Of all the issues facing agriculture, and there are many, I ﬁnd the debate around genetically modified organisms to be perhaps the most fascinating.
In the simplest of terms, modifying organisms is some-thing humans have been doing for decades, if not centuries.
You don’t have to look any farther than the area of our house pets to see what we have accomplished in terms of modifying species.
Take a look in a fish tank and consider the Bubble-eye Goldﬁsh.
According to an online source the Bubble-eye Goldfish variety was ﬁrst developed in 1908 in China, although there is evidence to suggest they existed in the eighteenth century, which was a long time before current GMO techniques came along.
The dog world is one of the extremes covering breeds from the tiny Chihuahua to the wrinkled Sharpei to the massive Irish Wolfhound. All domestic dogs share a very ancient common ancestry, but man has tinkered over the centuries to create varied breeds.
Ditto the cat, the tail-less manx and the hairless sphinx are prime examples of modification, the latter a development as recent as the 1960s.
It’s the same story in the world of fancy pigeons as well, with rollers, tumblers and a huge range of other breeds.
In the above cases, selective breeding was used, and the original animal modiﬁed through the selection process.
That same basic technique has brought about signiﬁcant change in farming too, and often with huge beneﬁt. As an example, world food security was improved when rust resistant wheat was developed.
Certainly the science at work today is more advanced than that of natural selection, opening the door to more dramatic modiﬁcation in a shorter span of time, but it is still modiﬁcation, only differing by degrees.
The potential for more dramatic changes does come with the new science. We hear of the day a goat might be raised with leopard skin, something a futurist spoke of in Yorkton more than a decade ago.
That is likely still years away, if ever possible, but what if it did occur? Is that goat any less like its base ancestor than is a hairless cat?
At present there does seem something of a backlash against science, as it is increasingly the great unknown. General understanding stops at saying “it evolved.” With the unknown comes distrust.
That distrust is made worse because so much science is not carried out either by big business or government, neither rating very high on the public trust meter either – much of that distrust earned by the recent track record of both.
So when a new GMO product comes out from a major chemical company, as an example, there is a huge fear factor for many.
Yet, the pure science of GM crops is saying they are safe. There will always be the ‘what if’ in 50-years question, but that exists for car exhaust fumes, food additives and a 100 other things we use in our daily lives.
In the end, what GM technology does offer is a way to maybe keep ahead of the curve in terms of feeding a growing population on a finite amount of land capable of growing crops. For that reason alone, it is a road we likely must travel unless we want to see food stocks stretched past their limits in the not all too distant future.