There was an article in the Times (UK) on Feb 12 which suggested that UK scientists were increasing the pressure for greater GM use in addressing world hunger.
I suppose I am getting tired of the "embrace" or "shun" dichotomy that we see in the press about GM. Here is a letter that my colleague, John Thompson, and I wrote in reply, published today, Feb 15.
Sir, We must neither embrace genetically modified (GM) crops, nor shun them. We must govern them (“GM crops ‘are vital’ to beat food shortage”, Feb 12). It would be foolish to rule out GM as part of the solution to hunger, but equally foolish to see it as the silver bullet. For some ecosystems, for some crops and for some types of farmers it can help to raise yields and reduce the use of other inputs, potentially raising the income of smallholder farmers and those who do business with them. “Potentially” is key.
There are risks associated with the adoption of GM crops: risks for farmers — can they afford the upfront costs and will the crops work as advertised? Risks, too, for society — will only rich farmers be able to adopt the crops and will the crops in any case only reflect the needs of rich farmers? There are also risks for the environment in terms of unanticipated consequences.
In other words, there may only be a few real pathways from GM to hunger reduction. But those pathways may be very powerful ones. If we get the governance of GM right we can find them and create them. Farmers and other less powerful stakeholders need to have a meaningful voice in the institutions that prioritise, assess risk and regulate GM crops.
The best science results from asking the right questions about the right problems, and it is the potential users of technology who understand their own problems best. The best regulations need not be burdensome; indeed they can be facilitative, but they must be based on real, local evidence and so have firm scientific underpinnings. When these are in place I would expect us to be much better at finding and creating ways in which GM can reduce rather than exacerbate hunger.