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The Benefits Of GM

Genetically modified foods have never been popular with consumers, but perhaps science is changing opinions, writes Sahil Lala.

When genetically modified (GM) crops first started to appear 30 years ago, there was a massive consumer backlash. All over Europe and the USA, anti-GM activists tore up crops and dug for legislation to close down trials.

In the years since, several studies suggest that public opinions have been mollified. Consumers had two primary concerns: that GM foods pose an inherent health risk, and that the corporations which create GM seeds would monopolise supply chains and penalise smaller, poorer growers with high prices.

Decades later, neither has come to pass. There is no evidence that GM foods are dangerous, and groups such as the World Health Organisation and American Medical Association have approved their use. And while the relationship between farmers and roychan-kruawan-327903seed suppliers is likely to be fraught with tension, the much-feared “terminator gene” – which renders plants sterile and therefore prevents farmers from gathering seeds for second-generation harvests – has never been commercialised.

Yet despite the evidence and pressure from governments around the world, the public at large still remains sceptical. In a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, involving over 14 000 individuals in the USA, it was revealed that four out of 10 respondents thought GMO foods were bad for your health when compared to natural foods. Cary Funk, lead author and associate director of research at Pew, says: “The data suggest that people’s divisions are linked to their interest in food issues and how they think food consumption ties to their wellbeing.”

A distinct lack of trust in scientists was noted by the survey. Funk elaborated that more than a third of respondents “say scientists do not understand the health effects of GM at all, or not too well”, and “just 19 percent of Americans say scientists understand the health effects of GM foods ‘very well’”.

No surprise, then, that half of the countries in the European Union elected to ban GM crops altogether when given the opportunity last year.

South Africa’s unique position

While many countries allow GM production, South Africa’s Genetically Modified Organisms Act of 1997 is more or less unique. It allows maize modified to contain a soil protein fatal to insects to enter the human food chain – most countries that allow GM staples to be grown allow them to be used only in animal fodder. According to one study, GM planting increased production by 11%, although reports on this direct benefit are few and far between.vishang-soni-100400

We also grow GM cotton and soya beans via the provisions of that Act. Zimbabwe, on the other hand, has zero tolerance to GM and refuses even food aid donations of GM grains.

As a result, a report released in November by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) and Department of  says more than half of South African consumers believe GM crops are good for the economy, and that they will buy more. An official National Bio-economy Strategy, released in 2013, not only advocates further investment in the area as a way of increasing crop yields and mitigating the effects of climate change, but it welcomes multinational investors with open arms and encourages them to build infrastructure for GM crops here.

Of course, while most of the concerns around GMOs have been debunked, some do remain. Not only are there vast differences among the various modifications, which need to be individually assessed, but they’re not likely to be a panacea to future food concerns either. Just as bugs have become tolerant to disinfectants in hospitals, so some are developing immunity to the genetically inserted insecticide in South African maize.

Because, while humans are relatively new to this GM lark, evolution has been practising forever.

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