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Keep Biotech "Risks" In Perspective

April 14, 2011
The StarPheonix ran a commentary authored by Saskatoon-based farmer and agrologist Kevin Hursh about the perceived “risks” of biotech foods:
A good scientist will never say there is zero risk, only that risk is minimal or negligible. Unfortunately, that isn't good enough for consumers when it comes to the food supply.  It's now been 15 years since the introduction of genetically modified crops. A lot of consumers don't even realize that GM crops have been part of their diet for more than a decade. If you ask them, they'd prefer not to have any GM crops because it sounds scary.

Worldwide, the main GM crops are corn, soybeans and cotton. So far, herbicide tolerance and insect resistance have been the traits commercialized. Both have been a boon to production while helping to preserve the environment.

We're just at the cusp of GM traits that will more directly benefit consumers – drought tolerance, special food quality attributes and nitrogen use efficiency. Those benefits may never be realized if the consumers of the world grow more risk averse.  There are 100 million farmers growing GM crops, most of them in developing nations, but major opposition to the technology still exists, particularly within Europe.

After 15 years of growing GM crops, there is not a single credible health concern. The term genetic modification is actually a misnomer. We've been doing that for centuries through various plant breeding methods. The new technology is better described as genetic engineering. If anything, it provides more precise control over the outcome.

The technology is intensely regulated. Approval of new traits requires exhaustive research. Is the risk zero? No, but it's extremely low and the risk isn't zero under conventional plant breeding methods either.

Affluent Canadians, Americans and Europeans can afford to reject technology. In fact, many reject all aspects of intensive agriculture. Go ahead and buy organic vegetables and free range chickens if it makes you feel better.

But we can't feed the world without the continuing application of biotechnology. There will be seven billion people on the planet by the end of this year and nine billion by 2050. World food production is falling behind the growth in demand.

Throw in climate change or at least climate variability. Add in the fact that we want to reduce the use of pesticides. We don't want to take more land out of its natural habitat, but we pave over good farmland every day to expand our cities. And many nations are running out of the water they need for irrigation.

We can accept biotechnology as a tool to improve yields, food quality and the nutrient utilization or crops. Or we can let the food supply become ever more precarious and expensive and deal with the ramifications of starving people.  Let's choose the path with the lower risk."