2.4.1 The second generation of GM crops
Much of the present-day debate about GM plants centres around the existing range of GM crops, most of which have been engineered for herbicide tolerance or insect resistance (covered in course S250_1 Gene manipulation in plants). One of the implications of this narrow commercial focus is that the benefit that such crops would bring, other than to those multinational companies that produce them, is by no means clear. Weighing up their value on some form of ethical scales might be unlikely to find in their favour.
A range of second-generation crops are currently being developed that might tip the balance in a different direction. You may have explored the issues around one such crop, Golden Rice (Section 5 of course S250_1 Gene manipulation in plants). Other second-generation GM crops include those that have been modified so as to produce a whole range of pharmaceutical products, including vaccines and drugs of promised relevance to diseases such as HIV, rabies, diabetes and TB. The use of such crops has been termed 'pharming'. The issue is explored an article from The Guardian headlined Medical crops coming soon (13 July 2004).
The attraction of 'pharming' is that crops offer a considerably cheaper pharmaceutical production route compared to conventional means - between 10 and 100 times so. Of course, environmental and health concerns remain, for example, that genes from such GM crops might escape into similar neighbouring crops, running a risk of unwanted medicines entering the food chain.
Some second-generation crops are promised to be of special benefit to developing countries and the environment. For example, GM crops are under development that may be able to grow in particularly salty soil. This might then make productive some of the estimated 35% of the world's agricultural land that is currently too salty to be of value. In the longer term, it may be possible to transfer bacterial genes responsible for nitrogen fixation from the nitrogen-fixing bacteria into cereal crops. Nitrogen fixation allows certain bacteria, which naturally occur in the roots of leguminous plants such as peas, to convert atmospheric nitrogen into nitrates, which are an essential plant nutrient. If this process could be induced in the roots of cereal crops, it would reduce farmers reliance on nitrate-based fertilisers.
Some supporters of GM technology see a future where beneficial applications of this type will be so numerous and far-reaching, and the contexts of debates therefore so different, that attitudes to GM technology in the near future will be very far removed from present-day anxieties.