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Tuesday, 10 July, 2001, 11:42 GMT 12:42 UK
Analysis: GM crops potential
hands holding rice grains
GM crops: Dangerous or food security?
As the United Nations warns that Western opponents of genetically modified food are ignoring the needs of people in poor countries, the BBC's Andrew Craig looks at what biotechnology may offer.

Genetic engineering of crops aims for some of the same benefits as traditional plant breeding - but it offers to achieve them much more quickly.

Projects in progress around the world include:

  • Putting genes into Mexican potatoes to make them more resistant to fungus attacks
  • Enriching rice with Vitamin A
  • Creating trees that grow faster in Kenya where firewood is many people's only fuel source

In another imitative in Zimbabwe, researchers are taking genes from fruit trees native to India and Florida that will improve yields, but without the risk of bringing in pests that might accompany imports of the trees themselves.

Supporters of genetic modification say it can reduce the need for expensive and damaging pesticides.

The United States-based biotechnology company Monsanto, for example, has developed corn with insecticidal genes from a soil bacterium.

Chemical controversy

But other products are particularly resistant to weedkillers, and opponents say they encourage the application of more chemicals that wipe out all other plant life in a field.

In the longer term, scientists are investigating such goals as rubber modified to lack the ingredients that make some people allergic to it.

Then there are plans to make rubber trees produce chemicals for use in the pharmaceutical industry. Some see that as a great economic opportunity for tropical farmers.

But it is also the sort of cross-species technology that opponents denounce as dangerous because of its unpredictable effect on the wider natural environment.

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See also:

11 Jul 00 | Sci/Tech
GM companies 'should share data'
30 May 00 | Health
GM tomatoes 'fight cancer'
17 May 00 | Sci/Tech
Deal signed on 'Golden Rice'
12 Apr 00 | Health
High vitamin doses 'may harm'
14 Jan 00 | Sci/Tech
Yellow rice gives dietary boost
06 Apr 01 | South Asia
Indian firms embrace biotechnology
23 Apr 01 | Americas
Brazil court battle for GM soya
04 Aug 00 | Sci/Tech
GM rice patents given away
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