Wednesday, February 12, 2003

Nature editorializes on Britain's GM debate:
Anyone surveying the literature with an unbiased eye should conclude that, after years of investigation, there is no convincing evidence that GM crops pose risks to human health, or that they will lead to an ecological meltdown. The farm-scale trials may also provide reassurance that herbicide-tolerant GM crops can be grown without adverse effects on farmland biodiversity. And a study published last month, backed by the agribiotech giant Monsanto, claimed that such crops can even boost invertebrate populations, if combined with specific regimes of herbicide application (A. M. Dewar et al. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 270, 335; 2003).

Yet Britain's GM science panel should also acknowledge that the research is lacking in several respects. Take the issue of gene flow from GM crops to wild relatives. Many studies, trumpeted by anti-GM activists at every opportunity, have shown that transgenes can spread beyond the crops from which they were introduced. But despite industry's past tendencies to play down the possible extent of gene flow, we have long known that crops will hybridize with related weeds. The real issue is whether the flow of transgenes has any undesirable ecological or agronomic consequences....

Some proponents of transgenic agriculture claim that the risks are small, and argue that we should push ahead with commercial plantings. This just isn't good enough. Dismissing legitimate public concerns will only harden opposition to transgenic farming.

Ultimately, the answer has to involve placing the arguments about GM crops in a wider context. Meeting the nutritional needs of the world's growing population while protecting the planet's biodiversity is a huge challenge. To meet it, we can ill afford to cast aside entire technologies without testing whether they can be effectively and safely deployed. This applies to transgenics, but also to enhancements to conventional breeding allowed by our growing genomic and molecular-genetic knowledge (see Nature 421, 568�570; 2003).

Shamefully, when it comes to creating new varieties that might help to feed the developing world's growing population, rich countries are now cutting spending on both approaches to crop improvement. And amid all the fuss about GM crops, there's been little acknowledgement that similar questions about biodiversity and gene flow must be asked about conventionally bred varieties. Take a variety of rice that can tolerate saline conditions. Such a crop, created by transgenic or conventional means, would allow the cultivation of soils that are now seen as agricultural wastelands. But might it also spawn superweeds that would choke estuarine habitats? Such questions need answers. At present, however, there seems to be little desire to find them.

Spot-on, guv'nor.

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