We live in a world that is at a crossroads. Human history is the history of adaptation, both adapting to the various ecosystems found on our planet, but also altering our ecosystems to better suit our needs. For many thousands of years the effect of this adaptation was relatively minimal and saw the rise of agriculture and human civilisation as we know it today. Then in a relatively short period of time, beginning at the first industrial revolution. We as a species started producing greenhouse gasses (GHGs) in staggering amounts, and we have been creating these gases in astounding quantities since. Climate change is one of the greatest challenges that humanity faces today. Climate change can, is, and will affect every living thing on the planet in one way or another. For human beings, climate change is going to affect our food and water supply which are fundamental to our societies, both in the developed and developing world.
An unprecedented boom in the human population in the last number of decades, combined with increasingly extreme weather conditions and competition for the use of land with the need to supply these new people with adequate food and water to meet their biological and cultural needs has placed great demands on the worlds food supply. This has meant that science; in particular crop scientists have done an unparalleled job in breeding new varieties of crops which produce adequate yields to meet the needs of the people in less than ideal situations.
Crop science has branched out relatively recently into biotechnology, and genetic engineering. Combined, these technologies used in the crop science setting have created what today are known as genetically modified (GM) crops. Genetic modification in a basic sense is the taking of genes from one organism and placing them into another organism. In plant science, this has been used to famously make plants resistant to certain herbicides and pesticides which have led to the corporate dominance of the crop market by a handful of companies through the aggressive use of intellectual property law. There have been other uses of the technology, such as the use of bio-fortification (getting crops to express vitamins). These technologies are considered very controversial, particularly in Europe, which is the only continent where GM crops are not grown as the industrial norm to support the population. Currently in Europe, there is a variety of maize, referred to as “MON 810” being commercially cultivated, which has been genetically modified to protect it against a pest, the European corn borer. This variety of maize represents less than 2% of all the maize grown in the European Union (EU).
The European parliament has of the 13/1/2015 lifted the EU wide ban and is going to allow individual countries to provide their own legislation for GM crops. This lifting of the blanket ban on GM crops does not mean a weakening of controls on GM, as various nations may choose to implement more strenuous legislation then was currently imposed. Britain on the other hand is currently preparing new trials of GM crops, and is fully prepared to take advantage of the new situation. Even with this lifting of the ban, there is still a need for the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to carry stringent risk assessments on GM crops before they can be grown.
The creation and use of GM crops has led to the creation of a new international industry: organic foods. With the EU average for certified organic foods bordering around 5%. These foods imply to be more natural and better then GM, and often command a premium price, and as such, causes the buyer to infer that GM crops are worse for you and inferior (A debate which will rage for some time to come as various papers claim wildly different things). For the most part, GM crops are an accepted part of modern agriculture in most continents even if many people are not happy about the fact. Europe has been the slowest to accept the use of genetically modified food, in a consumer context, although many European agricultural industries are in part supported by the use of imported GM crops in the form of animal feed.
Currently, the legislation does not require foods imported from outside the EU to declare on the packaging whether or not they contain GM ingredients. As a result of this, very many people blindly eat GM ingredient’s and crops on a daily and weekly basis, and to date there has not been one scientifically proven case of GM crops affecting the health of the consumer. For GM crops to be accepted by retailers and consumers in Europe there needs to be a drastic change of cultural attitude about genetically modified crops and how they are perceived.