The world’s first GM food for human consumption was introduced to the market in 1994 when a Californian company was granted a licence to sell the FlavrSavr, a tomato which was genetically altered to make it more resistant to rotting once picked. Scientists declared that it was “as safe as tomatoes bred by conventional means”. It didn’t last long on the market, but the US is now the biggest grower of GM crops, with large quantities used in industrial-scale biofuels.
Twenty years on, the debate over GM food is far from over. The Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, said last year that modified crops pose no danger to us, saying that they offer the “most wonderful opportunities to improve human health” and that they could “combat the damaging effects of unpredictable weather and disease on crops”. The Food Standards Agency and several scientists have backed his claims.
Critics are concerned about the possibility they will cause new food allergies, and that laboratories have too much of a commercial interest to come to a rational conclusion. They also claim that GM crops will cause irreversible adjustments to nature – something which we may not be able to notice for decades.
British scientists are about to reignite the debate, as they seek permission to conduct field trials on a crop rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Doubtless our news pages will soon feature protesters fearful of GM crops permanently damaging our fragile ecosystem, while scientists will be frantically trying to convey the benefits.
Is GM the answer? Over to you.