I was conflicted when I read this piece on Science Sushi’s Discover blog. On the one hand, I would agree that GM crops are not the Big Bad Wolf that many environmental groups (among others) make them out to be. On the other hand, I feel that it skips over a number of the issues that do concern me about the increasing use of GM seeds around the world.
One is the potential for cross-contamination and damage to existing and heirloom crop varieties. The other is the increased influence of agrochemical giants such as Monsanto and Syngenta over global food supply.
I’ve talked previously about the need to preserve genetic plant histories and the risks inherent in planting GM crops in any sort of proximity to non-GM farms. What I haven’t discussed before is my discomfort with the patenting of GM technologies and the impact that this has on farmers, particularly in developing nations.
Assume, for the sake of argument, that genetically modified crops are hugely beneficial to nutritional outcomes in the developing world. There is the option of planting them in isolation, thus no opportunity for them to cross-contaminate other crops. We’ve got the perfect bubble, right?
The questions then though; are who owns the seeds? Will they be sterile and will farmers need to buy replacements every year? Will they be able to afford to? If they’re not sterile, will farmers be allowed to save seeds? While the scientists who undertake the genetic research to create these new plant species are often funded by governments and universities, they are also heavily funded by large agrochemical companies – for example, in the case of Golden Rice, one of the best known GM developments for humanitarian purposes, Zeneca (now Syngenta) received an exclusive licence based on their funding to researchers. In this particular case, according to the researchers, Syngenta supported the humanitarian purposes. But what if they hadn’t? What if they had behaved in a similar manner to Monsanto in Missouri in 2002?
We cannot doubt the fact that such companies are phenomenally powerful and that they already have enormous influence over agriculture and food. We also know that they do not always behave in an ethical or transparent manner. Are we prepared to extend their reach even further, when we could potentially feed the world without taking that step?
To me, that’s one of the biggest issues of the GM debate.