Science on the Farm: GMOs and Ethics


All Professor Phil Dale wanted to do when he was growing up was to follow in his father's footsteps and become a farmer. But even as it has taken him far away from that dream, Dale's career has nonetheless brought him close to the heart of farming issues. Today, Dale is a group leader in the department of crop genetics at the John Innes Centre in Norwich and an honorary professor in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of East Anglia. In addition to his research, he is an active participant in the ethical debate surrounding genetically modified organisms (GMOs). In fact, he is the only person to sit both on the UK Government's Steering Board for the Public Debate on genetic modification and the Science Review Panel for GMOs.

At first his career followed the traditional agricultural apprenticeship: Dale spent 3 years working on farms, followed by a year at the Cheshire School of Agriculture. "My father had sold the farm and I wasn't really interested in farm management," he explains, "so I decided to continue studying." It was during a BSc in agricultural botany at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, that "my appetite was whetted for genetics by my genetics tutor, Professor Hugh Rees FRS," Dale explains. "So I changed from agriculture to genetics and did a PhD in the population genetics of forage grasses." In 1978, he joined the then Agricultural Research Council's genetic manipulation programme, investigating ways to insert foreign DNA into plants.

Realising that he wouldn't be able to advance his career without knowledge of molecular biology, he took up a position at the Plant Breeding Institute (PBI) in Cambridge in 1985. There he got involved in the first GM field trials of Agrobacterium-transformed potatoes. But the trials were met with many questions from the regulators regarding biosafety, and Dale felt that "the only way to proceed was by answering them." Dale then moved to Norwich in 1990 with other PBI staff to form part of the John Innes Centre, where he further developed his interest in the environmental and food safety of GM crops. His developing expertise led to a string of appointments to committees: in 1993 to the Government's Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment ( ACRE), in 1998 to the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes ( ACNFP), and in 2000 to the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission ( AEBC. "It is through my involvement with these committees that I developed my interest in regulatory affairs and ethics," he says, "both of which are intrinsically linked."

Dale now devotes about a third of his time to regulatory issues and ethics and is very grateful to the four postdocs in his team who keep his research going. "Without them I wouldn't be able to be as involved as I am in ethics," he acknowledges. An important part of his regulatory role is to read proposals for field experiments with GMOs or the use of GMOs for food. "After reading the safety evidence we argue things through until we reach consensus," Dale says. 'We' is a group of approximately 15 others, including professional ethicists, which bring a range of different expertise to the table.

Dale's research initially focused on the safety of transgene dissemination in the environment by pollen and hybridisation with related plant species. In particular, his group has looked at how far rapeseed and potato pollen can travel, as well as their sexual compatibility with related wild species. This was the first such work carried out, and the findings have been used by regulators to document safety considerations. "Currently, we are investigating the stability of introduced genes and what influences that stability," he told Next Wave. Dale's team is also looking at how gene insertion itself may alter transgenic plants, for example by disrupting the expression of endogenous plant genes close to the location of the insertion.

Dale's group is made up with biochemists and molecular biologists. No specific training is required to work with GMOs, and a background in biological sciences provides the necessary technical skills and knowledge to handle GMOs in the laboratory or containment glasshouses. Dale points out, however, that although none of his staff is specifically trained in ethics, all are aware of the responsibilities that come with GMO research. "I feel ethics is part of everything and as scientists we all have to think about the merits and demerits of what we do," he says. "In my eyes the main ethical issues around GM crops concern deciding what is our vision for agriculture and the environment over the next 20 years, and how we optimise the balance between food production and wildlife." Not only GM, but all methods of crop improvement, may pose a risk. But the regulatory process that concentrates on ensuring that GM crops are as safe as conventionally bred crops and the public debate leads to more questions being asked about GM crops. "Personally," says Dale, "I am fairly confident that GM crops will be as safe as conventional crops, but then not everything is safe anyway. ..."

By definition, ethics are dictated by 'what feels right' to the majority of people. But if science is misrepresented or issues are misunderstood, there is a danger that the public will be misled when taking position in an ethical debate. "The majority of nonscientists don't understand the process of conventional plant breeding," Dale explains, "so it is very hard for them to understand GM." Dale feels strongly that science communicators should be scientists who understand the science behind the issues and can get past the emotions.

Dale believes that all scientists should think about the ethics behind their work; and be able to understand, empathise with, and most importantly listen to the average person on the street. "It used to be public understanding of science; now we recognise it is a two-way process and we need to engage with the public," Dale comments. On the rare occasion he comes across "a student who feels they ' just do the science' and that the ethics are for ' someone else' to deal with," he feels rather saddened and concerned. But he is quick to point out that he doesn't "think that all scientists should get involved to the same extent as me, unless they have a wonderful support team."

So what could a young researcher who is interested in GMO and ethics do to further a career in this field? Even though there is currently little consideration of ethics in formal PhD training, all students should get involved in debates and broaden their awareness of the ethics behind their own research. "There is no substitute for a good grounding in science," Dale reminds Next Wave. "I like [new recruits] to be fired with enthusiasm for science and for what it can offer society, and with a real desire to understand how things work biologically and on other levels." Good communication skills are also paramount, and he will look for people "who enjoy debate and are able to see issues from different perspectives."

And no matter what your field is, there is always a need for good scientists to communicate the ethics behind research. "If we think there are ethical dilemmas surrounding GM crops," Dale muses, "imagine the discussions concerning GM animals and, later, the impact of genetic knowledge on humans, where we all carry chips containing our genetic makeup that are available to employers, insurers, and future partners." Then the ethical debate will really start, says Dale.

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