GM crops: Vital for food security? Or overestimated potential?

We need to have a more nuanced debate about GM – rather than a simple good versus bad argument that we’ve had for the past 20 years

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This week, The Independent explores the debate that still rages over genetically modified food nearly 20 years after the first commercial crops were developed.

We travelled to Kenya and Uganda where scientists are using GM to improve drought resistance and combat pests and diseases – some of which are unique to Africa. We also went to Monsanto, the company that first commercialised GM, and which for many is still a byword for corporate greed and irresponsibility. 

The trips have not been funded by either side in the debate and we have spoken to those who believe GM can contribute to world food security and those who say it is unnecessary, possibly dangerous and should be abandoned.

The idea for a series examining the pros and the cons of GM came from talking to a friend – who had previously been opposed to the technology – but changed his mind and is now campaigning for its acceptance. And it’s been fascinating. Everyone should make up their own minds but here are a couple of observations. The first is that there is now a broad scientific consensus that GM is safe. That is not the same as saying that GM could not create a plant that is toxic – but properly regulated these concerns are small.

Secondly, GM is no longer the preserve of big business. Philanthropic or public sector GM projects could provide benefits of increasing food security in parts of the world where climate change is likely to make farming increasingly hostile.

But equally GM is not a magic bullet – it is a slow, laborious process that fails as often as it works. Its proponents have also sometimes been guilty of overestimating its potential over other more basic farming methods such as good irrigation, conventional breeding, and crop management.

One thing seems clear: we need to have a more nuanced debate about GM – rather than a simple good versus bad argument that we’ve had for the past 20 years.

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