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The next genetic revolution?

Publication date:
R. Maynard
Type of publication:

In recent years, the biotech industry has put considerable effort into attempting to reposition genetically modified (GM) crops as a non-food, industrial “green” energy commodity. While genetically modified biofuel crops are already a reality in the US, the planting of GM crops in Europe is still very limited due to public resistance. This article explores the efforts of biotech companies, food producers, political figures and scientists to promote GM biofuel crop production not only within the EU but also within other continents, such as Africa and Latin America, where public resistance is lower or less organised and environmental restrictions are weaker or absent.
In both cases, the authors argue, these key players seek to create a distinction in the public's mind between GM as a food (not acceptable) and GM for industrial uses (acceptable). However, they argue that in many instances the cultivation of genetically modified biofuel crops is far from acceptable.
Key points include: 

South Africa is currently the only African country that grows GM crops commercially - persuading others to endorse GM biofuel crops as an acceptable technological tool to combat climate change  would undermine the continent's already fragile food security as well as driving further clearance of natural forests for plantations.

Biotech companies are working on ways to reduce the amount of lignin in trees so as to increase the proportion of cellulose available for fuel production - however, lignin is the glue that holds trees together and the substance that provides the rigidity necessary for them to stand up. Environmentalist fear that cross-pollination with natural forest trees not bred to cope with reduced lignin content could lead to forests full of “floppy trees”.

The article concludes by asserting that industrial biotechnology constitutes a key sector for the biotech industry and that its alleged role in combating climate change is being exploited to resurrect its reputation, with the aim of expanding the planting of GM crops globally. The authors argue that the powerful energy of consumer outrage, as harnessed previously in response to GM foods, is the only thing able to halt the worldwide expansion of genetically modified biofuel crops.