The genetic modification debate

As with many debates, the polarised views that surround the genetic modification argument ignore some very real issues and - possibly - opportunities that occupy the middle ground.

On one side of a wide divide are people who oppose any adoption of GM technology. On the other extreme are those who want no restrictions on its use. Somewhere in between are legitimate questions about GM food, about how the world's population (predicted to be nine billion people by 2050) are going to be fed, and whether we can afford to ignore possible undiscovered health and business opportunities created by this kind of technology.

GM technology has so far failed to capture public confidence, perhaps mainly because it has been seized by corporates looking for applications that suit them economically, such as terminator genes, which prevent farmers from harvesting seed from one season for sowing the next, and breeding seed tolerant to certain pesticides. Understandably, these have failed to capture the public's imagination, let alone its trust.

But many would argue that to close the door totally - based on suspicions about motive alone - on such technology would be foolish in the extreme.

Population growth means food production will have to double in the next 40 years - and this in a world where natural resources are already under pressure. It seems obvious the world will be forced to at least consider GM technology.

In addition to that impending necessity, there could well be huge opportunities. Can we, for instance, afford to simply ignore a new GM wheat cultivar that could increase yields but require half the water and fertiliser of current varieties?

Or GM food that reduces human diseases or enhances health?

This is not by any means to dismiss genuine concerns. Unfortunately, it appears the emotional argument so far has tainted the public's ability to come to a clear, confident position.

Just this week, French research linking GM maize and cancer was hailed by various organisations as evidence the technology should simply be abandoned. New Zealand's independent Science Media Centre reported the research was underwritten by the Committee for Research and Independent Information on Genetic Engineering, a group known as being anti-GM. Also lost in discussion were questions raised by international scientists about the French researchers' methodology and statistical analysis, which they concluded meant the findings were well short of proving the claims.

Warnings by scientists at a recent conference in Rotorua that New Zealand may miss the boat by not embracing GM will, at this stage anyway, ring hollow with many of us who are naturally cautious about a science we do not understand. It is little wonder the general public struggles to understand the issue, let alone draw its own conclusions.

The royal commission's investigation of GM initiated by the previous Labour government advocated a cautious approach that each case be considered on its merits. This still seems a wise and sensible approach.

We can never feed the entire world, but this country can remain an exporter of safe, high value, high quality food and - while it is yet to be proven - there could be pricing and marketing opportunities for us to stay GM-free. Critics of GM talk convincingly - but often with little factual backing - of massive demand for non-GM food, and they may well be right. But any decisions on whether the benefits of being GM-free outweigh those from pursuing the technology need to be based on fact.

It takes years of research and vast sums of money to pursue this type of science, and attacking it with inane - if catchy - phrases such as Frankenstein food or labelling the technology "terrorism" is not only disingenuous, but does a disservice to those trying to reach a responsible position.

With an area six times New Zealand's land mass planted in GM crops last year, we will one day face a choice of whether to pursue or reject opportunities GM may provide. Unfortunately, the polarised debate, with its glib headline-grabbing claims and catchy soundbites does little to allow the public to reach a considered consensus.


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