In this blog post, we want to address the question of producing genetically modified food. Is producing GM food good for reducing risks in farm management and making it more sustainabile? But what are the risks?
Beginning in 1845, a potato blight epidemic in Ireland caused mass starvation and approximately 1 million deaths. Now, more than a century and a half later, researchers in Oxford’s Sainsbury Laboratory have discovered new clues about how the devastating pathogen behind the Great Famine operates — insights that could bring science one controversial step closer to developing blight-resistant crops.
The Oxford study examines the biochemical differences between two related blight strains affecting potatoes and the four o’clock flower. The findings may not be particularly glamorous, but understanding how such pathogens adapt to new hosts and spread between plant species is crucial in the fight against a disease and is so harmful that the U.S. once researched it as potential agent for biological weapons.
In fact, the same pathogen, Phytophthora infestans, that caused the Great Famine still affects tomatoes and potatoes today, all over the world, costing an estimated $7 billion a year. That’s enough money to feed the entire world for 2.7 days.
While farmers in the western countries can afford themselves the expensive pesticides to fight it, the risk of blight is a much more dangerous gamble for farmers in the developing world. And with the world’s food production needs expected to double by 2050, scientists recognize they must root out vegetable disease. They have been trying to find a solution for decades, but the first step — understanding the disease — is also the hardest. “You have to know your enemy,” says Professor Sophien Kamoun.
The main challenge is that genetic resistance is often short-lived because the pathogen, like a flu virus, can mutate into a new strain and overcome it. This is why understanding how the pathogen evolves is so fundamental.
Blight-resistant vegetables could be great for farmers, as well as for the environment. Potatoes are sprayed against blight up to 12 times a season in some countries, and a genetically modified variety could bring this number down to two.
A new generation of smarter crops could also increase food security worldwide, which is a growing concern.
Indeed, blight can cause havoc worldwide, putting farmers out of business, increasing food prices and resulting in famine. With the world’s population set to grow by over 2 billion in the next 40 years, disease control is more urgent than ever.
Not everyone is as excited, however, by the prospect of genetically designed supercrops. Many consumers and anti-GM (genetically modified foods) lobbyists remain skeptical. There is just no market interest, especially in Europe, where people are really concerned about the potential ecological and social consequences of GM.
Can GM food make farm management more secured? – Yes, in short-term for sure. But there are too much different scientific opinions on the long-term effects. So instead of pushing solutions that consumers don’t want, the industry should be looking at other alternatives.
Definitely, until there is a good solution, it is important to bring knowledge on sustainable farm management to farmers worldwide and educate them on potential diseases, how to prevent them and how to make their farming more efficient.