The GM controversy reviewed

Is it natural? Should we accept genetically modified (GM) foods into the market? Are GM products bad for our health? Is GM environmentally sound?

The hot debate lies at the heart of our modern food crisis, with supplies threatening to collapse underneath resource depletion, crop pests, and the looming pressures of population increase.

The pressure of food production in the UK loosely begins with the 1947 the post-war Agricultural Act, which called for an increase in farming outputs to feed the growing population. The quick solution through organo-phosphate chemicals soon led to the evolution of resistant pest organisms that were no longer deterred by pesticides, which called for the introduction of alternative methods including biological control species and more recently, genetically modified plants.

By Keith Weller, U.S. Department of Agriculture [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Keith Weller, U.S. Department of Agriculture [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

What is GM? The insertion of natural chemicals harmful to crop pests into either a plant spray (a biopesticide) or in the developing plant itself (a transgenic plant), illustrates some of the methods currently used in cultivation. For example, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a soil dwelling bacterium, was discovered by Japanese silkworkers in 1890 to be harmful to insects. Over time, the development of both Bt biopesticide sprays and Bt transgenic plants has led the way in new forms of protection from pests.

The disadvantages, though often sensationalised by extremist environmental groups and bias media campaigning, still leave some concerns. Consuming something scientifically enhanced by non-natural forces is the ultimate unsavoury concept. The side effects in humans are, arguably, much untested, whilst reports of cancerous growths in rats triggered a social media furore in 2012. Studies also suggest ‘super-bugs’ may arise with insects resistant to the GM crops, such as seen with the diamondback moth Plutella xylostella. Further research is needed in this area.

By Ellmist at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

By Ellmist at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons. Plutella xylostella larvae

The advantages of GM crops are many. Under-developed nations have reaped the benefits of GM crops, seeing boosts in both quantity and quality of their cultivated product. Furthermore, a reduction in the use of more harmful chemicals such as organo-phosphates is boasted as one of the biggest benefits, regarding its notorious, documented hazard to human health and the environment; an argument used against the ban of neonicotinoid pesticides recently. More importantly, the cultivation of a fast growing, high quality food product is seemingly the answer to the modern food crisis. The next problem is public acceptance.

A more worrying side of the debate lies in the regulation of GM seeds in the farming industries, with large corporate organisations such as Monsanto dictating the dispersal of their product. The organisation deals in seeds with a limited life span, thus tying buyers into a contract of annual purchase in order to keep their farms progressing. 2009 saw a rise in farmers suicides in India, initially accusing Monsanto’s introduction of GM seeds as the prime cause; the BBC termed it a ‘GM epidemic’, whilst the Daily Mail titled the incident as a ‘GM genocide’. However, a study then suggested there was no causal link between the introduction of the product and the rise in suicides, but rather a myriad of socio-economic factors were to blame for the crisis.

Through many studies have endeavoured to test the effects of GM organisms on wild animals, a rare few have found negative effects. Some studies even revealed beneficial effects for the growth of both the crop and the feeding insect.

Regulations exist currently in the US regarding the planting of GM organisms in fields. Whilst intensive cultivation of any crop species is known causes problems for wild species such as pollinators and seed hoarding birds, US authorities regulate the planting limits for GM crops, stating transgenic plants should be interspersed with non-resistant types, and field margins planted with beneficial plants such as wild flowers that may harbour natural enemies of pests.

However, tighter regulations are needed for the sale and dispersal of GM seeds, for example with the Monsanto corporation. Furthermore, governments must ensure that safe testing is carried out not only by the bias manufacturer, but by non-related labs and foreign organisations. Finally, as seen in the US, it is necessary that legislation covers the planting and physical cultivation of the product to ensure minimal environmental disruption.