Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Genetically modified crops: why the fuss?

There are a number of different reasons why people are opposed to genetically modified (GM) crops. This is just a brief overview, because this wasn't the focus of my research.

GM crops are unnatural.
This is not something that I've focused on in my research, because it wasn't the main focus for most of the activists that I met who were opposing GM crops. (And personally, I wonder: what does "natural" mean, when we have done so much else to change the world around us, and to change ourselves? And is something good just because it's "natural"?)

GM crops may have unintended consequences. 
One reason for this is that we don't fully understand how genes work yet. For example, it's recently been found that "junk", or "seemingly non-functional" DNA, actually does play a significant role in determining which genes are active.

Another reason is that ecological and agricultural systems are complex: it's not possible to tell how changing one part of the system will affect other parts of the system in advance. The gradual change involved in traditional plant breeding gives time to see how other parts of the system are changing in response. The swiftness of genetic modification means that the system may change suddenly and drastically in unexpected and undesirable ways.

Similarly, experiments that are meant to tell whether GM crops are safe are only looking at them under controlled conditions and in the short term: they will not necessarily be able to tell what happens when GM crops are used in a complex system or in the long term.

This also might mean that when GM crops are consumed over the course of years, in combination with particular foods, or in ways not initially intended, they may have negative effects on human or animal health.
Pioneer seed corn packet.

GM crops are controlled by multinational corporations
The "Green Revolution" that occurred between the 1940s and 1970s involved the development and promotion of hybrid crops which needed more inputs, including irrigation and fertiliser. These crops and agricultural techniques were largely (but not entirely) developed and promoted by public bodies, including Indian agricultural universities and US research scientists. Hybrid seeds were mostly distributed for reasonably low prices.

In contrast, GM crops have largely been developed and promoted by private agrochemical companies such as Monsanto. This means that GM crops are being developed to meet the interests of private corporations: they're aimed at increasing MNCs' profits, not reducing world hunger, helping the environment, or meeting other public needs.

Using GM crops (and using hybrid crops) some activists argue, means that farmers no longer control seeds or agricultural technology, but instead have to buy seeds and other agricultural inputs.

Living organisms should not be subject to intellectual property laws.
It's not necessarily the case that GM crops will be patented. It's possible that if GM crops were developed by public institutions or non-profit organisations they might be released into the public domain.

However, at the moment the majority of development is being carried out by private institutions, or by universities that are being pushed into profit-making models and public-private partnerships. This means that most GM crops are being patented.

Activists argue that this is wrong because:
1) It's unethical to make living organisms the subject of patents or other intellectual property laws.
2) It means taking crops that were developed by communities through thousands of years of breeding and putting them into the private domain.

There are other arguments against GM crops, and other variations of these arguments, but this covers the main objections.

Image courtesy of Flickr user oculator.

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