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Let’s Keep Risks In Perspective

The nuclear crisis in Japan is likely to have a big impact on the future development of the nuclear industry around the world. In a less direct way, it could also lead to more starving people.

The link between the two issues is trust. Nuclear power generation is safe, we’ve been told. Unfortunately, no one seems to have factored in the possibility of a record earthquake, followed by a tsunami and the impact the two would have on facilities built back in the 1970s.

With radiation spewing from the damaged reactors, we have another reason not to believe scientists when they declare that something is safe.

A good scientist will never say there is zero risk, only that risk is minimal or negligible. Unfortunately, that isn’t good enough for consumers when it comes to food.

It’s now been 15 years since the introduction of genetically modified crops. A lot of consumers don’t even realize that GM crops have been part of their diet for more than a decade. If you ask them, they’d prefer not to have any GM crops because it sounds scary.

So far, herbicide tolerance and insect resistance have been the traits commercialized. Both have been a boon to production while helping to preserve the environment.

We’re just at the cusp of GM traits that will more directly benefit consumers drought tolerance, special food-quality attributes and nitrogen-use efficiency. Those benefits may never be realized if the consumers of the world grow more risk adverse. There are 100 million farmers growing GM crops, most of them in developing nations, but major opposition to the technology still exists particularly within Europe.

After 15 years of growing GM crops, there is not a single credible health concern. The term genetic modification is actually a misnomer. We’ve been doing that for centuries through various plant-breeding methods. The new technology is better described as genetic engineering. If anything, it provides more precise control over the outcome.

The technology is intensely regulated. Is the risk zero? No, but it’s extremely low and the risk isn’t zero under conventional plant-breeding methods either.

Affluent Canadians, Americans and Europeans can afford to reject technology. In fact, many reject all aspects of intensive agriculture.

But we can’t feed the world without the continuing application of biotechnology. There will be seven billion people on the planet by the end of this year and nine billion by 2050. World food production is falling behind the growth in demand.

Throw in climate change or at least climate variability. Add in the fact that we want to reduce the use of pesticides. We don’t want to take more land out of its natural habitat, but we pave over good farmland every day to grow our cities. And many nations are running out of the water they need for irrigation.

We can reduce food waste and spoilage and people in affluent countries should actually be eating fewer calories, but this won’t be enough to meet the increasing food demand coming from developing nations.

We can accept biotechnology as a tool to improve yields, food quality and the nutrient utilization of crops. Or we can let the food supply become evermore precarious and expensive and deal with the ramifications of starving people.

Let’s choose the path with the lower risk.

Kevin Hursh is a consulting agrologist and farmer based in

Saskatoon. He can be reached at [email protected]

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