For most of us in Taiwan, genetically modified (GM) foods have been merely fodder for dinnertime debate. But if you've had the debate while eating tofu or anything seasoned with soy sauce or fried in corn oil, chances are that genetically modified foods were the dinner itself.
Ready or not, the great edible experiment of our time is moving from Petri dishes to dinner plates.
Those who are ready are local researchers and biotechnology businesses who claim the technology can reduce agricultural losses at home, alleviate hunger in developing nations and reduce the use of environmentally harmful pesticides and herbicides around the globe.
Those against it -- consumer watchdogs and health organizations -- say more must be done to assure the safety of genetically modified foods and guarantee the rights of those who wish to avoid them through better labeling. One thing both sides agree on, however, is the need for the billions of consumers in the middle to be better educated about what they eat.
GROWING AND GROWING
Here in Taiwan, the products currently on the market that contain genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are soybeans and corn. Taiwan purchases the vast majority of these staple products from the US.
According to Council of Agriculture statistics, of the 2.5 million tonnes of soybeans imported last year, half were genetically modified and over 30 percent of the 6 million tonnes of corn brought to Taiwan came from biologically engineered crops. That these figures will rise in coming years is all but guaranteed. Last year, 81 million hectares of arable land in 17
countries were planted with GM crops, a 20 percent increase over 2003, according to the non-profit International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA). Over 8 million farmers produced GM corn and soybeans last year and ISAAA predicts that by the end of the decade up to 15 million farmers will grow biotech crops on 150 million hectares covering 30 countries. China is expected to approve a type of insect-resistant rice by the end of this year, a move many say will open the industry floodgates when the world's most populous nation goes biotech.
Taiwan's own history of biotech agriculture began in the late 1970s, when Papaya Ring Spot Virus (
"At that time, fruit was one of Taiwan's biggest industries," Yeh said. "For us to lose a whole crop was devastating and the thought of losing more was frightening. The government decided the best course of action was to study ways to prevent future losses through better science."
The fruit of Yeh's efforts was a papaya genetically modified to resist the disease, but many more applications of genetic modification would come in the nearly 30 years of research conducted by thousands of scientists around the globe.
In the US, a hybrid corn resistant to root worms and a type of herbicide-tolerant soybean have been developed. Taiwanese scientists have also engineered a sweeter strawberry and scientists in Brazil are at work on a type of coffee tree that is easier to harvest.
A team of international scientists -- including several in Taiwan -- has worked together to engineer a type of rice containing beta carotene. Golden rice, as it's known, is said to be the genetically modified equivalent of fluoridated water or iodized salt and the key to ending vitamin A deficiency in poor nations, an ailment that kills between 1 and 2 million people and permanently blinds another half million every year. Scientists have also begun planting "pharmaceutical rice" genetically engineered to produce human proteins for drug production.