TV primer on GM crops

In: Uncategorized

30 Nov 2008

Belatedly caught up with the BBC TV Horizon programme on Jimmy’s GM Food Fight (as I write there are still 23 days left to watch it on BBC iPlayer). It provided an unexpectedly good primer to the debate about genetically modified (GM) crops (or GMOs as they are known in America). The presenter was Jimmy Doherty, a traditional farmer with a PhD in entomology, who also presented the informative Jimmy Doherty’s Farming Heroes (see 20 July 2008 post).

Doherty did a good job of explaining the basics of GM. For instance, he pointed out that selective breeding of plants has existed for literally thousands of years. He pointed out that crops such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts cauliflower, Kohlrabi and numerous varieties of modern cabbages were all bred from the wild cabbage. GM technology merely provides a more efficient way of breeding.

He also pointed to other advantages of GM technology. These include modifying plants to improve their qualities by making them, for instance, more drought resistant or disease resistant. Such modifications can mean that less pesticides are required to growth them. It is also possible to use GM technology to enhance the nutritional value of food.

Doherty also allowed the critics of GM, based mainly in Europe, to have a voice. Lord Peter Melchett, a British environmental campaigner, voiced his opposition to GM mainly on the grounds of the uncertainties involved in relation to the environment and human health. Yet despite professed concern about “uncertainties” such campaigners, including Melchett himself, have destroyed experiments to determine the qualities of GM crops.

The programme also contained a couple of surprises:

• An interview with an Amish farmer who – despite eschewing mechanised tractors – happily used GM crops. The programme also pointed out that 80% of corn, cotton and soya production in America is GM. GM technology has been used in dozens of countries for over a decade.

• An interview with the head of a research unit in Uganda experimenting on using GM technology to counter a fungus that is decimating the country’s vital banana crop. The unit has high security but, unlike in Europe, its aim is not to keep anti-GM protestors out. The fences and barbed wire are designed to keep out Ugandan farmers who desperately want to plant the crops rather than await the results of time-consuming trials.