Food for thought
Pitting the science and business community against environmental and consumers groups and creating intergovernmental tensions, few technologies are as controversial as biotechnology.
Ten years ago advocates of commercial biotech crops hailed them as a way to solve global hunger and protect biodiversity. It was an emotive issue to pin on the importance of biotech crops, but to date they have failed to be a silver bullet for world hunger.
Biotech crop sceptics, such as Friends of the Earth, continue to question the long-term impact on the environmental and public health, despite claims that genetic modification merely speeds up selective breeding, which advocates say has been a feature of farming for centuries.
As well as the environmental and health concerns, worries persist over the concentration of power in the hands of only a few multinational corporations who hold the patents and intellectual property rights in the biotech market.
"There are big worries over the corporate concentration of the food chain and technology being in the hands of companies set up to deliver profits rather than environmental sustainability," said Clare Oxborrow of Friends of the Earth.
"The control of large companies over the food chain if very disempowering for small scale farmers. Monsanto, the biggest GM seed company, is now taking over non-GM seed companies and now owns over 60 percent of the global cotton seed market."
More biotech crops, less choice?
One thing is definite; the world is growing more and more genetically modified crops. According to he International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, the use of biotech crops have increased fifty fold in the last decade and now cover 475 million hectares, an area the same size as half of China. One third of this area was grown in developing countries.
Christian Verschueren from international plant science lobby group CropLife, says that between 1997 and 2006 commercial biocrop cultivation has brought a $27 billion increase in net incomes to farms.
But how much of this ends up in the pockets of farmers and is invested back into the long-term development of agriculture?
"Traditionally most farmers grew from their own seeds or could buy them from a number of companies, but now there has been a huge concentration of ownership among seed companies. Many people are worried about a handful of immensely powerful global corporations owning the seed stock of the world's agricultural stock. It also affects what things get developed and what things don't," said Erik Millstone, professor of science and technology policy at the University of Sussex and member of STEPS Center.
Protecting biodiversity and feeding the world?
As for protecting biodiversity advocates of biotech crops, such as CropLife, claim that genetic modification makes existing farmland more productive and so reduces the need to cultivate wild habitats. It's a claim refuted by Friends of the Earth, who say there is no clear evidence to suggest biotechnology increases yield. Growing genetically modified and non-genetically modified crops side by side can also lead to cross contamination.
Rather than protecting biodiversity and the environment, Friends of the Earth claim that over a number of years herbicide tolerant crops caused resistance in weed populations, which meant more herbicide had to be used and return to a more environmentally damaging faming methods.
"The GM crops are pointless without the herbicides and the companies that develop the seed develop the herbicide so they benefit from both. They've only brought herbicide and insect resistance to a limited number of crops to the market - oil seed rape, maize, cotton and soya - because they are relatively simple one gene-modifications," said Oxborrow.
Cross contamination is not just an environmental concern but can have economic ramifications. Countries, particularly in the EU have strict rules on importing and growing biotech crops, which has lead to a long running trade dispute with the U.S., that was taken to the level of the WTO.
"Biotech companies have changed their tune in the last few years from claiming that the technology can feed the world to now being more pragmatic and saying it won't be the silver bullet to cure all ills," said Oxborrow.
The issue goes deeper than just big corporation against environmental groups. There has been public and charitable sector investment in genetically modified crops to help the 820 million people live that in hunger and over 10 million children who malnutrition each year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN.
One attempt has been the development of "Golden Rice" that was engineered to have a higher vitamin A content than standard rice. (Click here to read more about "Golden Rice"). As well as a lack of international consensus on growing and consuming biotech crops, the project has been fraught with gaining access to seeds protected by patents and intellectual property rights.
"The problems faced by public or charitable sector investment in biotech crops to actually help poor farmers are not just technical but also legal and institutional. As yet they haven't yet found a way to deal with all the legal impediments," said Millstone.
As for empowering individual farmers, genetic modification is still very expensive technology and it takes a long time for anything to come into productivity. "Stacked genes" where more than one gene is altered is the next phase of biotechnology that companies hope will give seeds more than just one beneficial property.
"How genes behave will be much harder to calculate in the future of genetic engineering. Creating one variety of seed to have a number of attributes, such as drought resistance and insecticide, will make it harder to predict," said Millstone.
