Article 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.

The 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.

Let the debate begin

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