The use of GM crops in developing countries
Are GM crops safe to eat?
Some people feel that the effects of GM crops on human health are not yet adequately understood. There are concerns about the use of viral DNA during the modification process, and some question whether there would be new health risks if genes introduced in a GM crop were to be taken up by the human body. The safety of GM crops is often assessed by comparison with the closest conventional counterpart.
The current evidence from safety assessments of GM crops does not suggest any significant risks to people who eat them. We welcome the fact that concerns about GM have focused attention on issues of safety attaching to new crops and varieties.
What are the environmental risks of introducing GM crops in developing countries?
There are concerns that the introduction of GM crops might lead to a reduction in biodiversity (the variety of plants and animals in the wild), particularly in areas where a crop originated and a wide range of natural genetic variation is found. There might also be unexpected consequences of gene transfer (or ‘gene flow’) between plants, for example an irreversible or uncontrollable ‘escape’ of genes into neighbouring wild plants by pollen. There are also concerns that pests or weeds could acquire resistance to crops.
We concluded that the risks of gene flow need to be assessed on a case by case basis. Gene flow occurs widely throughout nature. Whether or not it is acceptable depends primarily on its consequences. The possible risk would depend largely on the particular crop and trait. We are not persuaded that possible negative results of gene flow in some areas are sufficient to rule out the planting of GM crops elsewhere in developing countries. There are also a number of ways of preventing and controlling gene flow. It is important to have sufficient seed banks to conserve genetic resources of crops effectively.
Are GM crops unnatural?
Many people are concerned that genetic modification is ‘unnatural’. Arguments about naturalness are complex, and raise many difficult issues. We discuss these in detail, particularly in relation to similarities and differences between conventional and GM plant breeding techniques. The transfer of genes between species is often thought to be particularly unacceptable because it violates boundaries between natural species.
We take the view that all forms of plant breeding have directly and indirectly changed individual crops or biodiversity in general. Risks and benefits of specific interventions need to be considered in individual cases. We do not think that arguments about ‘naturalness’ are convincing enough to rule out the responsible exploration of the potential of GM.
Should we be concerned about corporate control?
Five agricultural biotechnology corporations now control most of the technology needed to develop GM crops, as well as the agrochemicals and crop germplasm (tissue from which new plants can be grown, for example seeds, plants or leaves). There are concerns that companies and those who own intellectual property rights have undue influence over the availability of GM crops. Access to this technology and germplasm is crucial for further research. Additionally, much of GM research currently only serves the interests of large-scale farmers in developed countries, for example by focusing on traits such as herbicide tolerance.
We recommend that additional resources should be committed by the UK government and the EC to fund a major expansion of GM-related research relevant to the needs of small-scale farmers in developing countries.