Sunday, the New York Times ran a front-page article about food shortages forcing people and governments to embrace the genetically modified crops many have previously shunned. That article came hot on the heels of last week’s Economist magazine, which highlights the growing global food crisis. But in the shelter of the online comments for these articles, many people seem to feel they’d rather go to the brink of starvation than embrace GM foods. In that environment, I think we have reached the perfect point for food scientists to prove to the world that genetically modified crops are not inherently evil.
For every scientist working to genetically modify a foodstuff to grow only in a company’s proprietary soil there is a scientist working to produce a drought, or heat, or cold resistant strain of the same crop. Genetic modification could expand the range of important crops like corn or rice to environments that would otherwise be unable to support them, or make a plant species more nutritious. While crops modified to grow in harsher environments could provide the food tonnage needed to alleviate hunger and the pressure on global food prices, it would require a change in attitude by governments that initially distrust genetically modified food.
Genetically modified crops are like any other tool; their morality lies with the hand that wields it. Many people resist GM crops because they seem like monsters – seeds that grow into eunuchs, never to reproduce on their own, and plants that sweat poison and pesticides. But while some of those dire perceptions are true, they give the whole endeavor a bad name. Corporations like Monsanto and ConAgra that misuse GM technology to create these beasts, and the countries and organizations like the EU and Greenpeace that reject the use of GM crops wholesale, deserve some of the blame for GM crop’s PR problem.
While genetic engineering by itself won’t solve food problems across the world, I think it is important that we consider the possible benefits the technology can provide. The world can no longer afford to let the misuse of this technology obscure the great strides being made in marshaling genetic modification for the good of mankind. It is important that countries that reject GM crops take another look at their policies and that corporations refocus their research away from more destructive technologies and towards developing products that will actually help people in need.
But enough of what I think, what do you think? Are GM crops indelibly tainted by the many mistakes made with the technology? Or do you think advances in genetics have helped already, and GM foods are unfairly maligned? What do you think the role is, if any, of GM crops in feeding the world? As always, I look forward to hearing what you Scienceline readers have to say.