Fussy Eaters – What’s Wrong with Biotech Food?

Farmer Gene

In the BBC News “Green Room,” Prof. Jonathan Jones wonders why there is such a fuss about biotechnology when it can help deliver a sustainable global food system.

We can improve crop variety performance by both plant breeding (which gets better every year with new genetic methods), and by genetic modification (GM).  Ouch; yuck – GM. Did you recoil from those letters? Why?

“I started making GM plants (petunias, as it happens) in 1983, working at a long defunct agbiotech company in California called Advanced Genetic Sciences. In the early 80s, we did wonder about – in Rumfeldspeak – ‘unknown unknowns; the unknowns we didn’t know we didn’t know about’, but 27 years later, nothing alarming has been seen.

“The method (GM is a method not a thing) is simple. We take a plant, which typically carries about 30,000 genes, and add a few additional genes that confer insect resistance, or herbicide resistance, or disease resistance, or more efficient water use, or improved human nutrition, or less polluting effluent from animals that eat the grain, or more efficient fertilizer uptake, or increased yield.

“GM is the most rapidly adopted, benign, effective new technology for agriculture in my lifetime.  Fourteen million farmers grow GM crops on 135 million hectares; these numbers increased by about 10 percent per year over the past decade, and this rate of growth continues. More than 200,000 tonnes of insecticide have not been applied, thanks to built-in insect resistance in Bt crops; how could anyone think that’s a bad thing?

“I used to be a member of a green campaign group. They still have campaigns I support (sustainable fishing, save the rainforests, fight climate change), but on GM, they are simply wrong.

“Wishful thinking will not feed the planet without destroying it. Instead, we need smart, sustainable, sensitive science and technology, and we need to use every tool in our toolbox, including GM.”

Professor Jonathan Jones is senior scientist for The Sainsbury Laboratory, based at the John Innes Centre, a research centre in plant and microbial science.  The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

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