TOPIC GUIDE: GM Food
"It is time to embrace the commercial planting of GM crops"
PUBLISHED: 31 Aug 2011
AUTHOR: Jason Smith
In recent years the issue of whether to pursue the commercial planting of genetically modified (GM) crops has resurfaced. In the context of concerns over a future ‘global food crisis’ [Ref: Telegraph], a number of GM advocates and government ministers [Ref: Independent] have said that GM has the capacity to facilitate a second ‘green revolution’ [Ref: Guardian] and help feed the world’s poor. Some have gone so far as to criticise ‘European GM Myths’ [Ref: European Voice] for hindering Africa’s escape from poverty and creating a situation where most African countries shun GM crops and food [Ref: Truth About Trade]. But anti-GM campaigners argue claims that GM can alleviate poverty are disingenuous and misrepresent the real political problems behind food shortages across the world [Ref: Global Issues]. They further suggest that there are sufficient unknown risks to justify a freeze on commercialisation. Prince Charles flamed the debate when he called GM a ‘gigantic experiment with nature and the whole of humanity’ [Ref: Farmers Guardian]. Whilst some countries such as the United States, Brazil, Argentina and Canada already grow GM crops extensively, many others have been more hesitant especially when it comes to food crops [Ref: Reuters]. The debate involves an interconnected set of issues, ranging from the environmental impact, economic costs and benefits of GM to wider concerns about food production, human health and the environment.
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GM Food DEBATE IN CONTEXT
This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.
What’s new about GM technology?
For thousands of years farmers and plant breeders have been changing the genetic makeup of crops to improve characteristics like size, resistance to disease, and taste. They started simply by sowing only those seeds that came from plants with desirable traits. Later, knowledge about plant reproduction enabled crossbreeding of plants to create new crops. Throughout the 20th Century scientists also successfully used chemicals and radiation to introduce favourable mutations in crops. Now genetic engineering makes it possible to overcome natural reproductive barriers, as a single gene with a desired function can be transferred into an existing crop variety. At the centre of the debate is the question of whether GM is simply the next stage in the development of agricultural technologies or whether it represents a new departure with risky and irreversible consequences?
Does GM create new risks?
Many plant scientists claim that because genetic modification is more precise than crossbreeding it involves the transfer of less genetic material and is therefore more predictable [Ref: BBC News]. However, environmentalists have expressed concern about the introduction of genes not previously found in the food supply, like a human liver gene inserted into rice by researchers to allow it to break down herbicides and pollutants [Ref: Telegraph]. They argue that the transfer of genes is a haphazard process, breaking up the natural sequencing of genes and leading to unforeseen consequences [Ref: Independent]. In response, it has been argued that these risks must be put into context. Non-GM agriculture is not risk free and we accept some risks from foods like peanuts which were not tested when first sold in this country but are now known to cause severe allergic reactions. There is also some evidence that GM could damage farmland biodiversity, which environmentalists argue should signal the end of GM in the UK [Ref: BBC News]. But supporters of GM say that threats to biodiversity are exaggerated. Changing farming practices will create winners and losers, but the impact on wildlife will not be uniformly negative.
What does food biotechnology have to offer?
Critics complain that most GM technologies focus on developing characteristics valuable to rich farmers, such as herbicide and insect resistance [Ref: Independent]. They claim that GM offers no answer to the problem of global hunger and will further strengthen the hold of multi-national corporations over the world’s poorest farmers [Ref: Hindu]. Others point out how research funded by public bodies and philanthropic organisations is leading to important breakthroughs that will benefit the poor. A key example being the creation of crops such as Golden Rice, which is modified to contain a precursor of Vitamin A and mitigates against blindness [Ref: Golden Rice]. When touring India on work related to his philanthropic foundation that emphasises the role science and technology have to play in improving the lives of people in need, Bill gates argued strongly in favour of GM technology [Ref: Indian Express]. Proponents of biotechnology also argue that it can deliver direct benefits to human health with developments in the pipeline including GM tomatoes that contain antioxidants to improve diet [Ref: The Times]; and GM soya beans containing omega3 acids, which, it is said, could help ‘prevent heart attacks’ [Ref: The Times].
What’s the current situation in the UK?
Following the lifting, in 2004, of a moratorium banning GM food from countries within the European Union (EU) [Ref: BBC News] and a series of farm-scale evaluations (FSEs) [Ref: BBC News], permission to plant one variety of GM maize was granted in the UK [Ref: BBC News]. However, the maize was never planted as the company involved pulled out [Ref: BBC News]. More recently, in what is being seen as paving the way for a ban on GM crops, the EU has allowed member states to decide their own GM policy [Ref: Guardian]. Some argue that the delay in embracing GM has exacted heavy costs; not only has agribusiness been undermined, but research in to biotechnology has been driven out of the UK [Ref: Prospect]. But critics counter that the commercial planting of GM is unnecessary and dangerous. Some suggest that a system of sustainable agriculture offers better results – higher yield and more jobs – that also protect the environment and benefit producers over corporations [Ref: Soil Association].
Is it science that’s at stake, or the profits of big business?
GM supporters accuse their opponents of an anti-scientific attitude that feeds public fears and jeopardises scientific research. They emphasise the importance of the biotechnology industry in underpinning scientific progress. Environmentalists retort that all this talk about science is simply a way of distracting attention from corporations’ hunger for profit.
It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.
David Katz Huffington Post 29 July 2011
Sarah Boseley Guardian 9 July 2011
Economist 23 February 2011
William Surman Farmers Guardian 28 September 2010
Jay Rayner Guardian 5 October 2008
Jonathan D G Jones Guardian 21 July 2011
Martin Banks Parliament 2 March 2011
John Krebs The Times 12 November 2008
Dominic Lawson Independent 15 August 2008
Julian Little Guardian 14 August 2008
Paul Johnston Ecologist 23 August 2011
Jonathan Latham Guardian 15 June 2011
Peter Melchett Guardian 9 December 2008
Graham Harvey Guardian 14 August 2008
Dr Michael Antoniou Independent 27 September 2007
Business Matters 2011
Simon Rodgers Guardian 17 June 2011
Dan Jones New Scientist 9 January 2009
Dick Taverne Prospect 1 November 2007
Ecologist June 2003
Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.
Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.
Ecologist 1 August 2011
Ian Scoones ESRC 26 January 2011
Battle of Ideas 1 November 2008
Financial Times 3 July 2008
Politics.co.uk 25 February 2008
New Scientist 4 September 2006
Deborah B Whitman ProQuest April 2000
Santa Fe Institute Fora.tv
Friends of the Earth
Sue Mayer & Andy Stirling Nature
The Soil Association
Nuffield Council on Bioethics
Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.
IN THE NEWS
Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.
Daily Mail 16 August 2011
Farming UK 16 August 2011
Telegraph 3 August 2011
Independent 24 January 2011
Telegraph 24 January 2011
Independent 8 October 2010
Evening Standard 10 August 2010
BBC News 13 July 2010
Indian Express 16 May 2010
BBC News 2 March 2010
Telegraph 21 October 2009
Telegraph 27 July 2009
The Times 14 August 2008
Independent 21 June 2008
Telegraph 19 June 2008
BBC News 19 June 2008
Guardian 13 February 2008
Telegraph 25 April 2005
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