Whoever we are, wherever we live and whatever we do, there is one thing that we are all interested in: food. It is essential for human survival, but there is growing concern about food security. The rising global population, burgeoning middle class in developing countries such as China and India, and a changing climate could strain global food supplies. A series of food safety scandals such as BSE in the 1990s and horsemeat contamination more recently have added to public anxiety about food production and safety, and genetically modified (GM) foods are now firmly back on the political agenda.
Tuesday 13 August saw Dr Geraint Parry talking at Skeptics on the Fringe about the science behind genetically modified (GM) crops. Geraint is a lecturer at the University of Liverpool and previously spent a decade at Indiana University in the United States. Geraint has a strong interest in genetic modification and believes it is important for scientists to explain to the public what GM is.
Geraint explained that GM is simply about taking positive or desirable characteristics from one species and placing them in another species. Geraint showed that GM is done for a number of reasons, such as improving yield, resilience against disease, or lifespan after harvest. However, Geraint acknowledged that GM has an image problem. The early innovators in GM, most notably Monsanto, did not do a good job in communicating to the public what GM actually is and a lot of mistrust was built up amongst the public. In addition, GM has until now mainly been a business venture to increase profits, rather than a genuine altruistic effort for the greater good. But times are changing and there are now philanthropic groups interested in GM, such as the Gates Foundation, in addition to businesses.
An overview of the two main scientific methods used to genetically modify species was given: Supressing particular genes within a species through cisgenic modification, or adding genes from another species through transgenic modification. GM was compared to plant breeding, the traditional way of changing characteristics in plant species over time, and Geraint argued that GM is both much quicker and more precise.
As for the concerns about GM, Geraint showed that the overwhelming evidence is that GM food is safe. The risks of cross-contamination between GM and organic crops are minimal and some risks such as herbicide resistance are also present in non-GM production.
For the future, Geraint cited opportunities to improve people’s health through GM food, particularly in developing countries, by adding antibodies to food thus providing an alternative to vaccines, which can spoil through lack of cold supply chains. Geraint also argued that GM will have a major role to play in meeting the global food supply challenge as the population heads towards 9 billion by 2050.
Food for thought…
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