Page last updated at 12:59 GMT, Monday, 24 November 2008

Can GM save the world?

Jimmy Doherty

Genetic modification is one of the great contentious issues of 21st Century science.

GM seeds
Many countries do not share Europe's concerns over GM technology

To some it is a powerful technology that could boost food production and prevent famines; to others it is a dangerously untested science that threatens environmental disaster.

The BBC Horizon programme sent Jimmy Doherty - an advocate of sustainable farming - on a personal mission to get at some of the truths on GM.

Can GM crops save the world? It's not a question most people would expect me to be asking.

They look at the way I farm and assume that I'd be opposed to GM technology. But my attitude towards GM is more complicated than that.

Although I've seen no evidence that eating GM crops is bad for you I do believe that you should have the choice to avoid GM if you want to

I trained as a scientist; I was studying for a PhD in entomology when I started the farm, and I'm fascinated by genetic technology.

It could be an incredibly powerful tool if it's used properly. But on the other hand I think how we produce our food is really important, and I run my farm according to the principles I believe in.

All our animals are raised outdoors, we don't use any chemical pesticides or fertilisers and we try to work with nature as much as possible.

So I've spent the last six months travelling around the world to investigate GM crops. I wanted to find out if they had a role to play in our agricultural systems or whether the environmental and health concerns make it too risky.

No fear

The first thing I found was that much of the rest of the world does not share Europe's concerns about GM technology.

GM crops were planted on over 100 million hectares last year - that's about 10% of the world's crops which are now genetically modified. And it really seems to be working for the farmers.

Jimmy Doherty spent six months investigating GM crops

I visited Argentina where they've adopted GM technology in a big way.

Every year they plant an area larger than Britain with GM soya beans.

The beans are much more profitable to grow than conventional beans and they have become the country's biggest export. They almost single-handedly rescued Argentina from economic meltdown when they were introduced in the late 1990s.

But there have been downsides. The GM production system works best when grown on a large scale and many smaller farmers have been squeezed off their land by the expansion of the mega-farms and huge areas of natural forest are being cleared to make way for more soya.

Lifestyle changes

In the US, GM technology has become even more widespread.

In Pennsylvania I met Amish farmers whose lifestyle hasn't changed for decades. But even though they still use horse-drawn machinery to tend their fields, they also grow GM crops.

They grow a variety of corn that produces its own insecticide. It means their crops suffer from much lower levels of insect damage and they have to spray much less pesticide. And that has got to be a good thing for the farmers and for the environment.

The Amish use horse-drawn machinery but also grow GM crops

But there are other concerns about the environmental effects of GM crops. My biggest fear is that the genetically modified genes may spread into other non-GM crops.

We know that this gene-flow does happen, and if it were to occur on a wide scale, it would mean that you couldn't guarantee any crops were truly GM free.

That would be bad news for conventional and organic farmers who don't want to grow GM crops, and for anyone who doesn't want to eat GM food.

Although I've seen no evidence that eating GM crops is bad for you I do believe that you should have the choice to avoid GM if you want to.

On balance, I'd say we don't really need the GM crops we have at the moment.

Pros and cons

The only people who really seem to benefit are the farmers who grow the crops and seed companies who provide the seeds, while there are environmental risks that affect us all.

But I don't think that we should turn our backs on GM either.

It is still a young technology and I think its real use may lie in the future.

Imagine if GM could be used to create crops that produced higher yields, or were resistant to drought or could even fix their own nitrogen and produce their own fertiliser.

While that's a possibility, we need to proceed with research into GM. We need to make sure it's safe - but we may really need it in the future.

At the moment we are facing a food crisis. The world's population is increasing.

Arable land is being used to produce biofuels, the increased demand for meat, particularly in India and China, is raising demand for animal feed. Climate change. All these factors are putting our food supply under pressure.

Most estimates suggest we need to double the amount of food we produce in the next 50 years.

The biggest challenges will lie in Africa - where agricultural productivity has been falling and 30% of the population is permanently under-nourished.

If anywhere needs to benefit from farming technology, it is here. No-one is saying GM is the total solution to all these problems. But if there is a chance it can provide some of the answers, then we need to pursue it.

Horizon: Jimmy's GM Food Fight will be broadcast on BBC Two on 25 November at 9pm

Jimmy Doherty is a farmer and scientist whose rare breed pig farm was featured in the BBC Two series Jimmy's Farm

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