Natural gene pool under big pressure

WHETHER to genetically modify (GM) food sources or not is one of the most serious decisions mankind has ever had to take.

It is now in our power to genetically modify plants and creatures. The danger of multinationals controlling our destiny by enforcing patents on new food sources and medicines shrinks to insignificance against the dangers of GM creations polluting the natural gene pool.

Unfortunately, for every instance of what appears to be beneficial gene modification there is a GM accident waiting to happen. The future of the natural food chain and the workings of the land and the oceans cannot afford the catastrophe that would result if even a single GM experiment went wrong.

In the Economist, August 2010, I read Brazil has transformed almost two million square kilometres of “unproductive” savannah, known as cerrado, into crop-growing plains. While ecologists fear for the loss of the vast biodiversity of species, this development holds out hope for feeding the world – set to increase by 3 billion by 2050 – and especially offers hope to Africa.

Clearly, adequate conservation areas of natural cerrado must be set aside but we cannot ignore the fact that as a result of agriscience, the cerrado, previously economically almost worthless, now produces 70% of Brazil’s crops, the value of which have risen by 385% in the 10 years. Without further deforesting the Amazon Basin – 1,000 km away – and with state support of only 5.7% of farm incomes as against 29% in the EU, Brazil is now the world’s largest exporter of beef (pace the IFA), poultry, sugar cane and ethanol.

By old-fashioned crossbreeding methods alone, grass strains imported from Africa now produce three times the African yield. Soya beans, a temperate-climate species, have been hybridised to grow in tropical Brazil which now exports a third of the world’s supply. GM science is recently being applied in order to further increase yield. Brazil is the world’s second largest user of GM after the USA.

Dr Silvio Crestana, one of the architects of Brazil’s agricultural revolution, says if Brazilian agricultural technology is exported to Africa – not a difficult task scientifically – “feeding the world in 2050 will not look like the uphill struggle it appears to be now”. However, as this ‘technology’ would clearly include genetically modified species I believe the risk of their impacting disastrously on Africa, in terms of finance or damage to native species, would have to be carefully assessed.

GM creations carry huge risks. An example is a newly-developed GM salmon which, its US creators claim, will put fish on the plates of the world’s hungry. They are applying for a Federal Drug Administration licence to market the fish.

Dubbed a “frankenfish” by its detractors, it will grow at twice the rate of farmed salmon. It follows that, per annum, farmers will require twice the tonnage of sand-eels, anchovies and menhaden to feed it. These species are already so over-fished that krill, the very basis of the Antarctic food chain, is now being harvested. A book I recently reviewed in this paper, Four Fish by Paul Greenberg, authoritatively states that “caged salmon can require up to six pounds of wild fish to produce one pound of edible flesh.” I ask: Why turn 6kg of anchovies into 1kg of salmon? Anchovies are delicious. But millions of tons are fed to farmed salmon in Chile for export to the USA.

If one considers that the human race has gone mad, one might worry that we will grow even madder when we eat this salmon, the first genetically modified animal likely to reach the human food chain. Some critics fear it could contain dangerous allergens.

A second serious concern is that the GM fish will, inevitably, escape. The ‘developers’ state that the fish would be sterile; however, a small percentage might be able to breed. They would be bred in confined pools, far from the sea.

My fear is that, as sure as God made little apples, one or more of these fish would sooner or later escape and follow water to the ocean and interbreed with wild stocks. Their progeny would out-eat Atlantic salmon and put an insupportable burden on the oceanic food chain.

Fish farming, as Greenberg states, is a positive way forward, but we must breed vegetarian tilapia and other non-carnivorous species. Brazilian soy would probably suit them – but would we thus end up consuming a GM product too?

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