Genetically Modified Food: an answer to food security?

In recent years, the affordability and availability of food has come under unprecedented pressures. Some people see genetically modified crops as playing a big part in helping solve these problems.

World Vision Australia works with local communities to alleviate crises, achieve food security, and build sustainable and resilient livelihoods so that millions of people, particularly children, can be permanently lifted out of poverty. Central to this is developing reliable nutritious food supplies, and increasing agricultural productivity on a sustained basis.

So what does “genetically modified” mean? Genetic modification (GM) is a technology that puts genetic material from completely unrelated organisms into a plant or animal in order to give the recipient organism desirable features such as higher yields, greater pest resistance, or better drought tolerance.

Unsurprisingly, doing something that does not occur in nature makes some people nervous. Concerns about GM technology often revolve around uncertainty – will the modified organism have the desired characteristics? Will the new organism be free of undesirable traits, now or in the future? Despite many years of debate, pro and anti GM advocates remain deeply divided. For these reasons World Vision Australia has developed a considered position on GM, particularly with respect to its use in food crops.

Concerns about GM can be put into three main groups – health, the environment, and the way GM seeds are brought to the market. The last group – the commercialisation of GM – is not so much a criticism of the technology, but more a concern about who benefits from it. All three are complex, so let’s look at them a bit more closely.

Concerns about the possible impact of GM foods on health often point to the risk of GM products creating new allergic responses in people, and the possible toxic or reduced nutritional benefits of GM foods.

Allergic responses may occur due to inserting material from a food – such as peanuts, wheat or egg – that already causes allergic reactions in some people. Toxins are already present in many widely consumed foods, but GM plant breeding to develop a particular characteristic (such as pest resistance) could increase the toxicity of a plant or reduce its nutritional value. Depending on the country, GM foods are tested for undesirable characteristics. Food Standards Australia and New Zealand Food require GM products pass a safety assessment, including allergenicity and toxicity tests. *

World Vision Australia believes that, while GM foods appear not to have had any serious adverse health consequences, they need to be rigorously tested before they reach the market. Ongoing research must be undertaken to improve testing for adverse health effects for both GM and conventional food.

There are also widespread fears that GM organisms may have an adverse impact on the environment. For example herbicide resistant GM crops could result in more herbicide resistant weeds and pesticide resistant insects. Furthermore, it is feared that GM crops and products will inevitably spread to areas where they are not wanted. To date, there does not seem to be any substantial evidence of GM plants exacerbating weed growth as cross pollination rates are very low. Similarly, there is no evidence of a large scale increase in pesticide resistance in insects due to GM, although recently Monsanto reported that a common cotton pest in India appeared to have become more resistant to GM pest resistant cotton. ^

World Vision Australia believes that non-GM agriculture still has considerable potential to reduce food insecurity and increase agricultural productivity. While there appears to have been no large scale adverse effect of GM crops on the environment, this should not be taken as given – their impacts need to be constantly monitored.

As far as the commercialisation of GM technology is concerned, GM companies are often criticised for having market power that allows them to keep the price of GM seeds high. Furthermore, as farmers are legally prevented from holding back seeds to plant in the following year, they have to buy new seeds each season. Beyond the issue of the market power of particular companies, there is the concern that the ownership of agricultural genetic resources has shifted from the public domain to the private sector.

World Vision Australia believes the response to any adverse economic aspects of GM should not be to ban GM products, but rather to use trade practices and other relevant legislation to reduce the market power of those companies and increase the power of farmers and consumers both in developing and developed countries.

For World Vision Australia, the bottom line is not a choice between conventional crops and GM crops, but between sustainable and unsustainable farming practices. The experience with GM to date indicates that the challenge of feeding the world will not be solved by any single approach or technology.

However, in an increasingly hot and hungry world, GM technology should not be ruled out: we cannot afford to discard GM as one of a range of options for improving food security and allowing hundreds of millions of people a chance to escape the cycle of recurring hunger and malnutrition.

This article was written by Dr David Lansley, Manager, Economics, Climate and Natural Resources Team World Vision Australia


^ Hardy cotton-munching pests are the latest blow to GM crops’ Science 327 (19 March 2010) p1439


This was originally published on the 28th of April 2010.