02.Your guide to GM
Genetic modification (GM) or genetic engineering (GE) is the technology that enables scientists to take genes from one organism and transfer them to another of a different species. All living organisms share the same system of genetics based on DNA, so genes from one organism can work satisfactorily in another. You could, for example, put a gene from a fish into a fruit, or a jellyfish gene into a mouse. GM makes possible gene transfers between animals, plants and bacteria that can’t be done by conventional plant or animal breeding techniques. For example, both types of GM canola now grown in Australia have genes that came from species of soil bacteria. It’s a powerful technology with the potential to be of great benefit to consumers, but if misused it could cause great harm.
Pros of GM
- Increased crop yields with less reliance on chemical fertilisers and pesticides
- Crops less susceptible to damage after harvest, with built-in defences against moulds or insects
- Crops more tolerant to drought, salinity or rising temperatures from global warming
- Food with improved nutritional value, such as rice boosted with vitamin A or soya oil enriched with omega-3 fatty acids
Cons of GM
- There’s a shortage of rigorous independent studies examining the performance and claimed benefits of GM crops. The big agritech companies have given themselves veto power over the work of independent researchers, and only studies that these companies approve see the light of peer-reviewed journals. This means it’s impossible to be sure GM crops perform as advertised
- There are risks to the environment. GM crop genes can move across to weed plants, which become resistant to herbicides. A recent study by the US Center for Science in the Public Interest found about a quarter of US farmers growing GM corn ignore key government requirements for preventing damage to the environment
- There’s growing evidence that introduction of some GM varieties has increased the usage of pesticides
- Patent laws give the developers of GM crops a dangerous degree of control over the food supply. Important agricultural markets are increasingly dominated by a few firms and there’s been convergence of ownership between agricultural chemicals and GM seeds. Increased control of the seed supply by a handful of agricultural biotechnology giants is raising seed prices and reducing seed choices.
Feed the world?
One of the claims often made supporting GM is that it’s essential for solving the world’s food crisis. So far, however, GM crops have not increased food security for the world’s poor. Most aren’t destined for hungry people in the third world; they’re used to feed animals, generate biofuels and produce highly processed food products, mainly for consumption in rich countries.
Nonetheless, GM crops clearly have huge potential to improve human wellbeing if used for social good rather than commercial gain – and if rigorously tested for health and environmental safety.