GM crucial to combat global warming impact

By Jess Halliday

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Global warming, Agriculture, Genetic engineering

As agricultural conditions change as a result of global warming,
genetically-modified crops will have an increasing role to play in
safeguarding food supply for the future, says a leading researcher
who thinks the issue will increase pressure for consumer
acceptance.

Genetic modification (GM) is amongst the most fiercely debated issues in the food industry today. Proponents have said since the earliest days that they hold particular benefits for the developing world, where agricultural conditions are harsh and unstable. But consumers in some places, especially Europe, remain resistant to genetic modification - despite regulatory approvals opening the door to imports of GM crops. Arguments against GM include fears over the potential effects on human health, concerns that GM crops will upset the ecological balance by cross-pollinating natural crops, and mistrust of biotech giants who have already made fortunes on the back of the technology. Professor Mark Tester, a plant genomics researcher at the University of Adelaide's Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics and fellow of the Australian Research Council Federation, believes that GM will hold benefits for the whole world, not just developing countries, as global warming is changing conditions everywhere. "Trying to grow plants in Australian conditions, as in many countries around the world where the conditions are harsh, is challenging, and it is likely to get harder under the effects of climate change,"​ he said. For instance, Australia - like other countries - is presently experiencing increasing levels of salinity. Around 5.7 m hectares of soil are affected, with efforts to combat the problem costing an estimated A$270 m a year. But Prof Tester thinks acceptance of GM will have to increase, if we are to avoid food shortages. It has been estimated that world food grain production will need to double by 2050 as the world's population continues to swell. Against this backdrop, Prof Tester said: "There is no doubt that as farmers face reduced yields, they will need all the tools they can get to help them grow our food sustainably and economically. Genetic modification can help accelerate improvements in crop plants to enable them to better cope with the rapidly changing environment." ​Tester and his team are working on identifying genes that make some plants more tolerant to hostile environments like drought, salinity and frost. Once identified, his team works to use these genes in plants that are suitable for commercial production, using both conventional breeding and genetic modification techniques. "Our results in the laboratory suggest great promise for the rapid development of crops with increased salt tolerance,"​ said Tester.

Related topics: Science

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