This is an extended version of the article that appeared in print.

Genetically Modified (GM) crops are plants which have had their DNA altered in some way, to improve a particular trait. This allows positive characteristics to be transferred from one plant variety to another. For example the gene for resistance to a particular pest may be transplanted from one plant into another of the same or a different species. In this way an entire generation of pest-resistant plants can be produced. The artificial transfer of the gene is what makes the process so much faster. Through conventional breeding, producing a resistant strain would take several plant generations. While these several generations of plants are bred another generation of humans would continue to watch over 10% of their own generation go undernourished.

However, even more than speed GM crops offer the chance for true innovation through the transfer of genes between species. This can produce plant varieties which without GM would simply not be possible. However long you are willing to wait you are not going to transfer genes from an apple tree to a potato plant via conventional breeding techniques. They simply cannot breed. It is this transfer of traits between completely unrelated species, such as the transfer of a gene for Bt toxin from a bacterium into potato plants to help kill caterpillar pests, which makes GM such a potentially useful process.

Such transfers are entirely unnatural. One could argue that the rapid transfer of one plant gene into many other plants of the same species is simply the hastening of a regular process. However, the transfer of a bacterial gene into a plant is as about as unnatural as it is possible to get. The fact that such transfers are artificial does not mean however, that they are inherently ‘bad’. The treatment of diabetics with human insulin produced by bacteria is entirely unnatural. In an exactly analogous process to crop modification, a gene (for insulin) is taken from human DNA and transplanted into a bacterium. Bacteria are then grown to produce large amounts of insulin which is then injected into humans unable to produce their own. This entirely unnatural process has saved countless lives, and insulin is not an isolated example. Treatment with antibiotics, paracetamol and antimalarial drugs is also entirely unnatural. The myth that natural is good and artificial is bad is a fallacy that has gone on far too long. This belief is holding back potential advances that could help billions of people.

GM crops are not the only potential solution to the current world food crisis. The world already produces sufficient food to feed everyone on the planet. But thanks largely to the frivolous and wasteful attitude of many Western nations towards food, not everyone on the planet is fed. So certainly if we are to improve this situation, one thing which must be looked at is changing these attitudes. However we cannot afford to be unrealistic, societal changes take time. Time we do not have.

GM crops are not a miracle solution. There is still much we don't know about their potential benefits and dangers. There are unresolved issues, such as the possible development of superweeds, which have been revealed through trials. Once released GM crops should be carefully monitored.  However the destruction of experimental setups, such as that at the Rothamsted Research centre last year, does not solve any problems. Such actions are at best reckless and at worst immoral. It is easy to forget sitting in our own little bubble that since you began to read this article,  around 8 people will have died as a result of malnutrition. Neither you nor I ever met these people but they were real people, with real families and real friends. Not to give GM crops a fair trial would be irresponsible and unethical.

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