The GM wheat monster…!

As i’m finding out more and more about how the world functions in reality, as opposed to theory, there are a number of things which i’ve started to see in a different light. I think the biggest reason for this shift in thinking is a reflection of a new realism in my life, partly brought on by having kids, parly as a product of my job but also as a reaction to various people i’ve met over the years.

There are many people (I guess you’d call them idealists), who see what could happen more as an idea, rather than what I would very loosely define myself as, in terms of a realist, which is more about defining things in terms of what actually exists. I would actually call myself an optimistic realist, given I tend to see things in a positive way (much to the annoyance of my wife!), try to find solutions to problems and tend to evaluate things with reference to if they can be achieved given real constraints. Theories are fine but there has to be a connection to reality, unless you’re a theoretical mathmetician or philosopher.

I see the real value of thinking in terms of ‘how can we apply this to real people’s lives’, with the intention of helping them. This is how I view my interest in sustainability and climate change and it’s the driver behind much of who I am. It’s also what I do as a job and I believe the design of the built environment has huge and lasting impacts on residents of a place.

So, when the concept of GM foods comes up, I look at it in a very different way, compared to myself of even 5 years ago. There are many and varied arguments both for and against GM foods, but what’s interesting from my perspective is that i’m now caught in between two strong concepts of understanding.

On the one side is my increasing awareness of nature and the detachment of the connection between humans and the processes which exist on this planet. This break in the connection is resulting in both potential and real massive ecosystem changes, and needs to change if we are to keep our life support system operating properly.

On the other side is the realisation that the role of technology and science will be a major factor in deciding what the level of impact there will be on the people and life forms on this planet, from climate change and other changes to the planet.

In effect, it’s the clash of a respect for nature and the pressing need to use natural resources to preserve or enhance our place on this planet.

One of the major clash points comes with GM foods. This is the alteration of the fundamental genetic code of a species for the purposes of making that species less susceptible to various forms of environmental damage, in order to benefit humans.

My nature at this point in time is to buy organic, non-GM food, which is locally produced. It’s become a way of life and I wince if I see S.America on a packet of fruit! But, there are many very significant pressures around the corner which will need a different way of thinking in order to solve. Rigt now, the population is 7 Billion. By 2050 it’ll be 9 Billion. This is the mark where many scientists have commented that we will reach the world’s capacity to support us. Long before this point is reached, we will need to develop ways to feed far more people than we are doing right now, and in far more effective ways.

The impact of climate change is also a major factor, because areas which right now support our main cereal crops are changing and becoming more arid. Ground water levels are dropping in many parts of Australia, China and India, and large parts of the western United States are drying up. So, we’re not just looking at population expansion, we’re looking at this factor in connection with the supply going down. This is not a good position to be in.

Realistically, global food production will need to increase (as well as the distribution), but this may not be possible if the key production areas are suffering a reduction in output. This is where GM could come in. In theory and reality, we will be soon in a position where GM food could become a mass-market product, even given the potential problems, which include gene mutations, gene jumping to other species, moral issues, the grip of companies in exploiting farmers with their products etc. Or, could there be ways of crossing existing varieties without genetic modification?