“We need a new and ‘greener revolution,’ improving production and efficiency through the food chain within environmental and other constraints,” John Beddington, Britain’s chief scientist, told attendees at the UK’s Oxford Farming Conference earlier this month. “Techniques and technologies from many disciplines, ranging from biotechnology and engineering to newer fields such as nanotechnology, will be needed.”
Furthermore, Beddington noted, those innovations need to start being launched now, as it can typically take from 10 to 15 years for research advances to make their way into widespread use on farms.
Britain’s recently released food strategy for the next 20 years, “Food 2030,” also broaches the topic of more GM agriculture:
“GM, like nanotechnology, is not a technological panacea for meeting the varied and complex challenges of food security, but could have some potential to help meet future challenges,” the report states. “Safety must remain our top priority and the government will continue to be led by science when assessing the safety of GM technologies.”
Part of that strategy will involve a “programme of consumer engagement” to start a conversation with citizens about their understanding and concerns about GM foods.
While policy-makers pin their hopes on genetically modified food miracles, though, a fair number of activists and ordinary citizens view GM crops as “Frankenfoods” with the potential to disrupt natural systems even further. They also question the wisdom of relying on crops from seeds that are the proprietary products of large corporations and thus protected by intellectual property laws.
So where does the truth lie? Consider some of these latest findings surrounding GM foods:
- While squash plants can genetically modified to be made more resistant to a debilitating viral disease, such crops also become more vulnerable to a fatal bacterial infection, researchers at Penn State found last year.
- Another research team last year warned of a “transgenic treadmill” in which the cultivation of soybeans engineered to resist the herbicide glyphosate also leads to a greater glyphosate resistance among certain weeds.
- Researchers at Germany’s Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft recently unveiled a GM potato whose cells can produce pure amylopectin, a starch used in the paper, textile and food industries. The market-ready potato can provide nutritional starches for emulsifying soups and desserts, as well as material for paste and smooth coatings for paper and thread production.
- Swedish scientists have warned that extra care should be taken to prevent transgenic fish from escaping fish farms and entering the wild. While no commercial fish farms yet raise GM fish, the researchers say such fish — should they escape — could outcompete natural fish stocks and could absorb more environmental toxins that could then be passed onto people who eat them.
- The International Rice Research Institute says that two new types of specially bred rice show increased yields in drought-prone areas.
- Genetically modified strains of rice also can provide undernourished people with six times as much iron as conventional polished rice, Swiss researchers reported last year.
- Scientists with the US Department of Energy recently identified an enzyme that controls water and nutrient transportation in plants. Finding ways to adjust how that enzyme is expressed, they say, could lead to easier agricultural production of crops for biofuels.
- Researchers in Germany have genetically modified grape vines to produce antibodies against viruses that can damage plants and stunt grape production. They say such GM varieties could help winegrowers reduce their dependence on environmentally damaging pesticides.
- Genetically modified soybeans could help people add more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids to their diets without having to rely on fish oils, researchers reported at a scientific event held by the American Heart Association. “The supply could be virtually endless, and it would provide omega-3s without putting additional pressure on fish stocks,” said William Harris, a professor of medicine at the University of South Dakota. “What’s more, it will be free of contamination from mercury, PCBs or dioxins, the harmful things that can get into some types of fish.”
What do you think? Are GM foods the key to a sustainable future, or will they prove to be a messy technological fix to a problem we could better solve in other ways? Let us know in the comments section below.