Genetically engineered crops

As the pressure on our food supplies increases, could genetically engineered crops help food production keep pace with demand?

The term genetic engineering, or biotechnology, normally means taking genes from one species and putting them into another. Almost all the plants and animals we eat have been improved by gradual breeding processes. Biotechnology allows the time needed to make such changes to be cut. And it has allowed new properties, such as herbicide tolerance and pest resistance, that do not exist in a species to be built in. Climate change could mean that salt and drought resistance might be valuable additions to many crops in the future.

Genetically modified crops, mainly soya and maize, are already being grown around the world, the majority of them in the USA. American consumers have been eating them without much complaint for a decade or so now. However, European consumers reject the idea of GM, and make trouble for politicians and companies that try to tell them GM is good for them.

They may have a point: if GM does catch on in a big way, it is certain that the unintended effects will outweigh the intended ones. It is not in plants' nature to stay where they are put, and GM plants are sure to compete with natural species in the wild. In addition, thanks to the work of Lynn Margulis and other scientists, we now appreciate that species swap genes the whole time via microorganisms. So a gene that biotechnologists have installed in an apple tree to help fight pests will get into a tree in the wild and make it pest-proof too.