Steve Connor: Opponents of this crop trial are blind to the food crisis
Steve Connor is the Science Editor of The Independent. He has won many awards for his journalism, including five-times winner of the prestigious British science writers’ award; the David Perlman Award of the American Geophysical Union; twice commended as specialist journalist of the year in the UK Press Awards; UK health journalist of the year and a special merit award of the European School of Oncology for his investigative journalism. He has a degree in zoology from the University of Oxford and has a special interest in genetics and medical science, human evolution and origins, climate change and the environment.
Sunday 27 May 2012
The battle over GM food has begun again and it seems there is little in common between those in favour of research and those opposed, other than a belief that they are right and the other side is wrong.
These fundamental ideological differences are unlikely to be settled but it should at least be possible to dispel the irrational statements about this particular experiment that have gained traction over recent months.
The first is that this GM wheat contains cow genes. It does not. One of the synthetic genes added to the wheat plant just happens to bear some similarity to a gene found in cows, a gene incidentally found in many other organisms.
The second is that GM wheat contains antibiotic resistance genes that threaten to make drugs ineffective. These well-known “marker” genes were indeed used during the initial development but they are non functional in this plant.
Another criticism is that the GM wheat is a spring variety and only 1 per cent of wheat grown in the UK is spring wheat, which means there is not market for GM spring wheat.
Rothamsted deliberately chose spring wheat because of its rarity. It means there is even less chance of cross pollination with other varieties of wheat maturing at different times of the year, and any technology that works in spring wheat can be transferred to other wheat varieties.
The final criticism comes down the risk of this GM wheat contaminating other crops growing nearby. Wheat is self pollinating, and the risk of contamination is very small indeed, especially given the extra biosecurity measures taken by the scientists.
GM technology on its own will not feed the world. However, it does offer an extra tool for allowing this to happen. Preventing experiments such as this, where there is clearly a public benefit if it works, will equally do nothing to solve the coming food crisis of the 21st Century.
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