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GM Foods: genetic manipulation or global malnutrition?

Jonathan Jones and Colin Tudge

1 Feb 2011

GM Food was the subject of the third in the SCI's series of public lectures and took place on 2 December 2010. An audio recording is available below.

It has been estimated that the global population is set to rise from its current 6.5 billion to about 9.1 billion by the middle of the century. Each year, 77 million people are added to the planet - 146 every minute. Can agriculture cope with this rising demand? Can and should genetic modification be part of the solution? Genetic modification could offer a faster route to market for a variety of desirable crop traits, such as drought resistance or increased yields; or it may be able to bring in disease resistance from other species, to reduce crop losses.

Prof Jonathan Jones put the case for food from GM plants being part of the solution. A senior scientist at Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich, Prof Jones uses molecular and genetic approaches to study disease resistance in plants. He received his PhD from Cambridge University in 1980, before conducting postdoctoral work at Harvard. He is head of Sainsbury Laboratory and has previously served as editor of Plant Cell and Genome Biology.

Genetic modification has, however, raised significant concerns among consumers around issues such as food safety, the effect on natural ecosystems, gene flow into non-GM crops, loss of biodiversity, moral/ religious concerns, and corporate control of the food supply. Worldwide, there are a range of perspectives within non-governmental organisations on the safety of GM foods. While some pro-GM groups have argued that GM foods have been proven safe, other pressure groups and consumer rights organisations, such as the Organic Consumers' Association and Greenpeace, claim that the long-term health risks, which GM foods could pose, or the environmental risks associated with GM, have not yet been adequately investigated.

Colin Tudge, biologist and author of Feeding the World is Easy, put forward the view that GM food is not necessary. We should, he argues, take a very considered look at how we produce food. Do we farm for profit, or do we farm to produce food? His view is that we are too focused on the former, and that we possess the resources and capabilities to easily feed the world population without recourse to advanced science or big corporations.

What is obvious is that the issue of genetic modification can stir strong emotions, both for and against. There are scientists who do not understand why consumers cannot see the advantages of GM food, and consumers who are suspicious of science in general. The evening presented a balanced view of the arguments for and against, with a discussion chaired by Guy Moreton, director of MorePeople.

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