Many green activists oppose genetically modified (GM) crops on principle. It is difficult to understand what the principle is, since they do not campaign against the production of drugs by genetic modification. Yet the same technique is used to transfer a gene from one species to another to make human insulin for people with diabetes, for instance, as to modify a GM crop.
By what principle is it right to make better drugs to protect us from disease, but not to modify plants to make them resistant to insect pests? Why is there such a violent reaction against the genetic modification of plants?
The strongest argument in favor of developing GM crops is the contribution they can make to reducing world poverty, hunger and disease. As the UK's Nuffield Council on Bioethics, an independent body of experts and lay representatives, declared in 1999: "The moral imperative for making GM crops readily and economically available to developing countries who want them is compelling."
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The council's recent update of its report confirmed this view. No one argues that all problems can be solved by the wave of a magic GM wand. The question is: can GM crops help? On the evidence we have, it seems they can.
Most new technologies take root slowly and take time to prove their worth. What is remarkable about the application of GM technology to plants is how quickly it has been adopted and how much benefit it has already shown in poorer parts of the world.
Last year GM crops were cultivated over 70 million hectares in 18 countries, covering more than twice the area of Britain. Nearly 5 million small farmers in China, India, South Africa, Brazil and Mexico now grow cotton genetically modified to protect it against the boll weevil. In China, this saves farmers as much as US$500 a hectare, mainly through a 60 percent to 80 percent reduction in the use of pesticides. In Kwazulu, 92 percent of cotton farmers, mainly women, now grow GM cotton and some have seen their income nearly double, mainly because savings on pesticides greatly exceed the extra cost of the seeds. In India, when an infestation of pink bollworm devastated the cotton harvest, except where farmers had (illegally) planted GM cotton, farmers marched on Delhi demanding that GM cotton be licensed, which it was in 2002.
The story of cotton shows actual financial benefit, here and now, mainly to small farmers in the developing world, contrary to the allegation frequently made by some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that agricultural biotechnology only promotes industrial farming. But the greatest contribution of GM technology is to come. China spends over US$100m a year on plant science and has developed 141 different types of GM crops, 65 of which are already in field trials. In India, too, biotechnology flourishes. Most research is on staple crops grown by ordinary farmers. A transgenic tomato has been modified to thrive on salty water and eventually salt-resistant crops can be cultivated in large tracts of land now infertile.
Research on GM plants will bring particular benefits to health. Some have already been achieved through the reduced use of pesticides. In South Africa, cases of burns and sickness from agricultural chemicals have fallen from 150 to a dozen a year because GM cotton is sprayed only twice a season instead of more than eight times.
More and greater benefits will come from the development of vaccines, antibodies and other pharmaceutical proteins in plants.
Vaccines extracted from GM potatoes, against hepatitis B and against bacteria and viruses causing diarrhoeal diseases, are already under test. Eventually they will be produced in bananas or lettuce or in tomato juice that can be ingested raw. They will not then have to be administered by injection by trained personnel and should also be free from possible contamination with human pathogens.
Yet some NGOs dedicated to helping people in the developing world ignore these potential benefits. They even oppose the development of "golden rice" -- which contains pro-vitamin A and, as part of a staple diet, could help redress vitamin A deficiency, which is associated with the deaths of more than 1 million children every year, according to the World Health Organization. This deficiency is also the single most important cause of blindness in about half a million children annually.
Golden rice has not been developed for or by industry; it is given free of charge and restriction to subsistence farmers; it does not create advantages for rich landowners; it does not reduce biodiversity and has no harmful effect on the environment; it will benefit the poor and disadvantaged. Yet Greenpeace ridicules it as irrelevant.
Blind opposition to GM crops is the triumph of dogma over reason.
Lord Taverne is a chair of Sense About Science and author of The March of Unreason, published in November.
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