We read that travel by train is ‘safer’ per mile than travel by car – which means less likelihood of harm befalling the train traveller, not that there is no possibility whatsoever of danger. Often, we extrapolate our sense of safety from something we already know about to the new product or service. Comparison of the familiar with the unfamiliar is an important part of evaluation.

Because ‘safe’ and ‘safety’ are defined negatively, absolute safety cannot formally be proven: ‘100 percent safe’ is not a description that can be applied to anything at all. The best we can do is to extrapolate from what we do know of past performance to conclude that a product or service is likely to be safe (that is, unlikely to cause harm) in the future – but there is little point in trying to put a percentage number to it.

If we have been doing something without mishap for centuries, it seems likely that we can continue without worry. But many of our activities are much more recent in origin. Moreover, not all of our traditional activities are free from danger. Walking seems commonplace and safe enough, but pedestrians are sometimes run over by errant vehicles or they walk into something or over the edge of something, perhaps with grievous consequences.

‘An absence of evidence’, some people say, ‘is not the same as evidence of absence’. That sounds like a pithy comment, but it is not so simple. Nobody has yet found a way of providing evidence of absence except as a consequence of an absence of evidence. So it is futile to claim, as critics of new technologies sometimes do, that ‘an absence of evidence (for harm) is not evidence of absence’. They are wrong. Since we can judge present and future safety only on the basis of past experience, an absence of evidence of harm is precisely the only evidence we can ever expect to accumulate for the absence of harm.

Take food – a subject of much concern. Most of the food we traditionally consume is generally regarded as being safe – generally, not always. We think we know from experience that high-cholesterol foods are harmful in the long-term because of the damage they do (or may do) to our cardiovascular systems. We also know that many foods cause allergic reactions in some people, some of them serious enough to be lethal. Can such foods be described as safe? If they were now about to be offered for sale for the first time and had to pass the current regulatory procedures for novel foods, would peanuts, eggs, milk products, wheat products, strawberries and other fruits, not to mention fish and shellfish, be permitted?

There have in the past been a number of accidents in which new cross-breeds of some common vegetables, obtained by totally conventional procedures, have caused poisoning, disability and even death among some consumers or field workers because of an unexpected presence of toxins. Needless to say, as soon as the faults had been recognised, the products were withdrawn – but who would have expected conventionally bred potatoes, squash and zucchini or celery to do that? Can celery therefore be considered safe?

So all food evaluations, including those of genetically modified food, should be understood in the light of the real meaning of food safety: that a ‘safe’ food is one which, as far as we know and with the exception of specific individuals who may be peculiarly sensitive or allergic, when consumed in moderation over a period of time, does not result in identifiable harm to the consumer. There are many uncertainties even in that cautious statement.

‘As far as we know’, ‘in moderation’, ‘over periods of time’, ‘identifiable harm’ – all of these are open to interpretation. But they’re the best we can hope for.

Vivian Moses is visiting professor of biotechnology at King’s College London and chairman of the CropGen panel.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Food scares

Risk, science and society, by Professor Sir Colin Berry

The price of precaution, by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick
(1) Sunday Times, 20 January 2002

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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