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At the National Federation of Women's Institutes' annual meeting 2004, 88
per cent backed the resolution: 'In the light of growing evidence that the
current generation of GM crops are beneficial for neither people nor planet,
this meeting strongly opposes the growing of GM crops in the UK and calls on
HM Government to prohibit their cultivation.' This article is adapted from a
speech given against the motion, July 2004 by Conrad Lichtenstein.
The eighteenth century is known as the age of Enlightenment: liberal
democracies were established, science fed technological progress, the arts
and literature flourished. Britain played a major role in helping to bring
about the new modern world. Given this, the current widespread suspicion of
genetic modification (GM) in the UK is both disturbing and mystifying.
It is disturbing, because I believe that the current antipathy to GM crops
reflects an inversion of the enlightenment proposition: that human reason
will triumph over superstition, ignorance and fear. It is mystifying,
because we have no reason to reject the approaches that have served the
modern world so well. We in the developed world enjoy prosperity and health
as never before - and it is still human reason, science and technology that
will continue to solve our problems, not pre-modern romanticism.
Human reason was, of course, not invented in the eighteenth century. Reason
is the engine of human cultural evolution, which makes us human and
separates us from the beasts. Humans have developed greater choice over how
they live their lives, rather than being at the whim of the chance of
nature. This has meant the choice to develop agriculture and with it
civilised society instead of the chance of hunting and gathering with no
control over food supply. And in a technological society, the triumph of
choice over chance is even greater.
So how have superstition, ignorance and fear come to triumph over human
reason in the GM debate?
The superstition is not new. It began in 1859 when Charles Darwin provided a
mechanism for the 'origin of species by means of natural selection'. Darwin
violated the early Christian notion of the 'great chain of being', where
species are immutable and created by God in a hierarchy - with humans near
the top, somewhere between apes and angels.
The current superstition is a reincarnation of this belief - there is a
sense that species are immutable, and that we are 'playing God' by moving
genes between them. I countered this superstition with a serendipitous
discovery from my own research. When I engineered GM plants that resist
virus infection, I found that nature had done my experiment 25million years
earlier: the very genes I had introduced into the plant I had chosen to
study were already there. It turned out that these natural GM genes are
present in hundreds of copies in four living plant species.
GM is a process, not a product
There is substantial ignorance about the nature of GM. One common
misconception is that GM is a new type of crop product. But GM is not a
product - it is a process. Each new crop variety needs to be carefully
evaluated on a case-by-case basis, rather than making a blanket dismissal of
the GM process, since there is nothing intrinsically dangerous about this GM
process. GM is simply a new tool for plant breeding.
In developing his theory of natural selection, Darwin drew his first
examples from the selective breeding of plants and animals in agriculture
that had developed domesticated species from wild ancestors. For example,
wolves were bred into dogs, and wild grasses were bred into wheat, rye, oats
and barley. Darwin called this artificial selection, where artificial simply
means by human action - by the exercise of human choice rather than by
When a deeper understanding of the genetic basis of variation ensued in the
twentieth century with the new science of genetics, selective breeding
became a science rather than an art. Breeders still relied upon random
mutation for the generation of variation to select from - but they sought to
increase variation by stimulating random mutation, which involves subjecting
plant seeds to gamma-irradiation from a radioactive source, and then
selecting the few desirable mutations from the many damaged ones that ensue.
Many of our crop varieties are products of such mutation breeding.
By contrast, GM is artificial variation: it allows us to choose which genes
we want in a new crop variety, rather than having to rely on the chance of
random mutations in nature or by mutation breeding. GM is a more precise
tool for plant breeding.
Anti-GM activists have claimed that GM transgenes are unstable and will
escape and contaminate the environment; that GM causes cancer; and that GM
transgenes can enter our cells or our gut bacteria. But there is no evidence
that GM transgenes cause cancer, or that they are particularly unstable or
liable to escape. All cultivated crops can cross with wild relatives; there
is no particular risk with GM crops. GM transgenes are no more likely to
enter bacterial cells or human cells than any other DNA we eat in our food -
and if they do, they don't tend to survive.
It is also often claimed that only large multinational companies desire GM.
But many people in the developing world are trying to develop and take
advantage of these technologies. When I published my work on engineering GM
plants that resist virus infection, a group of scientists in Pakistan
invited me to collaborate with them to solve the problem of a serious
endemic viral pathogen that was causing them to suffer 30 per cent yield
losses in their cotton crop. Cotton and the associated textile industry
bring 60 per cent of foreign exchange earnings to Pakistan, and so this loss
to viral pathogens represents an annual loss of about US$500million. Using
public sector funding, the scientists have recently demonstrated in field
trials that GM cotton is resistant to vial infection.
So where is the evidence that the current generation of GM crops are
beneficial for neither people nor planet? Modern agriculture can certainly
damage the environment: over the past 50 years, the need to increase food
production has resulted in the loss of one-fifth of the world's topsoil,
one-fifth of its agricultural land and one-third of its forests. One
solution is to develop new technologies to make agriculture more efficient.
Greater efficiency means less agricultural land is required, and so more
land can be left wild.
We can choose which genes we want in a crop variety, rather than having to
rely on chance
Current varieties of GM crops include those that are insect-resistant and
those that are herbicide tolerant. Both require lower inputs, such as
spraying, and so are particularly suited to small-scale farmers in the
Modern agriculture involves the use of powerful toxic pesticides - including
copper, often used by organic farmers - which enter the groundwater and can
damage the environment and human water supply. Spraying pesticides requires
expensive equipment and protective clothing, and can also damage the health
of farmers who have to spray them. Insect-resistant GM technology here
offers a biological solution that organic farmers should embrace: the Bt
crop varieties, for example, express a natural insecticide that organic
farmers have sprayed on their crops for many decades. Rather than using
inefficient spraying, the plant is armed against its specific insect pests -
for example, in maize, the corn-borer, which leads to infestation by fungal
pathogens that produce mycotoxins.
Meanwhile, GM crops designed for herbicide resistance can be sprayed with a
safe biodegradable herbicide. Less spraying is required, again reducing
equipment and labour inputs. Another benefit is that agricultural land
doesn't require such extensive tilling, which reduces soil erosion and
allows more humus to accumulate in the soil.
This is just the beginning. The future holds promise for new GM crop
varieties with increased tolerance of drought, heat and cold; with improved
disease resistance or nutritional value; or as production systems for
pharmaceutical compounds (such as edible vaccines for the developing world)
and renewable industrial compounds (such as biodegradable plastics). That's
why GM technology is of benefit to both people and the planet.
Conrad Lichtenstein is the chair of molecular biology at Queen Mary,
University of London, and has over 25 years of research experience in the
field of molecular biology.
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