Guest Opinion Piece
by Colin Jarvis
When Mary Shelley wrote her book, Frankenstein, in 1818 she could not have imagined that we would still be talking about it today, 200 years later. We all know the story, don’t we? An evil Professor creates a monster called Frankenstein from bits of dead bodies. The monster then rampages around the countryside killing people and generally being obnoxious.
Actually that is not the real story. First of all it was the professor who was called Frankenstein and, admittedly, the monster did bad things but he was severely provoked. More important he did have a gentle side and indeed, on one occasion, saved a small girl from drowning. Many people have the wrong idea about Frankenstein’s creation simply because they have “read the book”.
I think the analogy of Frankenstein with modern, genetically modified, foods is quite a good one. The monster was considered evil because of his behaviour; no one looked at the big picture and considered why he acted this way. It seems to me that this is the same with GM foods. We need to read the book, not base our decisions on incomplete information.
What is the big picture into which GM foods fits. We now live in a world that contains 7 billion of people. About one billion of them do not have enough food to lead a healthy, active life. These figures come from the United Nations so I tend to believe them. What is more, within the lifetime of many people alive today, the world population will increase to 8 billion.
At a time when the population is growing faster and faster we are finding that our agricultural land that is allocated to food is, in fact, dwindling. This is not just because we are using agricultural land for building homes and factories, though that is obviously happening, is also because we are growing products for other uses, such as corn for bio-fuel rather than for feeding animals or humans.
Another way that we are reducing the potential productivity of our valuable agricultural land is the current fad for organically produced products. There is no evidence that organically produced products are healthier or even taste better.
I’m not kidding; blind taste tests have shown that people cannot tell the difference between fruits and vegetables produced by organic or other normal means of production. Scientific analysis shows that there are no nutritional benefits to organic foods compared to conventional produce. All we know about organic foods is that they cost more and need more space to grow. That might be fine for affluent, romantically minded Westerners but organically minded Westerners but organically produced foods will not solve the potential food crisis that we are currently facing,
If we cannot feed enough people today, what are we going to do in a few years time? Genetically modified foods could be part of the solution.
In my lifetime agriculture has become far more productive. This has been due to better strains of seeds, better mechanization and more effective fertilisers and pesticides.
Perhaps the most famous developer of new strains of seed was Norman Borlaug who was credited with saving the lives of one billion people in India due to his development of dwarf wheat. He is often called the father of the green revolution and received the Nobel Prize in 1970 for his efforts.
His techniques of genetic manipulation might be considered old-fashioned today but his plea to use the latest technique to produce higher yielding, higher quality, low input, low environmental impact crops undoubtedly embraced modern genetic modification.
Mechanisation and modern farming technique have developed so that today we even have satellite guided tractors and other machines that now ensure the minimum use of water fertilisers and pesticides.
Pest control has also developed amazingly however, even if a pesticide kills most of the insects it targets, some pests will survive and many of these will have some resistance to the pesticide. These resistant pests now have the opportunity to breed and produce more resistant pests as their competition is far less than it was. After a while the pesticide proves to be totally inadequate and a new pesticide must be developed. If you are as old as I am you will recall the belief that DDT was a wonder pesticide until it was realized that it was harmful to human beings and the pests were becoming immune to it.
Rachel Carson, in her book the Silent Spring, summed up the other problem relating to pesticides and that is that they kill the pests at the bottom of the food chain and the birds and animals further up the chain then die of starvation, providing they are not poisoned first.
Chemical pesticides had been used for many years to protect cotton plants from the cotton boll worm. Unfortunately the worm developed resistance to the chemical pesticide and, in the USA a new pesticide was developed to kill the cotton boll worm. It was very successful and helped farmers increase production dramatically.
Now there is a very significant difference between the new pesticide used in this case and chemical pesticides that were used previously. In this case it was the cotton plant itself that would kill the cotton boll worm. The plant contains genes that produce a naturally occurring pesticide, the BT toxin. Inevitably some cotton boll worms are now becoming resistant to this BT toxin. New cotton plants are being developed which contain several different BT toxins which should greatly reduce the risk of the cotton boll worms developing resistance. Because this pesticide is contained within the plant there is no possibility of over spraying or overuse.
This means that innocent creatures and farm workers will not have to suffer accidental poisoning and the toxin will die with the plant rather than remain in the soil. This solution should be cheaper and more ecologically sound than the chemical sprays.
The batter to overcome pests, in all forms, is a continual battle and it is never likely to be completely won. The arms race will to continue until the end of time. GM foods are not perfect but they can offer better solutions to the problems we face today.
