by Will Blunt
For more than 20 years biotech companies have been
genetically altering plants, animals and microbes in the name of making
food better or crops more durable. According to Consumers International
- a coalition of 200 consumer groups - as much as 70% of packaged goods
already contain some kind of genetically modified food (GM). But it was
not until the United States and other countries engaged in a sometimes-emotional
debate over the terms of a world-wide agreement on GM, signed by 130 nations,
that the general public became aware of issues raised by GM.
The debate is not just about juicier tomatoes or meat that is easier to
trim. The competing scenarios presented by either side are often contradictory
and have broad implications. GM technology advocates, such as biotech
firms and large food suppliers, suggest the best-case scenario. They envision
a world in which GM-induced efficiencies, longer product shelf life and
better nutritive content will eradicate hunger.
Some critics see GM leading to a world in which plants and animals are
viewed less as living organisms than commercial products whose rights
are owned by a small group of multi-national corporations. This clique,
they say, will decide who does and doesn't get food and for what price.
Environmentalists worry about the potential threat to biodiversity - one
of nature's age-old ways to ensure the survival of all living things.
They fear both an over-concentration in favored seed stock that could
prove less disease resistant than hoped and a disruption of the process
of natural selection.
The reality, however, is that the long-term benefits and dangers of GM
are not likely to be so drastic or easily predictable. Despite a handful
of troubling studies - last year Scottish scientists found GM potatoes
harmful to the intestines of rats - relatively little is actually known
about the effects of GM. For advocates, the lack of information itself
shows the benign nature of GM technology. Critics think this attitude
is self-serving and foolish. They demand positive proof that GM is safe
for the world.
GM treaty brought these issues and concerns to light. Now it is important
that the controversy be replaced by constructive efforts toward understanding
the complex effect GM may have on our lives.