OPINION: STEELY determination is required to ultimately win the genetically modified (GM) debate, as the agricultural sector cannot allow the fear mongers to win the day.
We have all heard the facts - more food will be required to feed a growing world population, with less arable land. In short, it is going to get more crowded in here.
There is little doubt consumers are becoming increasingly concerned about provenance issues regarding the food they consume and whether that food is being produced in an ethical and sustainable way.
Ever since the 1906 publication of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle - which unwittingly exposed unsanitary practices in the American meatpacking industry - food safety and hygiene have been increasingly important factors for the consuming public.
However, far too often consumers are allowing activist groups to define ‘threats’ to the community’s wellbeing, claiming they are the only parties with sufficient independence to enlighten all and sundry.
Interestingly, President Roosevelt opined in relation to Upton that "three-fourths of the things that he said were absolute falsehoods - for some of the remainder, there was only a basis of truth."
The sentiments hold true to this day.
Truth is not the ally of activists, who operate within the paradigm that near enough is good enough.
Why present facts when half-truths, suppositions and smears are far more effective in getting their jaundiced message across?
It is fair to say that almost all of the food we eat today has been the result of selective breeding processes over thousands of years.
Various crop traits such as yield, disease resistance, hardiness and taste, were preferred over time, which has meant that most crops are significantly different to their initial wild cousins.
By way of example, the humble potato is one of the most ubiquitous crops on the planet.
But the original wild potatoes were quite toxic as they contained a poisonous alkaloid, a trait of the nightshade family of plants.
Mutagenic techniques (exposing plants to radiation and/or chemicals to produce mutant plant strains) have also been used by scientists for over 70 years to produce desirable traits.
Selective breeding and mutagenic techniques are still practiced, but given that the outcomes are often unknown and the process can take many years before a desirable trait is produced, scientists are increasingly looking to utilise technology that provides greater certainty.
Compared with selective breeding and mutagenic techniques, GM technology allows scientists to be very specific in terms of the outcome they are trying to achieve, often by the insertion of a single gene.
Last year, researchers from the University of California, Davis went a long way towards allaying community concerns in relation to the safety of GM.
They published a groundbreaking study into the health of US livestock straddling the period pre and post-introduction of GM animal feed in 1996.
In summary, the study found that there were no unusual trends in the health of animals since GM feed was introduced. That is, GM feed is just as safe as non-GM feed.
The findings should not come as a surprise, as it mirrors a significant number of prior studies that reached the same conclusion.
The difference with this study is the size of dataset involved: 29 years of livestock production, greater than 100 billion animals, which represents trillions of GM meals.
A data set of this magnitude means that the debate as to whether GM is safe is a done deal.
In other words, the flat-earthers can pack up their bat and ball and head home.
But the most galling aspect of the fear and scorn foisted on GM advancements and technology is the myopic, first-world prism that critics view the word through.
It is pretty easy to have convictions about how other people ‘should’ be eating and the ethics of how food ‘should’ be produced, when you never have to worry about feeding your family at the end of the day.
The simple fact of the matter is that GM crops have made farming practices vastly more sustainable, by decreasing the use of herbicides, removing the need for tillage (which increases the potential for soil erosion and degrades the soils potential) and increasing yield.
Let there be no doubt - removing or stifling the uptake of GM crops from the worldwide food equation will lead to an increase in food prices and the number of hungry bellies in developing countries.
But this problem is out of sight, out of mind for most activists and a clear form of economic colonialism.
Critics will continue to wallow in their ‘enlightened’ smugness - but in reality they are denying perfectly safe food and nourishment to those most in need.
It is often said that the hottest fires make the hardest steel.
Steely determination is required. Millions of hungry people in developing countries around the world are counting on you.
Trent Thorne is an agribusiness lawyer.