What I find strange is the fact that many people are happy to accept chemical insecticides but feel that genetically modified plants go against nature. The key word here is “feel”. It is an emotional reaction rather that a logical one. It is the Frankenstein problem once again in that some people are not in possession of the true facts, usually because they have not “read the book”. Why can people be quite relaxed about new chemicals but not about alternative scientific techniques? Perhaps it is because they have grown up seeing chemicals used but genetic modification is new.
Genetic modification is not new. Human beings have been genetically modifying plants and animals for thousands of years. Darwin proved this point when he discussed the wide range of fancy pigeons that had been developed by people through selective breeding. We only need to look at dogs to see how selective breeding has developed so many different breeds from the original wolf.
Genetic modification is how more productive seeds and animals have been produced throughout history. The cow that provides our milk is very different from the original cow and its milk production is incredible compared to its ancestor. The wheat we plant today is far more productive and easy to harvest than it was even 30 years ago. We have to develop new products all the time if we are to be able to feed our ever increasing population.
The horror that many people feel about genetically modified foods is the same horror that people feel when they read Frankenstein. It is acceptable that a human may encourage two pigeons or dogs to mate and produce a modified offspring but playing around with chromosomes is like playing God. I even found myself cringing when I read that the US government had given their approval for the testing of crops of rice which had been genetically modified with human DNA.
Admittedly, this crop was to be used for pharmaceutical purposes, not food, but it still made me feel a little uneasy. Why did I cringe? It has nothing to do with logic it is quite simply an emotional reaction. Recent research has shown that we share many parts of our DNA with other plants and animals. This does not mean that we are like those other plants and animals just as two buildings, built with the same bricks, can be entirely different. What matters is how they are put together. Taking a brick from one building and cementing it into another does not really change either building but may improve one of them.
One thing that should concern us is that genetically modified crops are very carefully developed so that they do not cause damage to the environment or other problems by cross pollinating with other flora. Over the last 20 years or so, many methods for testing genetically modified products safely have been developed throughout the world. One thing we should remember is that genetically modified foods have to pass through rigorous food and environmental safety assessments. Conventional agricultural products and organically produced food does not have to undergo the same assessments. This is despite the fact that many billions of meals have been served using GM products and there has not been one single case of a health issue.
The Philippine and Thai governments started to legislate for the safe testing of GM foods about 15 years ago. 10 years ago the scientists in the Philippines started to test GM foods and they are now very experienced and have developed a number of very useful products. The Thai government, probably because it has had many other pressing matters over the last 15 years, has yet to pass a single act of legislation that will allow field trials and eventual full-scale production. Thailand is falling behind in the development of genetically modified products and will no doubt suffer in the future when such products become more acceptable.
The argument for greater productivity in agriculture is irrefutable. Genetically modifying crops and animals would seem to offer many benefits. However there are still many emotionally driven people who believe that genetically modified products are the work of the devil. Sometimes they do things in order to protest which could actually bring about their worst fears.
In the Philippines, Greenpeace, an organization to which I used to be a member, has raided a number of GM trial sites and stomped about the field ripping up plants and generally causing havoc and destruction. They then leave the site presumably unaware that they could well be carrying pollen and other microscopic cells that could cross fertilise with the very fauna they are hoping to protect. This sort of behaviour may win them some more members and donations but does nothing to help the arguments on either side.
Another concern that may people, including many of my colleagues in the press, continually trot out is the fact that the use of genetically modified seeds will cost a farmer a great deal more than normal seeds. This may be true but surely the farmers can be left to make their own financial decisions. Whilst the seeds may be more expensive, providing the yield is greater then the cost per tonne of the final product will be less. This should result in more profit for the farmer and a lower price for the consumer.
The argument for or against genetically modified foods will not be won by politicians, scientific sceptics or agricultural scientists. It will eventually be won by the consumer by which I mean both the affluent western supermarket shopper and the underfed citizen of a developing country. History shows us that consumers want more for less and GM products should be able to give them precisely that.
Imagine a world where food tasted better, lasted longer, contained more vitamins and was cheaper than before. That world is the promise of genetically modified products. Certainly new technologies should be carefully monitored, particularly in the development stages, to ensure that there are no hidden dangers but surely this wonderful technology should be allowed to develop in order to help ensure that all 8 million inhabitants of this planet may be properly fed by the middle of this century.
GM foods will undoubtedly have problems, there are risks but they should be manageable. Let’s get on with it, particularly in Thailand “The Kitchen of the World” before the rest of the world passes us by.
Let us look at the facts, let us consider the realities and not let emotion and lack of knowledge lead us down an unsustainable path. Remember that Frankenstein’s monster was really quite nice until he was badly treated by society.
© Colin Jarvis 2012.
Colin is a British journalist living in Chiang Mai, Thailand. This article was orginally published in the Chiang Mai Post vol. 2 No. 29.