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Food crisis softens resistance to genetically modified (GM) food

At Rome summit, UN calls for $20 billion a year to feed hungry and fund a new ‘green revolution.’

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But views of genetic modification vary across Europe. Eurobarometer, a European Commission periodical, said in March that 58 percent of Europeans are opposed to the use of GM crops. But opinion in The Netherlands and Britain is less strident. Some Spanish farms are using engineered seeds. European farmers themselves (like those in Australia recently) are starting to say that tangible profits resulting from GM crops are changing their minds. A recent poll shows Italian farmers are willing to try them. Nor is the US uniformly on board. Wide swaths of land in Maine, Vermont, Oregon, and California are designated as GM-crop-free areas.

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US officials and farmers alike express irritation over cases of food aid rejected in hungry African states – by local authorities worried about the contamination of crops by GM grains, making them unfit for sale in lucrative non-GM -food European markets.

South Africa is the only African nation that has approved planting a GM crop, though Burkina Faso may be close to approving a cotton strain, following its widespread use in India, and Egypt is looking at GM maize, according to the Financial Times.

At the summit in Rome, the FAO took no position on genetic modification or GMOs (genetically modified organisms). The organization takes a neutral position allowing choice by each nation. “Traditional farming techniques can close the yield gap between developing and developed nation farming, which is sometimes double,” says FAO spokesman Ali Gurkan. “But new research into GM seeds that have no harmful impact on the environment and strengthen plants in drought areas – this could greatly help.”

The GM dispute, complicated enough at a technical level, goes far deeper than food. It reveals profound clashes over science and culture, and over fundamental views about how to live in and organize the modern world, experts say.

“There’s a deep divide over the role of technology in agriculture, and GMOs are the key,” says an FAO official who was not officially cleared to speak. But he said that when GM and non-GM crops are studied side by side, the GM crops have consistently cost less to produce and brought greater “effective” yields, “which is how much you get after the bugs have stopped chewing on them,” he says.

For advocates, GM crops mean fewer harmful pesticides sprayed on crops, less fertilizer, greater harvest yields, and no ill- health effects. Biotech promises a future of drought resistant crops and cheaper, less vulnerable harvests.