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27 October, 2006

Modified GM

Writing for the Guardian, Jeremy Rifkin introduces an alternative approach to genetic engineering of crops.  Rather than genetically modifying plants to artificially enhance resistance to pests and compatibility with herbicides, marker-assisted selection (MAS) accelerates 'classical' crossbreeding of existing varieties.

Rapidly accumulating information about crop genomes is allowing scientists to identify genes associated with traits such as yield, and then scan crop relatives for the presence of those genes. Instead of using molecular splicing techniques to transfer a gene from an unrelated species into the genome of a food crop to increase yield, resist pests or improve nutrition, scientists are now using MAS to locate desired traits in other varieties or wild relatives of a particular food crop, then crossbreeding those plants with the existing commercial varieties to improve the crop. This greatly reduces the risk of environmental harm and potential adverse health effects associated with GM crops.
It sounds promising, and could render gene splicing and transgenic crops, with the associated uncertainty about long-term problems, obsolete. That's if the big 'life-science' companies don't suppress it first, of course – GM crops are likely to be more commercially attractive to corporations.

Two caveats:

  • Rifkin seems to be primarily qualified as an economist, not a biologist. I couldn't say whether that affects the validity of his statements. Since he's been working in this field (no pun intended), I do expect he's acquired appropriate knowledge of the relevant science.
  • His is a strikingly one-sided article. I'd be interested to read a counter-argument.

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