Noel Kingsbury is a horticulturalist and writer. His latest book, Hybrid: The History and Science of Plant Breeding, will be published in October by Chicago University Press.
People are simply not objective or “rational” when it comes to what science they believe, as illustrated by the different attitudes to GM in the US and in Europe. It has been the misfortune of GM technology to have arrived at a time when there is such distrust of science and the wholesale privatization of the crop-breeding industry (it used to be largely state-owned in the US, the UK, and many other European countries).
Most of those who oppose GM crops have failed to separate the two sides of the issue: the control of the technology by corporations and the safety/environmental aspects. During the 1980s mega-corporations like Monsanto, with no history of plant breeding, took over the business and promoting of GM crops. But the technology does not have to be controlled by the likes of Monsanto. One of the biggest investors in GM is the Chinese government, and the Dr. Swaminathan Institute in India is an example of a not-for-profit investing in developing “GM crops for poor people.”
The fact is that the scientific case against GM is pretty threadbare. It is far more precise and predictable than some of the most important breeding technologies of the last 50 years. If you get hot under the collar about GM, why not the far more frightening “radiation breeding”? Mention that to most anti-GM activists and they look puzzled. Radiation breeding involves zapping seeds or cuttings with radiation, or treating plant material with gene-altering chemicals. Many countries in the 1960s invested in “radiation fields” where trees were grown behind big earthen dykes so that they would be permanently irradiated. The goal: obtaining mutations that might be useful, as one in several tens of thousands was. The first radiation-bred rice was sold as “Nuclear Rice” in Hungary in the mid-1950s. Imagine marketing that today! Radiation breeding is unpredictable, uncertain in its results, and causes widespread genome damage. But no one has ever suggested that it has ever done any harm! Much Italian pasta has been grown with an irradiated durum wheat. Nearly all Asian pears are the offspring of irradiated grafts. And—get this— much European organic beer is brewed from radiation-bred barley! No one complains or protests. Wake up! Be realistic! Why get so excited by GM?
GM crops must be looked at and judged variety by variety. The first generation Roundup™ varieties are giving way to second generation crops with some highly valuable characteristics, like resistance to pests (thousands of deaths by pesticide poisoning have already been avoided by Chinese and Indian caterpillar-proof cotton) and drought-tolerance. Once we start to see soy with omega-3s or nutrient-enhanced tomatoes, attitudes will surely start to change.
World population is increasing, arable land availability is decreasing, and water resources are shrinking. We need every technology possible to increase yields, reduce toxic pesticide use, improve nutritional value, and feed the world. The European and Indian opposition to GM is rooted in a hopelessly romantic view of farming. Farming is not a romantic business—it is about feeding the human race, and we must listen to the overwhelming consensus of plant science—that GM is safe and desirable.
Originally published on http://seedmagazine.com.