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Opinion: GM Food Won't Solve Our Problems

Germany's agriculture and consumer affairs minister presented a bill Monday that would clear the way for genetically modified food. But the issue is loaded with the promise, opportunities and risks of new technologies.

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Genetically modified corn may not be all its cracked up to be

The solution to energy problems; electricity in abundance for everyone; medical wonders in the fight against cancer -- the nuclear industry promised us a radiant future in the 1950s and 60s.

Ships, trains and cars would run as if magically driven by the atom's elementary power. Everyone would have their own miniature nuclear reactor in the basement. Fast breeder nuclear reactors would multiply the world's uranium provisions.

Those were the nuclear strategists' visions. The reality -- several decades later -- looks pitiful. What remains of the radiant future are radiant reactor ruins, radiant plutonium waste and radiant liquid waste from nuclear reprocessing plants such as France's La Hague or Britain's Sellafield.

In medicine, admittedly, nuclear technology is indispensable. But radiation therapy hasn't been able to beat cancer.

Echoing the atomic era

The promises of the genetic engineering industry today are reminiscent of the messianic messages of the nuclear era: Conserve the environment by making insecticides, pesticides and herbicides unnecessary. On top of everything else, genetically modified crops are supposed to put an end to world hunger.

Every new technology offers new opportunities. That's no less the case with genetic engineering. GM bacteria already produce insulin, a great aid to millions of people stricken with diabetes. In the past, thousands of cows and pigs had to be slaughtered to extract marginal amounts of insulin from their pancreases.

But every new technology involves risks, and that applies just as well to genetic engineering. So-called antibiotic-resistant genetic markers, for example, are built into half of the GM plants approved worldwide. They allow genetic engineers to differentiate between manipulated and natural plants.

What will happen when these plants are consumed by people and animals in large quantities? More and more people are resistant to antibiotics. Scientists blame it on the lax use of antibiotics in the medical field and in fattening up animals for sale. If consumption of GM crops increases, drug-resistance could grow.

Killing the weed killer

Theoretically, pesticides, insecticides and herbicides could be dispensed with, since plants could be made resistant to pests. But experience shows that GM companies frequently employ the technology to make the plants resistant to weed killer rather than to weeds. The result is that crops must be sprayed even more, just as Monsanto's Roundup Ready Corn has shown. The corn is sold as a package together with the corresponding herbicide, Roundup.

Environmentalists fear that the greatest risk is the uncontrolled proliferation of GM crops. The long range effects of the large-scale cultivation of GM crops remain unclear. Pollen carried by bees or the wind, for example, can mingle with other natural plants. The €50,000 ($63,860) fine for contaminating another farmer's harvest that German Agriculture Minister Renate Künast uses as a threat in the law she presented Monday to regulate GM crops certainly won't prevent the bees or the wind from disseminating pollen.

GM crops won't stop famine

But the greatest fiction is that genetic engineering will put an end to world hunger. It's easy to debunk, since starvation isn't caused by a worldwide lack of food. Instead, the problem is that so many people have too little money to afford food.

Famines usually develop because people lack purchasing power, that is, they don't have money -- whether due to wars, totalitarian intervention in the economic system or just because they don't have the opportunity for reasonable development.

Genetic engineering won't change this fundamental problem. Indeed, it will make the problem even worse since seeds will become more expensive as genetic engineering firms attempt to recoup their immense development costs.

It is time to realistically examine the opportunities and risks of genetic engineering. We don't need another technology like nuclear power that offers us a radiant future, but in the long run leaves us dealing with radiant waste.

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