GM foods are safe, healthy and essential if we ever want to achieve decent living standards for the world's growing population. Misplaced moralising about them in the west is costing millions of lives in poor countriesby Dick Taverne / November 25, 2007 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2007 issue of Prospect Magazine
Seven years ago, Time magazine featured the Swiss biologist Ingo Potrykus on its cover. As the principal creator of genetically modified rice—or “golden rice”—he was hailed as potentially one of mankind’s great benefactors. Golden rice was to be the start of a new green revolution to improve the lives of millions of the poorest people in the world. It would help remedy vitamin A deficiency, the cause of 1-2m deaths a year, and could save up to 500,000 children a year from going blind. It was the flagship of plant biotechnology. No other scientific development in agriculture in recent times held out greater promise.
Seven years later, the most optimistic forecast is that it will take another five or six years before golden rice is grown commercially. The realisation of Potrykus’s dream keeps receding. The promised benefits from other GM crops that should reduce hunger and disease have been equally elusive. GM crops should now be growing in areas where no crops can grow: drought-resistant crops in arid soil and salt-resistant crops in soil of high salinity. Plant-based oral vaccines should now be saving millions of deaths from diarrhoea and hepatitis B; they can be ingested in orange juice, bananas or tomatoes, avoiding the need for injection and for trained staff to administer them and refrigeration to store them.
None of these crops is yet on the market. What has gone wrong? Were the promises unrealistic, or is GM technology, as its opponents claim, flawed— because of possible harm to human safety or the environment or because it is ill-suited to the needs of poor farmers in the developing world? Public discussion of GM food in the British media, and throughout Europe, reflects a persistent suspicion of GM crops. Supermarkets display notices that their products are “GM-free.” Sales of organic food, promoted as a natural alternative to the products of modern scientific farming, are increasing by about 20 per cent a year. Indeed, EU regulations, based on the precautionary principle, provide safeguards against “contamination” of organic farms by GM crops; they require any produce containing more than 0.9 per cent GM content to be labelled as such, with the clear implication that it needs a health warning and should be avoided. This causes a major conflict over GM soya beans imported from America. Some GM crops are taking root in some European countries, but in most they are in effect banned. The public is led to believe that GM technology is not only unsafe but harmful to the environment, and that it only serves to profit big agricultural companies.