Social issues and GM crops
Social issues and GM crops

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Social issues and GM crops

2 Concerns about GM crops

2.1 Introduction

There are at least three broad and overlapping areas of concern about GM crops. First, there is a concern that GM products might be detrimental to human health. These include concerns that:

  • The use of antibiotic marker genes might increase bacterial resistance to antibiotics. These concerns have led to the development of alternative selectable marker genes.

  • New proteins manufactured in GM crops might provoke unwanted allergic responses.

  • Novel combinations of genes might have longer-term health effects of an uncertain nature and severity.

Second, there are concerns over environmental effects, which might include that:

  • Insect-resistant crops may adversely affect benign insect species (so-called non-target species).

  • The adoption of herbicide-tolerant crops might encourage farmers to use greater quantities of broad-spectrum herbicides, with resulting detrimental effects on wildlife.

  • Genes might spread from the crop plant to wild relatives, to produce herbicide-tolerant weeds, far more difficult to control; or insect-resistant weeds, which might affect a much wider number of non-target species.

Thirdly, there are a number of broadly political concerns. For example, as the Nuffield report points out, there is the anxiety that GM crops are 'only one step further in the 'industrialisation' of agriculture'. By this logic, 'it could be that much of the dislike of GM crops stems from guilt by association; they are produced by agrochemical and seed companies and they are an element in 'non-organic' farming'. Concern about the influence of these multinational companies is reflected in widespread opposition to the use of 'terminator technologies', known within the biotechnology industry as GURTs (genetic use restriction technologies). GURTs include a variety of techniques that prevent farmers collecting seeds from GM crops for sowing in future seasons; for example, the seeds from crops modified in this way may be sterile. Opponents of GM crops have argued strongly that in forcing farmers to buy new seeds each year, such technologies are unethical.

We will explore some of these political concerns in Section 4, but at this point it may be worth discussing a general issue underlying both health and environmental concerns - the idea that GM crops and food are 'unnatural'.

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