Let them eat cake (but the GM free kind)

What a week it’s been. She says on a Wednesday morning. Although I’m all for long weekends, and am very much in favor of having lots of them at the start of the year, it has meant deadlines have been pushed forward for our magazines. You could cut the tension in our office with a knife. Roll on 2pm when the magazine goes to the printer and we can all take a quick breather before we crack onto another issue of Country Wide.

Being the social media savvy person that I am, I belong to a number of groups of Facebook. Lots of horsey pages, military spouse pages, farming pages etc. Last night I happened across a blog post that had been shared. “Four arguments against GM Food production”. My interest was tweaked by my inner science nerd.

I read the article, let it absorb. Then I became frustrated. I’m not a scientist, but I know enough and have done enough research to know the basics of GM food. Frustration gave way to confusion and wonder.

What frustrates me is this. People complain about the amount of land used for farming and the environmental effects of this. We have an expanding population to feed (and not all can afford ‘organic, vegan, gluten free, dairy free, fat free food… oh wait, that’s water… but again, some can even get access to drinkable water).

And here in our hot little hands we have this glorious thing called science. Science is a wonderful thing. Science has allowed us to genetically modify various different crops and feeds to increase its yield (and more recently the whole pig-human thing). BUT, everyone and his dog seems to have a problem with GM food. Why ?

Some say sketchy science (from Frankenstein corn that’s going to grow legs and walk off to lord knows what else), which I find a it laughable mainly because GM food wouldn’t be available for human consumption had it not passed a plethora of testing (unless those pesky scientists have another agenda). Others say scientists are trying to play god. Others perhaps don’t quite understand what its all about. Which is cool! not everyone is a scientist, and to be fair, a lot of the jargon is involved (Crispr-Cas9 gene anyone ?!).

We here in NZ don’t partake in gene-splicing and ‘crispr-ing’. I’m sort of on the fence about this. I can see both sides of the argument. (Although I can’t see the whole ‘frankenstein corn’ side of the equation.)

On one hand, a large part of our competitive advantage at the moment lies with our GE-Free stance. It ‘should’ provide us with a good platform to demand a higher premium for our product, although how well we are doing this in the international market is a question in its own.

So would introducing GE ruin our ability to say “Hey! our products are super valuable!” Or are we missing out on the opportunity to produce more food and get more $$$$ from our little country (And yes I know, it’s not  quite as simple as this).

So lets look at the numbers. 180 MILLION hectares in 28 countries and 18 million farmers grow GM crops. That’s a fair bit of feed. So what would be the implications? Looking back at an article I did last year a Purdue University study looked at the environmental toll of eliminating GM crops. A yield loss (due to insect damage and weed invasion) would mean a 5.25 drop in soybean, 11.2% drop in corn and 18.6% in cotton. To make up for this yield loss, more crop would need to be planted which means a larger impact on the environment. (Exactly what the general public don’t want us to do, talk about a rock and a hard place).

Now lets look at the science/ some really cool sh*t that can be done.
You can take bits of the genetic code out and put new ones in (either from the same species or other species).

The arctic fresh apple is a good example. People wanted a non-browning apple. So science came to the rescue. The apple was created using the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technique. In simple folk terms they chemically removed part of the DNA in a gene and popping in a new bit of DNA in its place.It’s pretty amazing stuff really. From a science perspective, it’s amazing the advances that are being made. These sorts of techniques can be used for pest resistance resulting in yield increase saving hectares of land. And of course, can give consumers what they want.

GM is slightly more accepted in other countries. I feel like here in NZ we are a touch sensitive in terms of technological and scientific advancements. We shy away from it. No matter what goes on, NZ’ers always seem to find fault in things. And if its another nail in the coffin of farming, then all the better.

Here in NZ we have a fair bit of research effort going into GM grasses, although with out GE-Free stance, field tests on these are done overseas. Creating high ME grasses which could help reduce methane and nitrous oxides without comprising plant growth OR milk yield seems like a win to me on an environmental front (which seems to be the hot topic right now). BUT of course, people want it both ways – less methane and other bad stuff, but to keep our competitive advantage in overseas markets.Why do we always seem to be stuck between a rock and a hard place?

So should we be making a small move in GE for the sake of the environment to do our bit even more to feed the world and risk tainting our competitive advantage?  I don’t really know the answer. I believe though that as time goes on that our stance will change as peoples understanding and acceptance progresses . And people WILL have to come to terms with this type of technology in the future. With an increasing global population feeding the world will be a real thing, making more food from less acerage will be a necessity and GM, at this stage, is one of the only tools in the tool-box to do this.
When it does, it’s nice to know we won’t be completely on the back foot and will have some of our own research to pull out our sleeve.

Maybe one day we will be to able have our cake and eat it to. And maybe even the GM kind.

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