Genetic engineering: a decade of disagreement Andy Coghlan. New Scientist. London: Jan 21-Jan 27, 2006. Vol. 189, Iss. 2535; pg. 10, 1 pgs Abstract (Summary) A decade after genetically modified (GM) crops were first cultivated commercially, the debate over whether they should be grown at all still rages, with the two sides as far apart as ever. Coinciding with the anniversary, two surveys have revealed that many members of the US public remain poorly informed about the issue. Coghlan details the two studies that show that the public is still poorly informed about GM crops. Full Text (613 words) Copyright Reed Business Information UK Jan 21-Jan 27, 2006 TEN years is a long time to be having the same argument. Yet a decade after genetically modified crops were first cultivated commercially, the debate over whether they should be grown at all still rages, with the two sides as far apart as ever. Coinciding with the anniversary, two surveys have revealed that many members of the public remain poorly informed about the issue. It was in 1996 that GM crops became an industry, when cotton and maize engineered to be resistant to insecticides and soybeans resistant to weedkiller were grown for profit in significant quantities for the first time. Today some 8.5 million farmers in 21 countries grow GM varieties, according to an audit released last week by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, a non-profit organisation that promotes the use of biotech in developing countries. Clive James, director of the ISAAA and author of the report, says there is now substantial evidence that GM crops are safe and benefit both the environment and millions of poor farmers. "The record is clear on food safety," he says. "Three hundred million people in the US and Canada have been eating it for 10 years with not even a hint of a problem." The report also finds that over the past 10 years the cultivation of crops modified to resist pests, such as Bt cotton, has meant farmers have applied 172,500 million tonnes less pesticide than they would have used on conventional crops. The major users and beneficiaries of GM crops are small farmers, the report claims. It says 9 out of 10 farmers growing GM live in developing countries. But a report released by Friends of the Earth Europe contradicts these findings. It says that multinational companies such as Monsanto, which pioneered GM agricultural varieties, dominate the industry, and the planting of GM crops encourages monocultures that damage the environment and threaten the livelihoods of farmers who rely on conventional or organic varieties. "Most people remain sceptical because the industry has failed to convince them there are benefits and it's safe," says Peter Riley of GM Freeze, a UK-based organisation campaigning for a continued moratorium on the cultivation and import of GM varieties in Europe. Two recent studies show the public to be poorly informed about GM crops. A survey published this month in the Journal of Rural Studies (vol 22, p 29) questioned people known to be strongly opposed to GM technology or to be anti-GM activists. It found that 17 of the 38 people questioned believed growing Bt crops does not lead to a reduction in the amount of pesticide sprayed. Yet the overwhelming evidence indicates that farmers growing these crops do use less pesticide (New Scientist, 7 May 2005, p 11). Another survey, released in November 2005 by the Pew Initiative on Food and Technology, a charitable trust based in Washington DC set up to encourage public debate on biotechnology, revealed that almost 6 out of 10 adults in the US are unaware that GM crops exist, while only 25 per cent realise that GM foods have been on sale in the US for the past 10 years. When further informed about the pros and cons of GM foods, more than 6 out of 10 respondents said they would oppose the importation of GM crops into the US. Meanwhile the uptake of GM plants continues apace. Last year saw Iranian farmers plant the first variety of GM rice, which contains an insecticidal toxin to keep pests at bay. Andy Coghlan [Sidebar] "Only 25 per cent of adults in the US realise that GM foods have been on sale in the country for the past 10 years"