Natural alternatives to GM crops
Natural alternatives to GM crops
The Guardian (Letters), 24 September 2008
Ian Pearson needs to get his science straight before considering taking a stance in support of GM (Science minister attempts to reopen the debate on GM crops, September 22).
Properties such as innate pest or blight resistance, drought or salt tolerance and yield are sophisticated processes that manifest from the function of multiple genes working in a tightly regulated, coordinated manner. The introduction of such properly functioning complex gene networks in plants by the crude and genetically disruptive GM transformation process is currently not possible. Fortunately, we have better alternatives that can contribute to alleviating the world's food problems now.
First, the biotechnological procedure of marker-assisted selection (MAS), which uses our increasing knowledge of gene maps, can significantly expedite the identification of new crop varieties with complex desirable properties created by natural cross-breeding programmes. Unlike GM, there are no inherent safety concerns with MAS that makes use of the vast gene pool of any given food crop in a manner that retains natural gene order and function.
Second, a 1996 report by the National Research Council in the US highlighted that there already exist many crops such as fonio, pearl millet, African rice that are naturally adapted to harsh climates and marginal soils as well as being nutritious and tasty. Unfortunately, outside interference has led to these hardy staples being displaced by maize, wheat and Asian rice. In the face of climate change, the world needs fast solutions to its food problems, which MAS and a return to traditional food varieties can provide and which GM simply cannot deliver.
Dr Michael Antoniou
King's College London
Ian Pearson's comments reveal a government increasingly prepared to act as a mouthpiece for the GM industry. GM crops have failed to deliver - they do not yield more than conventional crops and there is not a single GM drought or salt-tolerant crop available commercially.
The government's own GM public debate in 2003 revealed widespread scepticism over both GM crops and corporate control of the food system. Instead of trying to convince the public to support GM and continuing to fund this unpopular and ineffective technology, the government must focus on the real farming solutions backed by 400 scientists in a recent UN report on the future of agriculture. This means meeting local food needs by combining science and technology with communities' traditional knowledge to support localised and diverse farming.
Food campaigner, Friends of the Earth
Another week, another government minister tries to persuade us to grow GM crops. It is as if the UN report earlier this year, endorsed by the UK government, has been forgotten. The International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development report said GM technology was not a quick fix to feed the world's poor. The 400 scientists who wrote it said they saw little role for GM in feeding the poor on a large scale; data on some GM crops indicated highly variable yield gains in some places and declines in others. GM crops are not banned in the UK; it is just that hardly anyone wants to buy them, and so no farmer wants to risk growing them. The environment minister, Phil Woolas, is giving opponents of GM crops a year to join in a debate. What will happen at the end of this one-year consultation that will be different to the situation as it stands today?
Ian Pearson believes that the British public would accept GM crops if they were beneficial to consumers. Yet the public would gladly forgo those benefits if they knew what the government is ignoring: that every feeding trial carried out by independent scientists on laboratory animals results in serious harm to their health. Government assurances of safety rely on tests submitted by the GM seed developers. There are many other reasons why GM crops should be neither grown nor eaten, but these facts alone should suffice to call for a moratorium, at least, and not promotion. Ministers are failing in their responsibility to protect the people and the environment in their zeal to promote the economy.