Should we modify our view of GM?

Remember Genetically Modified crops? Attempts to grow them in the UK a few years ago met with a wave of opposition that drove them from fields and supermarket shelves, a pattern that was repeated across Europe. It wasn’t like that everywhere though, and today GM technology is firmly established in the Americas, Australia and Asia, accounting for 25% of the planet’s maize production and 75% of soyabeans. So should we think again about the much-vilified ‘Frankenstein foods”?

In the final lecture in the BRLSI World Affairs Group’s World Food Futures series Prof Rod Scott (pictured right), Professor of Plant Microbiology at Bath University, told us unequivocally that we not only should, but must, revise our view of GM if we’re to have any chance of feeding the world’s population in the coming decades. That population in set to reach nine billion by 2050, and while the ‘green revolution’ of conventionally-bred high yield crop varieties and improved cultivation methods had (partly) kept up with population growth over the past 50 years, it’s running out of steam now, as well as creating a world soaked in pesticides. What’s more while there might, in theory, be enough productive land to grow all this food, it isn’t always where the people are, forcing us into dependence on transport, and thus that other critical 21st-century commodity, energy.
GM, Prof Scott told us, provides the right answers to these problems, allowing us to develop crops that are pest and disease resistant (thus reducing or even eliminating the need for chemicals), and suitable for growth in regions that can’t support unmodified varieties. Despite the ‘Frankenstein’ jibes it’s actually the same thing as conventional breeding (albeit with the ability to transfer genes between species), but much quicker and more reliable and versatile. And in 15 years of use there haven’t been any significant problems – no super-weeds or killer plagues, just some allergic responses in a tiny number of people, which would have gone unnoticed in a non-GM context.

So why is there still so much resistance to GM here? Prof Scott laid the blame firmly at the doors of the environmental lobby and the media, while conceding that the public image of the giant agribusiness companies doesn’t help in getting the science a fair hearing. For questions he was joined by agricultural consultant John Landell Mills, who took a harder line, describing claims that organic farming could feed the world as ‘wildly dishonest’, and GreenPeace as ‘a menace’. The audience, for their part, displayed surprisingly little anti-GM sentiment, possibly because a significant number of them seemed to have been involved, in one way or another, in providing food for the third world. As one member pointed out, in the time it had taken him to ask his question, 50 people had died of hunger. Food for thought, at the very least.