The use and introduction of Genetically Modified (GM) crops has from origin been a fiercely debated topic. This article considers the main arguments for and against the use of GM crops, some recent findings, and the the future role of GM crops.
GM crops are constantly in the news. One of the latest items highlighted one of the many concerns of anti-GM organisations. That is, the uncoordinated and unauthorized spread of GM crops.
According to scientists in Nature magazine, genetically modified corn has recently spread to Mexican maize. Studies showed that the GM varieties have become entwined with the native corn variety in Oaxaca, southern Mexico despite the fact that the Mexican government banned the production of GM corn in 1998.
It is thought that the crops were not cross-pollinated naturally due to the nature & composition of corn and its fertilization process, but may have been planted by locals following government handouts of food.
This represents one of the many fears surrounding GM crops that once crops have been genetically modified it is very difficult to control their whereabouts and their impact. This in turn may reduce the world's biodiversity and the domination by engineered crops could mean vulnerability to disease through lack of diversity.
The above example is by no means the first instance of GM crops spreading beyond their designated plots. In Canada for example, GM canola has caused major issues for farmers. It was initially designed to help fight weeds but has now itself become an unwanted pest.
(Source: CBC News June 21, 2001)
Countries vary widely on their stance towards GM crops. The majority of GM crops are presently grown in the USA. Europe in general has taken a strong stance against GM crops and foods due in part to strong public and scientific opinion.
The most popular arguments against the development of GM crops include:
- Human health concerns due to the lack of independent testing for safety
- Possible dangers to wildlife
- GM crop reliance on one main pesticide and consequently pest adaptation & immunity. For example, GM cotton in Australia
- Effects of infiltration of pesticides, notably Bt toxin, on other wildlife
- The accidental but evolutionary crossing of GM plants with wild species to produce super weeds which are almost impossible to remove
- The domination & monopoly of multinational companies in food production
- The reliance on biotechnological multinational corporations for seeds and herbicides and hence their ability to control supply price and in turn food
- The transference of genetic material into animals and humans
- The potentially dangerous differences between genetic modification of crops and cross-fertilisation
In opposition to these, the assertions for the development of GM foods have been:
- Raising efficiency and productivity in plant production
- Addition of vitamins and useful constituents to common crops. For example, golden rice.
- Meeting people's basic right to adequate food
By taking just one claim from either side of these arguments, it is possible to appreciate the complexity involved in the GM crop debate.
The example explored from those against GM crops concerns traditional breeding methods and genetic modification.
According to individuals of the Alliance for Bio-integrity*, genetic modification of crops is a completely different process to cross-fertilisation and is in fact a much more hazardous option.
This is because when a scientist modifies a plant genetically, he takes an isolated gene from one organism and places it into the DNA of a dissimilar species. This alters the natural genetic sequence. The foreign gene requires continual artificial stimulation to function and this artificial stimulation causes it to act independently from the hosts central control system.
The results are completely new substances within the organism which are produced outside of the normal regulation.
What in turn are the dangers of this? Within our food, the possibility of
- Altered cellular function
- Erratic expression of not only the introduced genes but neighbouring genes due to imbalances
- Upset biochemical or feedback loops
What do these do? It is possible that these disruptions can cause the generation of toxins and carcinogens or other harmful effects in unpredictable fashions. Alongside this, these introduced foreign proteins can cause serious allergic reactions.
Pro-GM organizations dispute this claiming that genetic modification of crops has been tested and is safe.
Pro-GM organisations also assert that one of the major benefits of GM foods is greater food production. Surely this point cannot be ignored with the many millions of people starving in the world? Ignored and debated it has been however.
For instance, according to research undertaken by the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation in July, by 2030, without the use of GM foods agricultural production should be able to meet the predicted population of 8 billion. Simplistically, this is because population growth is slowing and agricultural production is improving.
(Source: PRAST - a global scientific organisation)
Further to this, the assumption that GM crops always improve food production has been challenged. In part, this is because there are an increasing number of instances whereby farmers have sighted significant problems with GM crops. For example a farmer in the US sued for $162,742.30 for the poor performance of GM soy beans. In Australia, farmers growing GM cotton have found that it is no longer resistant to pests that have adapted to its single-strand toxin.
(Source: Natural Law Party )
And debates take this further still arguing that, even if in the majority of cases GM crops increase and improve food production, it is unlikely that this will benefit the masses of people mainly in the developing world that require food. GM crops are being developed by multinational private industry for mass profit. There are few if any public organisations investing in the development of GM foods. Therefore the reliance on GM crops simply places the power of food production in the hands of the few or in fact the control of one or two nations.
Contrary to these points is the case of China whose scientists have been investigating the potential for GM crops. China is a country that needs to increase its crop yields. With over 1 billion people to feed and only 7% of the world's land, it lies in a critical situation. Due to the nature of Chinese society, the public sector has a much greater influence on agriculture as oppose to more capitalist nations which revolve around private industry.
According to Cheng Zhuomin, Director of the Institute of Plant Protection, Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, in order to feed China's increasing population, the use of bioengineering and GM crops is imperative. The main reasons for the desired use of GM crops is there resistance to pests, as between 10 and 50% of crops such as corn and rice can be lost to insects and viruses. Chinese government regulates all forms of genetic engineering and has guidelines introduced in 1993.
(Source: Genetically Modified Crops: Why? Why Not? )
It is possible then that genetic modification of crops could provide a solution to the hunger of many by increasing crop yields? If so, is it morally & ethically fair to deny people a chance to gain their basic rights of adequate food supplies?
The debates continue...
If there is common ground and a possible solution for GM crop production it will lie in compromise between the opposing parties. Possible developments include:
- Testing of crops to an acceptable level by independent means for both short and long-term results
- Public agencies and governments taking a leading role in GM crops
- World International agency to oversee the usage and development of GM crops
With brief analysis of just two aspects of genetically modified crops, the complexity of the debate is very apparent. Their future will require continued investigation, dedication and evaluation to find the most appropriate path forward.
* Alliance for Bio-integrity are currently undertaking a lawsuit in the USA against the FDA involving issues such as public misinformation, requirement of food labelling and potential effects of GM foods.
Northern Light Special
Genetically Modified Crops: Why? Why Not?
Natural Law Party
PRAST - a global scientific organisation
Alliance for Bio-integrity
Genetically Modified Food World and UK News
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