Courtesy Reuters

The Global Food Fight


Powerful new technologies often provoke strong resistance. When the internal combustion engine gave us automobiles, advocates of horse-drawn buggies scorned the fad. When nuclear fission was first mastered, much sentiment turned against its use -- even for peaceful purposes. Thus today's backlash against the commercial use of recombinant DNA technology for food production should not be surprising. Consumer and environmental groups, mostly in Europe, depict genetically modified (GM) food crops, produced mostly in the United States, as dangerous to human health and the environment. These critics want tight labeling for GM foods, limits on international trade in GM crops, and perhaps even a moratorium on any further commercial development of this new technology -- all to prevent risks that are still mostly hypothetical.

The international debate over GM crops pits a cautious, consumer-driven Europe against aggressive American industry. Yet the real stakeholders in this debate are poor farmers and poorly fed consumers in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. These are the regions most in need of new transgenic crop technologies, given their difficult farming conditions and rapidly growing populations. Yet poor farmers in tropical countries are neither participating in nor profiting from the GM crop revolution.


The genetic modification of plants and animals through domestication and controlled breeding has gone on with little debate for roughly 10,000 years. But since 1973, genetic modification has also been possible through the transfer of isolated genes into the DNA of another organism. This type of genetic engineering -- also known as genetic transformation, transgenesis, or simply GM -- is a more powerful and more precise method of modifying life. Genes carrying specific traits can be transferred using a "gene gun" between species that would not normally be able to exchange genetic material. A trait for cold resistance, for example, can be transferred from a fish to a plant.

As powerful as GM technology is, the large corporate investments needed to develop commercial applications for transgenic crops did not begin until 1980, when

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