For the last few years the phrase ‘genetically‐modified crops’ has become familiar to just about everyone. While supporters have hailed genetic modification as a life saver, opponents view it as potentially dangerous and even life‐threatening. So here’s a beginner’s guide to a topic that isn’t going to go away.
What are genetically modified crops?
Every organism from man to bacteria is made up of cells each of which contains our genetic blueprint. Genetically modified (GM) crops are those which have had their genetic make‐up adjusted scientifically for a specific reason.
Gardeners, farmers and horticulturalists have been modifying plants and animals for centuries through interbreeding. For example, different types of pigs have been interbred to produce an animal with less fat. Similarly different varieties of tomatoes have been crossed to give plants that are both fruitful and disease‐resistance. Specific breeds are selected for their varying qualities.
The difference between this age‐old selective breeding technique and the genetically‐modified crops of today is the accuracy with which the end result can be specified and the speed of change. Today’s techniques also allow varieties which wouldn’t normally come into contact e.g. tropical and temperate plants, to be interbred.
How is it done?
In 1977 it was discovered that a soil microbe could be used to inject alien genes into a plant allowing it to be modified to be pest or disease resistant. One of the most commonly used genes is from a species of bacteria, which produces an insecticide poison that is harmless to humans.
Genetic modification is, potentially, the answer to world hunger.
- The development of drought‐resistant plants will allow areas that are naturally arid to be productive.
- Pest‐resistant crops will lead to bigger harvests.
- Many people rely on a staple, such as rice, as the bulk of their diet. Rice doesn’t naturally contain all the goodness needed for a healthy development. Enhancing crops with protein will provide a better diet for the poorly nourished.
But it’s not just the third world that are set to benefit from GM. Genetically‐modified crops can have a longer shelf‐life, improved flavour and be allergen‐free. And onions have been developed guaranteed not to make you cry!
What are the potential dangers?
A huge debate has been raging ever since genetic modification was first mooted. Everyone from environmentalists and scientists to the Prince of Wales and the Pope has an opinion and the voices speaking against its introduction are loud for many reasons.
- It may harm friendly insects. The toxin produced by GM crops can’t differentiate between the good and the bad visitors. One study seemed to suggest genetic modification of a crop would have an adverse effect on Monarch butterfly caterpillars, for example. The current decline in the bee population, though not caused by GM crops, is seen as a threat to the whole food chain and is quoted as an example of the huge effect a seemingly small and unimportant insect can have.
- Pesticides may lose their effectiveness as insects grow tolerant to them. In the past we saw mosquitoes become immune to the pesticide DDT.
- One of the most discussed risks is that the modified genes would be transmitted naturally across species leading to the production of superweeds. Researchers have talked about establishing a buffer area around the field being used to grow genetically‐modified crops but how wide that zone would have to be to ensure no cross‐pollination took place is still being debated.
- Maybe the most obvious potential danger is that of interfering with the unknown and the effect it could have on human health. With more and more children developing food allergies – potentially life‐threatening – there is a fear that even more serious allergenic complications could arise. Studies carried out so far have been inconclusive and there is currently little evidence to back up the claim of a risk to human health but testing continues.
Are GM crops sold in Britain?
Currently no GM commercial crops are grown in Britain. Some GM crops, particularly soya, are imported from the EU to be used largely in animal feed, although some is used in products intended for the human food market.
Approval to market a GM product is given at EU level, while anyone in Britain who wants to research and develop a genetically modified organism has to first seek permission from the relevant national authority (DEFRA in England and the equivalent in Wales, Scotland and Ireland). Each case is assessed individually and has to pass a robust risk assessment before being put to senior ministers who will have taken expert scientific advice.
It’s also compulsory for any GM crop or product containing even a tiny amount of GM produce to be clearly labelled as such.
If you want to find out if any GM research is being undertaken in your area, contact:
- DEFRA (England)
- National Environment and Agriculture (Wales Assembly Government ‐ Wales is a founder member of GM Free Network of Regions)
- GM Policy Team (Scottish Executive ‐ opposed to the development of GM crops in Scotland)
- Planning & Natural Resource Division (Northern Ireland EA)