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Arguments in Favour of Genetically-Modified Crops

Harvard Website
Ben Miflin

Genetic modification (GM) of crops, like any other new technology, should be viewed in the light of what has gone before. Mankind has been manipulating the genetics of crops for around 10,000 years. Wheat, the world's major crop, is a hybrid of different species. It probably arose from a rare natural occurrence but has subsequently been maintained artificially.

The modern (non-GM) wheat is unable to exist in the wild because it cannot disperse its seed. Furthermore, plant breeders have spliced in pieces of chromosomes from several other species. The crop has been spread from a small fertile crescent in the middle east to nearly every country in the world. Much experience has been gained in this evolution that is relevant to GM crops. The new GM technology allows genes to be added more precisely than before and their effects to be studied more carefully. However, because it also allows almost any source of genes to be used it is an extremely powerful technology that has to be treated with care and respect.

GM technology is the only technology to be regulated from its inception, before any mishaps had occurred. Researchers who developed the technology set up a series of voluntary regulations in 1974 which have generally become officially incorporated by governments throughout the world. GM crops have been extensively tested in hundreds of thousands of field tests. Foods from these crops have to pass much more rigorous regulations than from conventionally bred crops.

Over the last 12 years between 50-100 million euros have been spent by the EU on bio-safety research. GM technology is used widely in the production of foods (e.g. the majority of cheese in the UK and US is made with an enzyme that is the product of GM technology) and medicines (e.g. the production of human growth hormone by GM methods removed the major cause of CJD). GM crops have been grown on many millions of acres since 1966 in North and South America and Asia. There are no proven examples of GM products adding risks. In contrast, there are many examples of the technology reducing risks. GM technology is not safe - nothing is - but it has a very effective record.

Critics claim that GMOs may increase use of chemical pesticides and increase the profits of agribusiness. Pigs might fly. It is a matter of fact that GM crops have drastically cut the use of such pesticides. GM cotton, containing a built in insecticide, uses 50% less chemical insecticides. In 1998 around 1000 tonnes less insecticide was used in the US cotton belt than before the introduction of GM cotton. That insecticide was mainly sprayed from planes. Only a small percentage reached its target. The rest drifted into the wider environment killing susceptible insects, whether pests or not. GM cotton only kills those insects that feed on the crop.

Independent studies on commercially grown herbicide-tolerant GM crops in North America have shown up to 50% reduction in herbicide use by farmers. Economic analyses suggest these commercial crops have led to a transfer of value from the agrochemical industry around half of which has gone to the farmer. The overall value (chemicals plus seeds) retained in the multinational agricultural supply industry has therefore gone down.

With this record of proven environmental benefit in practice, I find it hard to explain why there is such fierce opposition to the technology. Why are Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace trying to block technology that is decreasing pesticide use? I appreciate that some people have an intrinsic dislike of such powerful manipulation of genetics.

I also think the introduction of the GM soya products into Europe will go down in the marketing text books as a classic example of how not to launch a product. This was a shame after Zeneca's excellent launch of the GM tomato paste. But GM technology is not the real target but rather the weapon to use against multinationals and global corporations. It is effective because it can be used to stir emotions - 'Frankenstein Foods' might be nonsense but it is an eye-catching, gut-wrenching headline.

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Taken from an article in the Jaguar in-house magazine Sovereign as part of a Head to Head debate with Mae-Wan Ho.

Ben Miflin (Ben.Miflin@bbsrc.ac.uk), Lawes Trust Senior Fellow, Rothamsted, Harpenden, Herts, AL5 2JQ, UK.