Is the debate on genetically modified foods over?
A British environmentalist and long-time opponent of genetically modified organisms surprised everyone at a recent farming conference in Oxford when he said he was wrong. Mark Lynas told his audience that when he finally looked at the science behind GM research, he found it to be beneficial to the environment and to have the potential to feed the hungry.
Many organizations working on food security are also promoting the use of genetically modified organisms. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is one of the most prominent supporters.
So, is that really it? Are the GM wars over?
First, it’s important to recognize that even traditional farming uses breeding and other techniques to produce better, more resilient crops and livestock. The difference with GM foods is that genetic material is altered in a way that would never happen naturally (fish genes used in strawberries to create a cold-resistant berry is one famous example).
The idea is certainly spreading. Total land area being sown with GM seeds today is estimated at 100 times what it was in 1996. Most GM food (around 90 percent) is grown in the United States, Canada, Brazil, Argentina and India, but developing countries are planting more and more GM crops, too. And wherever they’re produced, GM ingredients are found in processed foods consumed all over the world.
The main promises made by GM technology are foods with enhanced nutrition, higher yields, better resistance to harsh conditions, and environmental friendliness.
Whether eating foods that have had their gene structure altered can harm us has not been proven. In fact, some activists who oppose the GM industry concede that the risk to human health is likely small. They are more concerned with (a) potential environmental damage from GM crops, (b) loss of biodiversity (GM soybeans, for example, dominate world production), (c) corporate control of the food system and (d) the fact that GM foods are not labelled.
Lack of labelling deprives many people of the only means they have of opposing GM foods, which is through consumer choice. But even that issue could be resolved soon: the Whole Foods supermarket chain in the United States and Canada announced recently that all foods sold in their stores must be clearly labelled if they contain GMO ingredients.
Activist Raj Patel argues that GM foods simply hide the fact that many people in the world lack a diet with enough variety to sustain them, and that offering Vitamin A-rich GM rice, for instance, is not the answer. He says that investing in agriculture and supporting local food cultures is a better option than a subsistence diet of rice.
Claims of higher crop yields with GM seeds are always in dispute. A recent U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded study in Wisconsin found that GM corn yields were actually lower than for conventional corn.
The biotech industry’s claim to be environmentally friendly has been challenged by the emergence of weeds that have grown resistant to GM plants and now require even more chemically intensive farming methods to deal with them. There is also concern that important grasslands and parts of the Amazon basin are being ploughed and planted with GM corn and soybeans.
Has the GM debate been put to rest? What do YOU think? Weigh in on EndingHunger Facebook or Twitter.