Monday, May 17, 2010

What is lost in the genetically modified food debate

The Western world is enraged in a debate over genetically modified foods. The debate was stoked by a recent study that found that a majority of food is genetically modified, but can cause the development of weeds resistant to herbicides.

In an op-ed piece in the New York Times, Pamela C. Ronald and James E. McWilliams remind us that genetically enhanced foods can help the poor farmers and nations the most. Ronald and McWilliams say that those who protest genetically modified foods might stop any benefits the poor can gain from the foods.

Lost in the din is the potential role this technology could play in the poorest regions of the world — areas that will bear the brunt of climate change and the difficult growing conditions it will bring. Indeed, buried deep in the council’s report is an appeal to apply genetic engineering to a greater number of crops, and for a greater diversity of purposes.

Appreciating this potential means recognizing that genetic engineering can be used not just to modify major commodity crops in the West, but also to improve a much wider range of crops that can be grown in difficult conditions throughout the world.

Doing that also requires opponents to realize that by demonizing the technology, they’ve hindered applications of genetic engineering that could save lives and protect the environment.

Scientists at nonprofit institutions have been working for more than two decades to genetically engineer seeds that could benefit farmers struggling with ever-pervasive dry spells and old and novel pests. Drought-tolerant cassava, insect-resistant cowpeas, fungus-resistant bananas, virus-resistant sweet potatoes and high-yielding pearl millet are just a few examples of genetically engineered foods that could improve the lives of the poor around the globe.

To appreciate the value of genetic engineering, one need only examine the story of papaya. In the early 1990s, Hawaii’s papaya industry was facing disaster because of the deadly papaya ringspot virus. Its single-handed savior was a breed engineered to be resistant to the virus. Without it, the state’s papaya industry would have collapsed. Today, 80 percent of Hawaiian papaya is genetically engineered, and there is still no conventional or organic method to control ringspot virus.

The real significance of the papaya recovery is not that genetic engineering was the most appropriate technology delivered at the right time, but rather that the resistant papaya was introduced before the backlash against engineered crops intensified.

Opponents of genetically engineered crops have spent much of the last decade stoking consumer distrust of this precise and safe technology, even though, as the research council’s previous reports noted, engineered crops have harmed neither human health nor the environment.

In doing so, they have pushed up regulatory costs to the point where the technology is beyond the economic reach of small companies or foundations that might otherwise develop a wider range of healthier crops for the neediest farmers. European restrictions, for instance, make it virtually impossible for scientists at small laboratories there to carry out field tests of engineered seeds.

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