1998 has been the year of the GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) debate. The destruction of a GMO maize crop in Wiltshire, lest it contaminate a neighboring organic crop, concerns about the safety of transgenic potatoes which had been modified to improve pest resistance and the significance of data from trials carried out at The Rowett Research Institute, are merely the latest in a year full of such events. Although most people are, by now, aware of the existence of GMOs, this is often coupled with difficulty in obtaining clear information on the basic issues involved, and a clear statement of the concerns felt by those involved in actions against GMO crops. This brief note, from SAC, which is involved in GMO research but also in research on a range of agricultural technologies including organic farming attempts to provide information on the basics of genetic engineering and some of the key issues involved.
All technological developments have a societal context. They are introduced to meet needs or open new opportunities within society and in turn modify the life of that society in some way. It is a matter of some debate as to how far these are truly shared as public needs given that most technology emerges from scientific discoveries. Since science is becoming more specialised and complex, and thus more remote from the majority of the population, society is now frequently surprised by discovery and finds it hard to judge their probable impact upon individuals or the broader implications of developments. At the level of the individual, some technological developments may have little noticeable result but others are more pervasive in their effect. Genetic engineering appears to be such a technology, both because of the scale and impact of its probable effects, and because using the...