| “It is a major blow to the proponents of GM food.” declared Clare Oxborrow in an interview to BBC World. This was hours after the U.S. agri-chemical company Monsanto announced on May 10th, 2004 that it would not try to market a strain of GM wheat it had developed called “Roundup ready” wheat. The wheat was genetically modified to be tolerant to the herbicide glyphosate, which is commercially marketed by Monsanto as Roundup.
GM crops have beneficial genes spliced into them from other unrelated crops by biotechnologists.
Unlike conventional crossbreeding techniques which are time consuming and inefficient, genetic modification offers a more precise and efficient way of introducing new beneficial genes into plants.
The advantages of GM crops are numerous: You can have crops that are drought resistant. Crops tolerant to water-logging. Crops that are resistant to herbicides and pesticides used against weeds and pests. There are GM crops that can produce antibodies, pharmaceuticals and human proteins. Some GM plants can even suck up toxic substances in the soil and store them in their roots, stems and leaves. The list is endless.
GM crops are now grown in more than a dozen countries around the world and in more than 100 million hectares of land. Biotechnology has become the most rapidly adopted new farming technology in history. GM crops have saved an estimated $200 million for U.S. farmers by avoiding extra cultivation and reducing insecticide spraying. U.S. cotton and potato farmers, by one estimate, have avoided spraying nearly 5 million pounds of insecticides by adopting biotechnology. This certainly should be embarrassing to opponents of GM crops who also happen to be voracious environmental campaigners.
The GM wheat of Monsanto would have been the first commercial GM wheat in the world. The farmers who planted it had fewer weeds, less plowing work to do and a larger yield. But their joy has been short lived. Thanks to the campaign against GM food by people like Oxborrow, markets seem to have rejected GM wheat, leading Monsanto to its strategic decision not to market it. The opponents of GM crops point to the results of the worlds largest ever trial of GM crops conducted in the UK. The results, which were made public on Oct 16th, 2003, showed that two out of the three GM crops tested – oilseed and sugar beet had a negative impact on farmland wildlife.
Although these farm-scale evaluations are being portrayed as a test of the environmental credentials of GM crops, it is really the weed killers to which they are resistant that were on trial. The tests simply measured the impact on wildlife of the herbicides used, not of the crops themselves. And the researchers themselves admit this. “Critically, all our results are explained by the application and timing of different herbicides, not by virtue of the plants being GM or not” said Les Firbank, coordinator of the trials.
Still, the opponents of GM crops like Greenpeace and Friends of Earth are delighted by the findings. Ironically, Greenpeace had denounced the trials as a fix, and activists even attempted to sabotage them by physically pulling up the crops. Earlier in 2003, Friends of Earth said that the results would be statistically flawed. If the aim of these activists is to save farmland life, banning any of the GM crops tested is unlikely to make any difference. This is because herbicide use is getting widespread and farmers who are denied access to GM crops may instead turn to non-GM varieties bred to be insecticide resistant.
Their impact on the environment could be worse, because many allow the use of more noxious herbicides than GM varieties. The environmental damage caused by these herbicides will be much greater when compared to herbicides like glyphosate, which toxicologists regard as an environmentally benign chemical that degrades rapidly. For instance, Imidazolinones and atrazine are widely used herbicides with non-GM herbicide resistant crops. Atrazine is suspected of poisoning frogs and polluting rivers while imidazolinones can last so long in soil that it becomes impossible to grow a crop the next season.
Although the use of non-GM herbicide resistant crops can be dangerous to the environment, these crops do not have to undergo the same scrutiny as GM crops. While the GM crops can be banned under world trade rules on the grounds that they pose a threat to the environment, the same is not true for these non –GM herbicide resistant crops. For example, “TT Canola” and “Clearfield” rape seeds developed by conventional crossbreeding and gene mutation techniques have greater problems with persistence of herbicides and resistance than GM crops. Both these strains were approved without any fuss surrounding GM crops.
As one Monsanto spokesman put it “we would be foolish to turn our backs on the possibility that other methods of plant breeding could generate the same results without transgenic approach. The regulatory systems effectively ignore all these other methods and we are driven by politics, not science. As things stand, a non GM plant would bypass the arguments against GM.” This unfair treatment meted out to GM crops is mainly due to the blind campaigning and lobbying by environmental groups against them.
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Aravind Chandrasekaran is a student of electrical engineering from Chennai, India. His diverse interests include astronomy, web design, social psychology, travelling, and meeting exciting people with great ideas to share.
He is currently doing research, with the help of the Internet, on genetically modified foods and their impact on the environment.
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