A rational policy on GM food?
Hype or hysteria: A rational policy on GM food?
Public Service, February 9 2010
Pete Riley, Campaign Director, GM Freeze
After over a decade of much hyperbole about GM crops feeding the world, and making farming more sustainable, the area of farm land covered by GM crops in the world is just 2.4%.
So we are, and will remain, reliant on crops produced by conventional breeding techniques. Marker Assisted Selection (MAS), developed using molecular biology, now allows conventional plant breeders to identify which genes are present in parents and offspring, and this is already enabling useful traits to be incorporated into commercial non-GM varieties much faster (eg. flood tolerant rice). It is vital to distinguish between other forms of biotechnology, such as MAS, and genetic modification. Other plant breeders are researching polyculture, or the sowing of mixed seed lots with a broad genetic base, so that crops can cope better with a wide range of stresses.
However, some countries have adopted GM crops on a huge scale. Argentina, for instance, has 50-68% of arable land under one GM crop, Monsanto's RR soya. Good farming practices, such as rotating crops to avoid weed, pest and disease build-up, don't seem to feature in South American intensive production systems, which are primarily concerned with exporting animal feed to earn foreign currency.
The claimed benefits from GM crops don't stand up to close scrutiny. In the USA, there is no evidence that there have been yield increases following the introduction of herbicide tolerant and insect resistant crops. Indeed, the increasing reliance on the Monsanto's Roundup has resulted in the development of resistant weeds, which have to be sprayed using increased amounts of other herbicides.
The report of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), published this year, pointed very clearly to the need to change tack in agricultural research. It called for more farmer involvement in plant breeding, and to develop agro-ecological techniques for dealing with pests, building the fertility of the soil, and tackling climate change. Hi-tech and expensive GM crops don't fit this model, but MAS and polyculture, under the control of farmers working alongside scientists, offer prospects for success.