Dr Madsen Pirie
Discussion of genetically modified crops should give pause to those who think it sufficient to be reasonable and to be right. While the NGO-led debate in the West has frightened the ignorant with talk of Frankenstein foods, scientific research has moved on elsewhere. A paper in the new issue of Science by Huang et al is reported by Mark Henderson in The Times. It examines the record of two GM modified rice strains in field trials.
A team from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the US National Science Foundation examined two varieties of rice, Xianyou 63 and Youming 86, each of which has been genetically engineered to resist insects. Xianyou 63 carries a gene for producing Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a natural pesticide commonly used by organic farmers, while Youming 86 has an insect-resistance gene from the cowpea plant.
Instead of following rigid guidelines, farmers were left to spray their crops, as they do, according to perceived need. The GM rice required far lower use of pesticides (once per year compared with 3.7 times per year for unmodified crops).
None of the GM farmers reported any pesticide-induced illnesses, such as headaches, skin irritation or nausea, while 7.7 per cent of the conventional farmers suffered these in 2002 and 11 per cent suffered them in 2003. Yields of the Xianyou 63 variety were 9 per cent higher than conventional rice, while those of Youming 86 were comparable to the non-GM equivalent.
You might suppose that lower use of pesticides, fewer illnesses in farmers, plus increased yields, might convince opponents of their errors. Wrong. They will attempt to undermine the findings on ideological rather than scientific grounds. None of this will impress the Chinese, who are likely to roll out use of the GM modified strains on a national scale, benefiting the prosperity and the health of their farmers, together with those of their consumers.
The holding bay area, already occupied by the coming ice age, catastrophic over-population, and depletion of scarce resources, might still have enough room to accommodate the mortal danger of genetically modified crops. Meanwhile Europe has been deprived of a lead and a role in one of the important technologies of the future.
1 . J. Huang, R. Hu, S. Rozelle and C. Pray (2005). Insect-Resistant GM Rice in Farmers' Fields: Assessing Productivity and Health Effects in China, Science, 308, 688-690. (http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/308/5722/688 – subscription only)
2. Mark Henderson (29 April 2004). Trials give clear signal for China to cultivate GM rice, The Times (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,3-1590460,00.html)
This article was published by the Adam Smith Institute (29 April 2005) (http://www.adamsmith.org/blog/archives/001251.php) and is reproduced here with permission