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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For skeptics, mixing the genes of unlike species is a usurping of nature, the creation of Frankensteins in the food chain, and a concession to giant agribusiness. Genetic manipulation has unknown and untested effects on people and other living things, they argue, and can harm everything from soil and friendly insects to other crops. It also smacks of the blind faith in technology that brought global warming, poisonous rivers, and choking pollution. A UN report in 2005 found that “assessment mechanisms were faulty” in the testing of GMOs.Skip to next paragraph
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“GM foods have not lived up to the promises we heard about 10 years ago,” says Helen Holder of Friends of the Earth in Brussels. “They have not alleviated poverty and hunger, and their environmental and health impacts are not understood. In Europe, we will pay more for safe food, and we reject GM.”
In the US, China, and Brazil, there are now roughly two generations of genetically modified crops. The first generation, marketed for a decade, includes most of what is actually grown on mass scale. This includes corn, soy, rapeseed (for canola oil), and cotton. First-generation GM crops consist mostly of plants modified to produce internal toxins that deter the pests that threaten crops, experts say.
The second generation of crops – mostly developed since 2000, in a climate of rising consumer safety fears – are more sophisticated. They involve modifications designed to increase nutrition, the protein, or vitamin content of crops. But few second-generation products have made it out of the lab.
While few scientists will absolutely guarantee the safety of genetic foods, they point out almost no side effects to human health. It is the effects on other plant species – that may be dominated and replaced in the natural world by GM crops – that concern some ecologists.
Most experts contacted favor a balanced, cautious approach. The British journalist and expert Martin Wolf, commenting in a recent Financial Times forum, commented that, “Obviously I am not in favour of ‘careless embrace of GM technology.’ Who could be?
“But I am in favour of careful use of this technology, rather than careless rejection. Equally, I am not claiming that the only choice is between adoption of genetically modified crops and mass starvation...we should use whatever we have.”
GMO and cross-breeding
Conventional plant breeding alters the genes of a plant or animal by selectively mating an organism with desirable characteristics using a species’ natural reproductive processes. Farmers have used this technique for centuries.
Genetic engineering alters a plant’s genes using techniques that directly insert new genetic material, which may come from another species, into a plant cell to create new or modified traits. Scientists first discovered the technique in 1973 and genetically modified food crops first became commercially available to farmers in the mid-1990s.
Source: Wire reports, Consumers Union.
– Compiled by Christine Chronopoulos