Ecology And Environment

Biological and biotechnical agriculture

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Biotechnology and Food Production.

When it comes to answering the question of whether the application of GM (genetically modified) technology to improve food production is a good thing, two main issues spring to mind - the first one being the largely unknown effects of long-term consumption of GM foods, and the other being the potential rise of pesticide resistant micro-organisms and crop diseases. It is quite possible that with responsible investigative research, these issues can be addressed, and further insight can be gained into the potential uses of food biotechnology.

Yet before this is even attempted, the issue of corporate exploitation and financial gain at the expense of the livelihoods of the poor, needs to be tackled head on.

The so-called "terminator technology", which as the name suggests, are suicide seeds that become infertile after the first harvest, has been banned since 2000, and major biotech companies have consistently kept up the pressure to have this lifted ever since.

The idea of preventing a farmer from germinating seeds for the next harvest FROM HIS OWN CROP, to me is as absurd as it can possibly get, and in my opinion, doesn't even deserve the privilege of being entertained or discussed as a possibility or solution to ending world hunger; although it never ceases to surprise me how these livelihood-destroying policies can be decorated and sold to people as poverty-alleviating strategies.

The very fact that under this scheme farmers will have to purchase new seeds every single year, will not only make farmers completely dependent on biotech companies, ensuring their maximum profits (apparently the global seed market is worth over $19bn), but it will also totally change the face of traditional farming - threatening farmer profits by creating the added expense of seed purchase in an already volatile and unequal market; thus contributing to the increase in poverty and a lack of access to a regular food supply.

Also, since profit always seem to be the primary objective of these companies; (often at the expense of human life) it seems likely that farmers may not even have much control over what seeds they can actually buy and grow. Applying GM technology to traditional crops to feed local populations is nowhere near as profitable as applying it for the production of cash crops for international markets.

In Zanzibar, there exists a plant virus that has been spreading rapidly, destroying the local cassava crop in its path. The virus leads to a disease called Cassava Brown Streak Disease (CBSD) and will have a detrimental impact on the food security within the regions it infects, as cassava is a staple crop to well over 400 million people across Africa. While it may be a last resort, I think in this instance the application of biotechnology may be of use, at least more use than what it is already being used for. To either develop a strain of cassava that is both resistant to the virus and safe to consume, or to tackle its mode of transmission via the Whitefly vector, will go a long way towards securing the local food supply and protecting farmers' income.

So whilst I firmly believe that all risks regarding GM technology should be identified and thoroughly investigated, maybe the technology itself shouldn't be demonised, but a closer look should be taken into who the technology belongs to and what purpose is it being used for.

More about this author: Keiron Audain

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