Tuesday, 15 July 2014

GENETICALLY MODIFIED FOOD

"High-tech tomatoes. Mysterious milk. Supersquash. Are we supposed to eat this stuff? Or is it going to eat us?" - Annita Manning

Agriculture and the way that we produce our food worldwide is a very relevant and timely topic that many people are discussing and of course is quite a controversial issue. A century ago in Australia, 30% of the national economy was represented by agriculture. Since the 1980s, it has fluctuated between 4% and 6%. At the same time there have been impressive increases in productivity. The smaller farms have disappeared or have been aggregated into larger ones, so that we now have fewer, but larger farms. China buys most of our exported agricultural products and this is a trend that will increase. Biofuels is a growing industry, and one that we shall expand as petrol becomes scarcer and more expensive.

Our reliance on science and technology for increases in productivity, and also of course, in improving the quality of our produce is indisputable. Science and technology will also be needed to better manage our water resources. Australia is the driest continent on earth and from early colonial history droughts have been the scourge of the farmer. In such a hostile farming environment, making the most of our water resources is an imperative that cannot be ignored.

Cloning of animals and genetic modification of crop plants is of concern to people worldwide. It is becoming apparent that in a world where increasing population pressures are forcing reliance on technology for increasing efficiency in food production, cloning and gene technology are inevitable. We may be looking at a future where the elite and rich of the earth eat “natural, wild-type” non-genetically modified foods, while the masses will subsist largely on genetically engineered foods that are produced more cheaply and efficiently and in much vaster quantities than the “natural, organic” types.

My personal view is that genetically modified (GM) food will become acceptable to the majority of people once they are convinced of its safety and wholesomeness, and of course, if it costs much less than the equivalent non-genetically modified food. The USA is currently the world’s greatest producer of GM food, with 68% of the world’s total GM crop production in 2000 being in the United States, followed by 23% in Argentina. The type of crops varied, but 82% of all GM crops in 2000 were soybeans or corn.

Very few of today’s genetically modified foods make it to the supermarket as whole plants or grains, but highly processed foods such as vegetable oils and breakfast cereals contain a small percentage of GM ingredients. These highly processed foods include GM materials because of inadvertent mixing of process streams. Also, soybean derivatives are extremely common food additive in the USA meaning that most consumers in America today have eaten GM food (See the article here).

Most people are horrified of GM food, but the WHO has assured consumers, that GM food is perfectly safe for consumption. On this page, you can see some common questions about GM food answered. When one considers that most of the modern-day non-GM foods that we consume bear little resemblance to the wild foods that they are derived from, as we have selectively bred into them desirable characteristics, it is an example of genetic modification that is low-tech.

Genetic modification is part of our agricultural reality and it will play an increasing role in food production this century. It is inevitable that we will be consuming more and more of this type of food in the future. As is the case with all technology, safeguards will need to be put in place such that the science involved is used responsibly and safely. All new scientific and technological discoveries can be used well or badly. It is our responsibility to ensure that the good uses greatly outnumber the bad. How we control it and police it is the all-important question…

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