The promises made for GM crops are the same as those made 20 years ago—and they remain unfulfilledby Helen Wallace / December 22, 2007 / Leave a comment
The story of genetically modified “golden rice” is indeed shocking, as Dick Taverne says, but not, as he argues, because public reluctance to eat GM crops in Europe has somehow denied a life-saving technology to people in developing countries.
Golden rice was launched on the world with much fanfare in 1999, with claims that it could cure blindness in millions of children brought on by vitamin A deficiency. But the levels of beta-carotene in golden rice were far too low to make an impact on this deficiency. Although scientists have recently succeeded in increasing the levels of beta-carotene, there is still no scientific study that demonstrates that this technology can overcome vitamin A deficiency in humans. In contrast, other proven strategies exist, including supplementation, food fortification and increasing dietary diversity (ensuring that poor children have vegetables to eat as well as rice).
More broadly, the act of engineering enhanced levels of vitamins and nutrients into the food chain is deeply questionable because it does not target nutrients at the people most in need, and may cause harm to others in the population. Food fortification requires paying careful attention to the “non-target” population—people who are not suffering from the deficiency the fortification aims to address, and who may be harmed by unintended effects. GM crops introduce new dangers because the nutrients are engineered into the plant, rather then being added during processing. This makes it doubly difficult to track where the product will end up, to monitor adverse effects in the food chain or environment, and to withdraw the product should harmful effects be identified.
The value of GM crops in sustainable agriculture in both the developed and developing worlds will continue to be contested. However, there is no doubt that the interests of commodity crop farmers have been prioritised over those of poor, “low-input” farmers in decisions about crop development. Genetic modification has come to be the focus of crop and food research largely because knowledge about gene sequencing and its use in making GM crops has been patentable. This has driven agricultural research into the private domain, changing research priorities from public good to market potential.
Crop GM techniques arose at a time of changing political views on the purpose of science in British society. We have seen an increasing demand for basic science to meet the needs of business, and for greater links between public researchers and…