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Thursday, February 27, 2014

Genetically modified seeds: The big food debate

In 2013 it was announced that the population of the world is set to rise to over nine billion people by the time 2050 comes around. This inevitably means more mouths to feed and more food to generate. Once the number of people has increased to this significant milestone, more schools, houses, roads and villages will need to be built to cater for them – in addition to more jobs and bigger cities. We are all very aware that there are many areas of this planet where it is not possible to grow any type of plants or crops, due to harsh weather and climate changes. Bearing all of this in mind, where in the world are we going to find the space to be able grow all of these plants, grains, and other crops required to feed the ever expanding number of people?

Genetically modifed food is a controversial topic
Population growth requires innovation in food production

This problem has been one of the feathers in the cap of the campaigners for Genetically Modified food, in the big debate. Is this requirement going to be sufficient to thrust GM foods in to the main supermarkets in the future? How much do any of us know about the benefits and disadvantages of GM food?

The argument for GM food

Genetically modified foods are in the news more and more, as the debate over whether or not they are safe continues. Many people feel that we should be using these genetically modified plants; Owen Paterson (the environment secretary) has already made his views clear on using these types of seeds. He and many others agree that we need to be fully engaging in testing in order to forward the development of food production. We are all aware of the rise in population, and the agricultural industry has already increased its output over the past 50 to 60 years, and it doesn’t look like the trend for demand will slow any time soon. We are now finding that traditional ways of developing cereals is slowing down and that new methods need to be found – is GM the right format?

The planet is already suffering from drought, desertification, diseases and new pests being discovered daily! Not to mention climate changes and incidences of grand scale flooding playing havoc with crops as in recent weeks. By using GM in the production of food, we would be able to adapt the crops to flourish in whichever environments or habitats they needed to be grown in.

Is Britain being slow to catch on? Other countries like the USA, Canada and parts of Asia are already embracing this new system and are already reaping the benefits. Not only does going down the GM route provide more job opportunities, it’s also important to note that using GM can give great benefits to the environment as well.

For example, at the Rothamstead Research centre they are growing a wheat variety that smells unpleasant to aphids, which then prevents them from invading the crop. Because they don’t invade it, pesticides don’t have to be applied – which should be pleasing to most!

There are some commercial, social and environmental benefits of GM food
Some genetic modifications are considered safe

There are also health benefits.  On instance is in the production of rice, whereby vitamin A can be placed into the grain. Vitamin A helps to maintain people’s eyesight, crucial in areas of the world with very little health care. Another example is the feeding of GM soya to animals as their food source - there have been no health scares associated with this as there have been of other methods of feeding livestock!

If we could make plants drought resistant that would be another way to help so many people. Alternatively, making crops water tolerant, given how our weather is at the moment, would be hugely beneficial. We don’t need a garden designer or landscaping developer to tell us that we are struggling in some areas of the country due British soil! In particular Essex, Northumbria and Cornwall are places which have received record amounts of rain fall are struggling, in addition to the case of the Somerset Levels which have just been devastated with flooding.

The argument against GM food

On the other side of the table are those who are anti any GM creeping in to our food supplies. ‘No’ says Peter Melchett, who is the policy director at the renowned Soil Association. Even though Paterson’s speech was powerful and had many important points, the only supermarket to respond was Waitrose. The overall consensus was that no supermarket would stock GM food unless their customers specifically ask for it.  While 61% said in a recent farming magazine survey that they would grow GM, only 15% said they’d actually eat it!

Some negative health effects have been cited as a disadvantage of GMOs
A majority of farmers surveyed would not eat GM food

It must be noted that on the World Health Organisation website there have been identified two potential public health risks from GM foods, and these are; the potential to provoke allergic reactions, and the possibility that genes could be unstable and so have varying risks.

Unfortunately until the farmers are willing to produce these GM crops in the varying conditions, and trial new modifications in different conditions, and until people are willing to buy these GM products, we won’t be able to come to any really valuable findings.  In the meantime don’t you think we should be at least testing these GM products to see if they actually have any harmful effects on humans? The question is, where do you stand on this debate? 

About the author: Karen is a keen grower of many vegetables which can be found in her vegetable patch at the bottom of her beautiful cottage garden. When she is not all ‘green fingered’ with her pals from All Seasons she enjoys spending time with her family and running her two businesses.
Image licenses: Charles Smith, CC BY-SA 2.0;, 2 & 3 Smart Photo Stock