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Latest Newsletter - Issue 14

Where do you stand on the GM debate?

It is well recognised that food security requires solutions to many diverse problems.  In the US or Europe, improved seeds could increase yields by 10% or more, reduce pesticide use and give "more crop per drop".  However, improved seeds can only help impoverished African farmers if they also have reliable water supply, roads to take crops to market, and (probably most importantly) fertiliser.

Better farming methods are also part of the solution; these require investment in technology and people.

Environmentalists want to reduce the impact of agriculture while maintaining food supply and so cultivate less land, leaving more for wildlife, but if we are to produce enough food, yields must go up and as we know there are many contributors to yield; water, fertiliser, farming practice, and choice of seed.

This is where GM comes in.  Crop performance can be improved by both plant breeding (which gets better every year with new genetic methods), and by genetic modification (GM).  The method is simple, take a plant, which typically carries about 30,000 genes and add a few additional genes that confer insect resistance, or herbicide resistance, or disease resistance, or more efficient water use, or improved human nutrition, or less polluting effluent from animals that eat the grain, or more efficient fertiliser uptake, or increased yield.  The result is increased yield, decreased agrochemical use and reduced environmental impact of agriculture.

Professor Jonathan Jones argues that GM is the most rapidly adopted, benign, effective new technology for agriculture in his lifetime.  Currently fourteen million farmers grow GM crops on 135 million hectares; these numbers increased by about 10% per year over the past decade, and this rate of growth continues.  This has resulted in more than 200,000 tonnes of insecticide that have not been applied, thanks to built-in insect resistance in crops; how could anyone think that's a bad thing?

GM modified maize is safer to eat because of lower levels of mycotoxins from fungi that enter the plant's grains via the holes made by corn-borer feeding; no insects, no holes, no fungal entry, no toxins in our food.  And with not enough fish in the sea to provide us all with enough omega 3 fatty acids in our diet why not modify oilseeds to make this nutrient in crops on land?

One of the fears of GM in part seems to be the domination of the seed industry by multinationals but their dominance has been brought about, in part, by regulation of GM which has, so far, bolstered the monopoly of the multinationals rather than provide opportunities for the public sector and start-up businesses to contribute.

Whether GM is bad for the environment is an emotive question.  Professor Jones argues it is less bad to control weeds with a rapidly inactivated herbicide after the crop germinates, than to apply more persistent chemicals beforehand.  It is less bad to have the plant make its own insecticidal protein, than to spray insecticides.  It is better to maximise the productivity of arable land via all kinds of sustainable intensification, than to require more land under the plough because of reduced yields.

There is no doubt we need smart, sustainable, sensitive science and technology in order to feed the planet and that may well include GM.  To follow the debate and to have your say visit: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/8789279.stm

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