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Snarling from the soil

Christopher Aherne gets to the origins of the seemingly unending GM food debate

The Genetically Modified Food debate has been a hotly divisive issue for a long time and while the days of it being labelled “Frankenfood” are finally gone there is still strong opposition to further research in the field. While the possible benefits from genetically modifying crops are nearly endless, viagra there are some major concerns surrounding their widespread use which have never been fully answered. This is mostly because while the hazards to humans upon ingestion have largely been shown to be false, there are unknowns relating to the long term effect GM crops have on the environment. An element of the continued heat of the debate lies in the nature of the parties involved: on one side stand the well funded food industry which is up against an extremely strong and well organised anti-GM crop lobby.

A genetically modified crop is one which has had its intrinsic DNA altered so when the crop grows it will have beneficial characteristics which are not normally found in the plant. This opens up a huge number of possibilities as any number of modifications can be made either to increase a crops nutritional values or decrease its susceptibility to disease. However this comes at a price. There are genuine concerns that the widespread use of GM crops will reduce overall biodiversity in the areas surrounding the original planting grounds, especially if the crops are engineered to be more resilient in tough climates where they will compete against local species for resources. In this case, the genetically engineered crops would survive and the local crops would die and eventually fall into extinction as the GM crops thrive. There were some concerns that genetically modified crops could in instances be toxic when ingested, increasing cancer rates, but this was proved largely to be untrue, with the claims chief proponent, the scientist Arpad Pusztai, widely accused of producing falsified results.

While the health risks of GM are largely nonexistent their effect on the local environment and its biodiversity has been hard to prove or disprove. However one example does exist of the effects of interfering with a habitat. The case occurred in Mississippi where a company brought out a new herbicide to kill weeds and a specifically engineered crop which was not affected by the herbicide. For a number of years this worked well until a new weed was found to be growing in the fields which was unaffected by the herbicide. By wiping out all the weeds with this herbicide-crop combo it left room for a weed to spread without natural competition for resources. However this new weed is even harder to eradicate than the earlier weeds which had existed. So now farmers who invested in the new pesticide scheme have to fork out more for a new pesticide to kill the new weeds which are hard to eradicate and are affecting yields.

While this is an example of the potential problems with GM crops there is a debate over how valid a reduction in biodiversity is vs. the potential benefits that GM crops offer. As a species we can no longer afford to hold up the process of experiment in GM crops. With a surging human population on the planet which is matched by decreasing amounts of water, energy and food per person it is now a matter of necessity that GM foods are brought

to the forefront of agriculture. On average 30% of crops grown a year never make it to harvest due to pests, it is no longer rational to accept this figure. Such thinking was outlined last year in a report released by the UN in which they pointed out that there is a danger of serious food shortage towards the end of 2013. This is mainly due to drought in the USA which severely affected the harvest but also the result of the growing population and agriculture decline. In 6 out of the last 11 years the earths has consumed more than it has produced. This has left crop reserves at an all time low and pushed up the price of the likes of wheat and rice. While western civilisation is not so affected by this, in the developing world where 850 million people are already malnourished this has a deadly effect and will continue to push many of these people into starvation if it is not confronted.

It has already been shown that this kind of experimentation with crops can save lives. Norman Borlaug is a Nobel Peace Prize winner who famously developed a strain of wheat through cross breeding experiments which had much higher resistance to disease. Borlaug was awarded the peace prize as his creation saw wheat crops in many developing nations soar, it is believed that had Borlaug’s work not been completed many people would have died from starvation and so in some circles he is credited as the man who saved a billion lives.

However farmers are dealing with an ever increasing array of problems from high salt content in soils, and water to land compaction. While most experts admit that there is no one single answer to all these problems, the use of GM crops is definitely part of the answer. Researchers have already designed GM crops such as golden rice to contain more vitamin A which is one cause of blindness in children in the third world. A standard serving of this golden rice is carries enough Vitamin A to sustain a child and stop them from going blind. This is due to the rice being engineered to produce beta carotene which while giving the rice an orange pigment is also used by the body to make vitamin A. This is one example, but the process can be repeated so that foods of the standard third world diet can contain large amounts of the vitamins and nutrients that bodies need to survive and avoid disease.

This is only the beginning of what GM can achieve. There are numerous labs working on making stronger crops which can ward off pests. One example of this has been completed by researchers in England. In the UK aphids are major pests which it is estimated cause nearly 100 million pounds worth of damage to the annual wheat harvest. Scientists have now engineered a particular strain of wheat which emits a hormone called E-beta-farnesene. This hormone is emitted by aphids when they are being attacked and warns other aphids to avoid the area. It also has an extra effect of attracting species which live off aphids such as wasps.

While there will always be opposition to this area of agriculture surely the debate has reached the point that for humanities sake research into GM crops should be allowed to continue unimpeded by lobbyists. While there should be concern as to the environmental effects these crops can have, it should be thoroughly examined, and this can only be achieved through plantation studies which have been strongly impeded by the anti-GM lobby.