A less controversial form of biotechnology
While the debate continues over genetic modification could marked-assisted selection be a less controversial means of harnessing biotechnology? Marker assisted selection (MAS) uses genetic information to choose which crops have stronger attributes rather than splicing a gene from one plant and firing it into the genome of another one. (Click here to read more about MAS)
"It's probably not what Monsanto wants to do because the results of traditional plant breeding, even using MAS, doesn't necessarily result in varieties that can be patented, they may just be subject to traditional plant breeders rights," said Millstone.
"It is also hard to see how it can help poor farmers. It might be more appropriate for agricultural research stations that could do the genetic sequencing then develop a variety that could be more straight-forwardly distributed to farmers, but we're a long way away from it being a technique that can be used by individual farmers."
"All genetically modified technology has been designed to be used on a large scale. We think the best way for small scale farmers is to develop their own varieties that are tolerant to their own local conditions, whereas genetically modified crops are all about uniformity," said Oxborrow.
What do you think. Have your say and join the debate.
Although I am aware of the pros and cons of biotech crops, one must still consider more of what those who are in need shall gain in this. Even if these corporations are more of capitalists, one could only imagine the good that these genetically enhanced crops would do for the countries in which people die every day due to famine and hunger. And just think about the possibilities that lies in turning dried up lands to bounty producing earth. With this, I am in favor of using biotech crops as long as the earth is still tilled and cared for.
Will the food be safe to consume? What will happen to the farmers in Africa who don't have the capacity to embrace such technology? Sounds good on paper, but what genetic effect does it have on humans?
In my opinion it's not wise to trust such a young discovery on such large scale. It may seem we gain a lot from GMF at the moment but nature had millions of years of time to develop her technique to almost perfection while keeping equilibrium between all kinds of factors. While genetic manipulation may speed up nature's development and potential errors on her way, how can we tell if those "errors" weren't intended as a side effect to counter a potential disaster over time. Right now it's way too early to point out the pros and cons in this matter until more factors change.
Most international discourses about poverty focus on Africa. Some poor regions in Asia are overshadowed by the overall growth in the region. A pertinent example is Nepal, which lies between two growing giants, India and China, and is often ignored. It's just an example. There are many other countries or regions often overlooked.
In my opinion and in terms of Africa food needs, GM crops will provide the answer to food security in rural areas.
In my humble opinion, GMF will provide the answer to growing food scarcity in many countries. We all know that global warming is at hand...climate change limits normal biological functions of some plants. Altering some genes may help the plants grow larger, produce more fruits and most of all genetic alteration can help the plants endure harsh environmental conditions.
A large fraction of American corn and soybeans are produced by genetically modified varieties with no detectable health consequences in spite of innuendos by Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and other anti-technology organizations. To call Friends of the Earth sceptics is misleading. They have been flat out opponents of genetic engineering for at least 20 years.
I would like to see the banning of patents or any rights to ownership of any food or crop seed or plant. Remove the true reason these so called saviours of mankind are supposed to bring (mega millions in profit) and we will quickly be back to growing what grows best naturally. Genetically modified crops will be a more powerful weapon than the military if left to the free market as it is today.
I am not a fan of genetic manipulation especially in the food we ingest. I accept that proponents say we are, in effect, simply speeding up the rate of evolution but I'm happy for evolution to take its time and get it right rather than to allow humans to speed it up and get it wrong.
Uniformity will never work. GM crops are not the answer and are dangerous.
I am comfortable with having GM crops and food. The case against them is generally overstated. Greenpeace voted to oppose GM in 1990 as a political decision, not one based on science or evidence. There are clear social and environmental problems in the world and GM is not one of them.
I think the time has come for Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth to either put up, or shut up, about GM. The case against is low grade material and uses the fear of the unknown. They should also drop their hypocritical stance on labelling. They demanded labelling to allow people the right of choice. But they then run campaigns targeting the products to get them withdrawn, thus denying people the right of choice that they themselves demanded.
This article makes a number of pessimistic claims about GMO technology with no more proof than giving quotations from its stubborn opponents. Take biodiversity. By any definition, adding a new gene to the breeding pool of a population would increase biodiversity unless that gene drives several other genes out of the population. There's not a single example of a GMO doing that. Once a useful gene had been transferred to a crop by recombinant DNA methods, the seed companies cross breed that crop to get the gene into many local varieties, so the claim about uniformity is simply nonsense.
Interesting perspective. With all the Greenwashing going on, how is the conscious consumer to know when her organic, green or sustainable product is the real deal?