Scientific breakthroughs that promise the alleviation of some of humanity’s most pernicious ills are coming increasingly thick and fast as the white heat of biotechnology is applied to the curses of malnutrition and disease in the developing world.
Work is afoot by British researchers to tackle malaria by genetically modifying mosquitoes so the population of the parasite’s insect host falls off a cliff. Now, if all goes to plan, a GM banana containing elevated levels of beta-carotene will be growing in Uganda by 2020 – banishing the scourge of vitamin A deficiency which condemns thousands of Ugandan children to blindness or an early grave each year.
But experience suggests that is a big and dispiriting “if”. Similar promises were made more than a decade ago for golden rice, another GM creation which also locks vital pro-vitamin A into the grain that is a staple for 3.5 billion people. And yet how much golden rice was grown commercially last year to combat a nutritional deficit which kills up to 700,000 children worldwide every year? The answer is zero.
Much of the blame for his sorry state of affairs must be laid at the door of the anti-GM lobby, which persists in the argument that all genetically altered organisms are a violation of the natural order which will inevitably turn against their human creators.
Environmentalism is doing itself – and humanity – a gross disservice with its blanket opposition to GM. By 2050, there are predicted to be 9.5 billion people on the planet and food production must double to feed them. We need to grasp all tools to meet that challenge and not discard one of the most promising on the shaky grounds of dogma.