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Can GM crops feed the hungry?

By Carol Campbell - posted Thursday, 25 February 2010


Golden Rice burst into the public imagination a decade ago, in the form of a cover article in Time magazine that claimed the genetically modified (GM) rice could "save a million kids a year".

The rice gets its golden hue from an excess of beta carotene, a precursor to vitamin A that could help half a million children who go blind each year from an often-fatal vitamin A deficiency.

But ten years later, Golden Rice is yet to cure blindness - and some believe it never will.

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The public versus GM

Co-inventor Ingo Potrykus points to resistance to GM technology from pressure groups such as Greenpeace that has resulted in public and governmental resistance - including fears that rogue GM genes may contaminate wild varieties or that GM technology services corporate greed and will never help the poor.

This has led to "excessive" regulations that have choked efforts to roll out GM crops that might feed the poor, he says.

And there are other concerns - the cost; the slowness of the research; even the idea that a "magic bullet" approach to nutrition can provide the answer to what is, some argue, a social, cultural and economic problem.

Does this mean that all GM foods are fated never to solve the under-nutrition of the poor? If public resistance dwindles, will the crops live up to their promise to help feed the world's undernourished (estimated by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to number one billion in 2009)?

Rowan Sage, one of the scientists working on the creation of “C4 rice” - another engineered rice that could one day produce a radically improved yield - says it is crucial to get public approval if GM is to tackle malnutrition. The social obstacles are huge, he says, and acceptance is "critical" for C4 rice's success.

"We have got to get buy-in because they [the hungry poor] could easily just say they don't want it," says Sage, an ecological and evolutionary biologist at the University of Toronto, Canada, working with the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) on the project.

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Guillaume Gruere, a research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) believes that most of the reasons behind the fact that there are no publicly-developed GM food crops available for the poor can be traced back to resistance.

Many of the obstacles in developing countries have "in large part resulted from influences from countries and organisations opposed to the use of GM food", Gruere says.

Some GM proponents are pessimistic that these issues will be resolved anytime soon. For example, HarvestPlus, a global program aimed at creating more nutritious staple crops, is avoiding GM technology almost entirely and using conventional breeding instead.

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First published in SciDev.net on January 20, 2010.



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About the Author

Carol Campbell is a freelance science journalist based in Oudtshoorn, South Africa.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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