By Charlie Hyde
Most of what we eat is genetically modified. From direct intervention in DNA, to the subtler effects of agriculture over thousands of years, it’s all ‘unnatural’.
In 2015, MEPs voted to relax the EUs restriction on countries growing GMOs, effectively placing the decision with individual states. Despite such long-overdue efforts to bring Europe up to speed, the governments of Scotland and Wales have ruled out growing GM within their borders. What fuels such policies? It’s unlikely to be one single factor – but a large part is played by ill-informed environmental lobbyists, who do their part by vandalising crop trials and peddling scare stories.
For example, campaigners in Berlin recently protested against the introduction of a GM maize 1507. They cited the usual, unsubstantiated environmental and health concerns. But ‘natural’ maize itself is a product of selective breeding. Its genome is effectively modified: the crop’s ancestor, teosinte, is a grass barely comparable to the current form.
Sweet potato, in the form we consume, only exists because of modification by bacteria far before the advent of human agriculture. A pathogen called Agrobacterium infected a sweet potato ancestor, and fused the plant and bacterial genes together. This is what causes the base of the plant to swell (and causes crown gall disease in other species). As a result, bacterial genes are still present in cultivated sweet potato today.
In truth, the genetic approach to food is just speeding up the process: cutting out the middle man.
There are legitimate concerns with GM crops. Monocultures are notoriously susceptible to change – whatever kills one crop could kill them all. But this problem can, to some degree, be countered by ensuring diversity in the fields in which the crops are grown. Scientists can design the fields to reflect more ‘natural’, or diverse systems, which will be much more resilient than current models. Some crops have been engineered to mimic aphid warning signals – deterring pests.
Casting superstition aside, there are strong economic arguments for relaxing restrictions on GM food. It is estimated that up to 80% of foods contain GM produce in the US. Countries that have embraced GM dominate a market whose demand can only grow with an increasing global population.
In South Africa, white maize is a staple diet of the majority black population. Amid a severe drought, the government is relaxing red tape to allow imports from countries like Mexico and the US in order to prevent a food crisis. It is clear who benefits more from this relationship.
The South African situation exemplifies the challenge we face globally. Human-caused climate change (via greenhouse gases from agriculture and fossil fuels) is leading to drought in developing countries. This, coupled to western over-consumption, will disproportionately affect such countries with little (perceivable) cost to ourselves. In LEDCs, population growth is far outstripping rates of food production; this deficit will only widen further unless we change our attitudes towards new technologies.
Research conducted in richer countries could be used to generate products that will massively increase developing countries’ self-reliance and sustainability. Such research is (as commented by Sir Richard May) being hampered by an “elite who think there will be no problem feeding tomorrow’s growing population”.
Proceeding cautiously was a wise decision at the advent of GM crop technology. Now, there is no excuse.
Photo from Creative Commons