GM and Risk

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Ideas for Surviving Food Shortages

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The topicality of climate change has somewhat displaced the public debate on genetic engineering; fear of GM crops however remain. A recent change in the European Union (EU) regulation2 in June 2007 is grist for the mill of antagonists: According to this new regulation, even ecological food might entail traces (i.e. up to 0.9 %) of GM material.

With this new regulation, the EU reacted to the unavoidable fact that when an ecologically tilled field is in close neighbourhood to one where GM crops are used, the 'ecologically' tilled products cannot be guaranteed to be free from GM due to pollen flight.3 This is one of several hazards antagonists of GM have always pointed out, and are denoted here as possible 'one-level' negative consequences of GM technologies. Apart from this horizontal gene transfer to wild types or feral relatives, one-level hazards comprise the possibility that other genes might be changed involuntarily, the unintentional alteration of the primary or the secondary metabolism of the GM plant, or transgenic plants producing environmental toxins. This entails threats on a second, or 'derived' level, namely that higher animals eating the plant lack primary or secondary plant substance, which other organisms are dependent on, or the transgenic plants produce environment toxins. Frequently emphasized is also that GM crops will be used for the production of hybrid seeds, which cannot be saved. Peasants thus might become dependant on biotech companies. Although the latter is not a new threat posed by GM, it is frequently emphasized that this threat might become significantly enhanced by the new technology. An infamous example was given by Monsanto which distributed its herbicide 'Roundup', to which only their own GM crops were resistant to. Among the prevalently discussed one-level potentials of GM are the higher yield crops might produce, the possible higher nutrition values of plants, and improvements in other plant substances. Currently available are, for example, the 'Golden Rice' that is richer in vitamins than conventional rice, a raps oil optimised for combustion, or several plants with better resistance to pests. It was also experimented, though without success, to improve the shelf life of vegetables such as the infamous Flavr Savr tomato. On a second level, one thus might expect from the use of GM a preservation of the environment as the yield crops that will produce per unit area is enhanced. It is even frequently argued that GM has the potential to reduce the numbers of famines in the world. It might also provide former third world countries with more independence. For example, both, India and China, sew their own GM crops in order to become economically more independent from the West. Last but not least it is worth mentioning that concerning the yellow or red GM, the use of new cell lines has already spared some animals from research.

Although we mentioned only the most frequently discussed and maybe the most obvious of all the possibly benefits and harms, this list points out one of the most salient features of the decisions for or against GM: It is a genuine decision under risk where both the possible harm as well as the possible benefit are to a large extend unclear and it is not known with certainty which one will occur. The proponents of GM put the dilemma bluntly in the following way: Shall we discard the possibility of developing an economically acceptable way of how to feed a growing world population only for the sake of a highly uncertain harm to something or someone that can be grasped today only vaguely as 'future generations'? The antagonists frame the dilemma differently: Do the possibly severe harms of GM not outweigh its benefits? Thereby antagonists frequently stress solely the severity of the possible harm, while advocates focus only on the estimated, supposedly very low, occurrence probability of this harm. This is not only visible in the debate on GM, but rather for the public discourse on many modern technologies. However, an evaluation of GM firstly has to incorporate both, benefits and harm, as well as their occurrence probability. Secondly, it has to account for the fact that not only the harm of the market launch of GM crops, for example, is uncertain, but also the expected benefit. The latter is rather frequently overlooked — not merely within the sociopolitical debate.4 However, even if crop with enhanced nutrition values were possible, it is not at all clear that it is used to solve problems like world poverty. Note that in particular the vast number of famines nowadays are not primarily due to a lack of resources. Moreover, the research on GM crops is not only financed by governmental money, but to a large extend done within private companies. Similar uncertainties are encountered in the economic benefit expected from the use of GM: The currently pursuit goals in genetic engineering such as total herbicides or products extending the shelf life of perishable goods, only leads to the set goal when one continues along the lines of current productions in the agrarian sector. However if through re-regionalisation and diversification the distance between producer and consumer are shortened and the number of mixed cultivation is enhanced, these achievements even loose their economic benefits for the respective producer.5

The distinction between one-level and derived costs and benefits of the use of GM shall emphasis and help to clarify where the uncertainties in predicting future harm and benefit of GM lie. Even if genetic engineering is from a scientific basis very likely to have the potential to solve many of worlds largest problems, it is, firstly, not clear whether this will be the future line of research in this field.

Secondly, it is uncertain whether the GM products will at all be used for the advocated good goals.6

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