GM crops: a crucial technology to feed the world

Genetic modification (GM) is the most critical technology in agriculture for meeting the challenge of feeding a growing global population, says Nina Fedoroff, a former science and technology adviser to Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice, two former U.S. Secretaries of State.

In a recent open access article ‘Food in a future of 10 billion’ in the journal Agriculture & Food Security, Nina Fedoroff said, “Every credible scientific body that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion. The overwhelming evidence is that the GM foods now on the market are as safe, or safer, than non-GM foods.”

A photograph of a Kenyan WEMA seed farmer and family. GM crops.

A photo of a Kenyan WEMA seed farmer and family.

Take Golden Rice. The GM crop could produce enough Beta-Carotene to could eliminate deadly vitamin A deficiency in developing countries. But this crop has been stuck in controversy and the regulatory process for over a decade while millions suffer and die.

In Europe many countries still skirt around biotech crop science. Take the recent example of the proposed ban of the cultivation of GM crops in Scotland by its government. In response 28 research organisations sent an open letter to the Scottish Minister for rural affairs. They stated that policies based on ignorance rather than a scientific assessment risk leaving Scotland behind in agriculture and environmental innovations.

South Africa is not taking the precautionary principle too far. They have embraced GM crops as a scientifically-validated technology to help them deal with harvests blighted by pests and drought.

In June this year, the Republic of South Africa’s Agricultural Research Council (ARC) announced the authorisation of a new drought-tolerant GM maize trait. The trait was originally licensed by Monsanto as part of the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project: a public-private partnership started in 2008 with the ARC.

“The ARC, with its WEMA partners, is excited to bring this new drought trait to the market for smallholder farmers royalty-free in South Africa,” said Dr Kingstone Mashingaidze, Research Team Manager and Plant Breeding and Country Coordinator of the South Africa WEMA project.

In Kenya this month, the Chairman for the Kenya Medical Association Elly Nyaim said, “GM plants and medicine will make our population better. The opposition being witnessed in the country is due to fear of the unknown.” He cited the contradictory attitude to widely accepted insulin — an example of a genetically engineered drug given to diabetes patients.

GM fear is so prevalent in Kenya that many biotechnoloy students drop out because of panic that they will not land jobs after graduation, according to Ngure Muteru, a student at Kenyatta University.

Nevertheless, Fedoroff’s article ends on an upbeat note. “When smallpox vaccinations were introduced,” she said, “much of the same fear-based resistance emerged. Yet we have succeeded, despite continuing resistance, in wiping out smallpox.”

Fedoroff cites a recent European Union overview of more than 130 research projects over 25 years. “The answers to these questions will, for better or worse, shape our future civilizations,” argued Fedoroff.

Meanwhile severe vitamin A deficiency causes up to 2.8 million preventable deaths and blindness in half a million children annually. More than 90% of farmers growing GM crops today are smallholder and resource-poor; yet, their reliance on pesticides has reduced by 37% and increased crop yields by 22%.

The full open access article by Nina Fedoroff, Food in a future of 10 billion, in the Agriculture & Food Security journal can be found here.

The International Business Times story, Monsanto is not the devil: GM most critical technology to feed growing population, is published online here.

 

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