Genetically modified crops: Greed or need ?
 A Panos feature

Genetic experiments in agriculture are nothing new. For centuries, farmers around the world have selectively bred livestock and crop plants in order to produce strains with improved characteristics. But major changes have been occurring during the past decade, both in the methods being used and in the identity of those working to produce these novel strains.

To date, most varieties of crop plants have been developed either within farming communities or by publicly funded agricultural research institutions. Both farmers’ traditional selective breeding techniques and conventional institutional breeding programmes use the natural variation within plant species to develop improved strains. This method has now been augmented by molecular biology techniques, which allow the introduction into plants and animals of entirely new characteristics, including genes originally found in unrelated plants, animals or micro-organisms.

The physical form and chemical composition of a typical crop plant is determined by up to 80,000 genes, or sections of DNA found in the nucleus of all cells. Genetic engineering enables scientists to insert new genes into an individual plant cell, which is then grown in tissue culture and can be used to regenerate full sized plants.

Now public funding for agricultural research institutions is dwindling, and the private sector is taking the lead in research and development of new seeds using the new genetic engineering technology. The principal actors are transnational ‘life industry’ corporations, whose interests cover the food chain from seed distribution through the manufacture of herbicides and insecticides to food production.

Genetic engineering is moving fast and the stakes are high. It requires big investments, and it raises great hopes and fears. Its supporters expect it to bring great benefits to the environment, food producers and consumers worldwide, while its opponents fear dangers to the environment and human health and negative impacts on small farmers. It is too early to know whether either the benefits or the fears will materialise, but meanwhile the technology raises new questions of science, law, ethics and economics which should be thoroughly debated around the world.

An estimated 30 million acres (12 million hectares) of genetically modified (GM) crops were sown in 1997, up from 4-6 million acres in 19% [1]. The overwhelming majority of this land is in the USA and Canada, but GM soya beans have also been grown in Argentina. The first commercial GM crop in Europe is due this year: between 1,000 and 2,000 hectares of maize with resistance to the European corn borer is expected to be planted in France and 15,000 hectares in northern Spain. Meanwhile, noncommercial trials of GM crops are taking place in many countries throughout the world.

So far 64 GM crop varieties have been approved in the USA and Canada, 20 in Japan and eight in Europe (with applications pending on a further 13 products). However, the European authorities have only given conditional approval to the new technology. Only one of the authorisations so far allows large scale commercial production. The licence for Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soya only allows the beans to be imported and processed within the EU, while in two member states, Austria and Luxembourg, there are outright bans on all GM crops.

The attitude of the European regulatory authorities reflects widespread public concern about the use of GM crops in food production. The strength of feeling varies between different countries, but even among many people who accept the value of genetic manipulation for producing new medical treatments there is uneasiness about the ‘unnatural’ character of GM food.

GENETICALLY MODIFIED CROPS AND THE INDUSTRY CASE: The proponents of biotechnology claim that it Will transform agriculture, giving us the ability to ‘design’ crop plants to produce increased yields in difficult conditions with far less reliance on chemical inputs. Their vision on is of GM crops as a clean and sustainable solution to the problem of food security for the world’s growing population in the 21st century. Monsanto, the world’s largest, GM seed company, foresees three waves of beneficial products: "The first consists of genetically modified crops which are resistant to insects and disease, or tolerant of herbicides. These will allow farmers to meet the growing demand for food from a population set to double in size over the next 50 years. The second wave, due to begin in five years’ time, will see genetically induced ‘quality traits’ in food, such as high-fibre maize, or high-starch potatoes, some of which will help doctors to fight disease. And in the third wave, plants will be used as environmentally friendly ‘factories’ to produce substances for human consumption".

Some of the environmental benefits the industry expects are as follows. Water shortage and the increasing salinity of large areas of arable land are major constraints on agricultural productivity in many developing countries. If scientists can genetically modify plants for increased tolerance to these factors, GM crops could have significant beneficial effects on global food production. Scientists in Spain and the UK have reported success in producing modified strains of crops including rice, melons, tomatoes and barley, using genes extracted from yeast which improve the plants’ ability to deal with excess sodium salts


Source: The Daily Independent, Dhaka, March 29, 2002


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