Every now and then you come across an article that has the ring of experience and truth about it. This article by John Williams is one such article. It is about Genetically Modified Organisms. It is reproduced with the permission of the Author and Reverend Brendan Byrne, Minister of Mountview Uniting Church, Mitcham, Victoria, Australia 3132 where it first appeared – http://www.mountview.unitingchurch.org.au.
AN OPINION PIECE – A COMMENT REGARDING GMOs from JOHN WILLIAMS
Robert Fraley, Mary-Dell Chilton and Marc Van Montagu have been jointly awarded the 2013 World Food Prize, considered to be the Nobel prize of agriculture. Alarm has erupted amongst the opponents of Genetically Modified Organisms.
Fraley is the chief technical officer and vice-president of Monsanto: Chilton, the founder of Syngenta Biotechnology: Van Montagu, chairman of the Institute of Plant Biotechnology Outreach at Ghent University in Belgium. Their discoveries over the years paved the way for a host of other scientists developing the genetically modified food and fibre crops already used by some 17 million farmers across the world. The citation reads in part: “making it possible for farmers to grow crops with improved yields, resistance to insects and disease, and the ability to tolerate extreme variations in climate.”
The awarding of this esteemed prize runs counter to the anti-GM food clichés…….. GM crops are unsafe to eat: GM crops are bad for the environment: GM crops are the tools of big business: GM crops exploit the poor farmer.
In over 20 years, no one has yet found any GM crop unsafe to eat. GM plants are less stressful on the environment as the use of chemical fertilizers and synthetic pesticides is curtailed. (DDT has gone.) Not-for-profit institutes such as IRRI, CIMMYT, CSIRO are the developers and first multipliers of the superior seed stock. Subsequent hybrid seed stock developed and marketed by multi-national corporations offer a farmer a substantially higher return on his seed purchase investment. (Being hybrid, saving seed for the next crop is bad practice. First cross hybrid seed is an annual purchase, but the return is substantial. A poor farmer needs to be shown that instead of saving seed, he sells it and instead saves the money to buy next season’s seed.)
Once a myth takes root and spreads, it is awfully hard to dislodge. A mental barrier springs up when taking away the justification for castigating a nominal oppressor, such as big business.
There appears to be a senseless fight brewing regarding the place of Genetically Modified Organisms in regard to the ability of the earth’s limited agricultural land to feed a steadily growing world population.
Why am I interested in this contentious subject? Most Mountview folk will remember that for many years of my working life I would go off overseas for long periods of time, sometimes months, on another United Nations sponsored agricultural or forestry project. During that period, starting in the Middle East, I was engineering the major tools of plant breeding research scientists to enable them to conduct cross breeding programs for vegetables, grain crops and fibre crops in total isolation from
external contamination. For example, in the sophisticated computer operated greenhouse complex I designed and erected (funded by the United Nations Development Program), North Korean agronomists were able to grow and test rice crops at a rate exceeding three crops a year. For them, opportunities for traditional cross pollination methods in the open field came once a year over about a three-day period at about 10: 00 o’clock on each day. These programs were frequently interrupted or destroyed by a monsoonal thunderstorm. But, in the greenhouse chambers, equipped with both day length shortening and lengthening capability (lighting and black out), heating and cooling, their experiments were safe from all weather situations, even snow. Within three years, they developed strains of rice which could be grown on salty marginal coastal areas, vastly increasing their nation’s food stocks.
The success of that work attracted the attention of the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines and the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources in India. For these organisations, total isolation quarantine greenhouses and attached laboratories enabled scientists to carry out safe molecular biology research and to check that no `trojan horses’ had crept into their work or into the work of others involved in plant tissue exchange programs.
Along came – drought resistant wheat: rice able to remain standing in a heavy storm: rice able to fix its own nitrogen instead of being dosed with loads of fertiliser: wheat which aphids would not touch: wheat with high protein content: rice producing beta-carotene to overcome Vitamin A deficiency (blindness in infants): perennial rice for hillside growing, like a grass, feeding people and cattle and
reducing soil erosion: cotton with inbuilt insecticide.
The technique for precisely drying rice seed at the International Rice Research Institute to prepare it for preservation in the gene bank was developed further for the vegetable farmers on the great Ganges plain in India. There they now have vegetable seeds free of congenital pests and of very high viability. After precision drying, these seeds are sealed in canisters for holding for the next planting. The dramatically improved viability factor has had the effect of increasing the land acreage by about 15% where there is absolutely no more available land – every seed a plant leaving no gaps in the row!
In 1961, there were 4.5 billion hectares of farming land across the world feeding three billion people. In 2011, just 4.9 billion hectares are feeding seven billion! Average calories for those three billion were 2189 per day, but by 2009, it has risen to 2830 calories per day – for more than twice the population! The ‘Green Revolution’ started this massive increase in efficiency. The work continues, and must continue, for the world still has vast areas of famine. Without clearing forests, from where may we obtain additional land? Fertiliser runoff contaminates water ways and encourages toxic algal blooms. Pesticide and weedicide residues detrimental to wild life (and humans) must be curtailed. Viable agriculture has to extend across marginal land. Rainfall variability is increasing, requiring plants able to hold viability over dry and wet periods. Fair quality land must yield higher returns without the environment being jeopardised.
Many of these production gains have come via taking a superior attribute of one plant and giving it
to another. Gene transfer is the work of the molecular biologist. It is painstaking work, requiring extreme finesse and is usually accompanied by a long string of disappointments with an occasional breakthrough, that breakthrough having to survive at least seven successive crop generations to prove both its truth and worth and to confirm no ‘trojan horse’. Peer review is extremely tough. After the seven generations, produce is fed to animals, fish, poultry, etc. seeking any side effects. Finally, the plants go into production and the benefits made available to farmer and consumer.
Yet there are the sceptics who still claim GMOs are dangerous. They seem emotionally charged and
become subject to fear, not able to analyse proven data, claiming conspiracy. I am aghast at their actions in destroying experimental crops, denying the right of others their choice between eating and starving, or in the case of ‘golden rice’, not being born blind! How dare they!
I know, that when I settle down to sleep each night, across the world there are millions who are also
bedding down with food in their tummies through the works of the scientists I assisted. I rest easy, my work done.
Let GM labelling begin! I will choose it if available.