The genetic modification of organisms and the concept of sustainability have attracted
much interest by the popular and academic media and in the political arena in the last
30 years. The capacity to modify the basic constituents of life, i.e. the
deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) sequences of the genes, is a powerful tool and, in
common with all technologies, it has potential disadvantages as well as advantages.
In agriculture, genetic modification (GM) can address crop protection issues, e.g.
weed, virus and insect problems, as well as environmental constraints to productivity
such as soil salinity, waterlogging and drought. This ability to modify the genetic base
of plants so that beneficial characteristics are passed on by the plants‟ inherent
reproductive processes would appear to coincide with the concept of sustainability.
After all, a new gene that confers a „natural‟ resistance to damaging pests or disease
would reduce the need for potentially environmentally damaging, expensive and
energy-intensive pesticides and increase productivity. Surely this would be better for
the farmer, the environment and society? Despite this, GM has generated polarized
views as to its value. One major concern is the power of the seed-producing multinational
companies who produce GM organisms and whose monopoly via patents etc
is thus an element of globalization. Further concerns embrace the role of the state in
the regulation of GM crops and the control of GM seed, plus the issue of technology
transfer between developed and developing nations and how such exchange should be
financed. Would GM exacerbate the gap between those who have and those who have
not? Not withstanding controversy, GM crops, including cotton and specifically insect resistant
cotton, have been cultivated for a decade and new developments are taking
place at a rapid rate which suggests that GM is now an established and permanent
weapon in the armoury of modern agriculture. GM offers a real possibility of
increased production on land already under agriculture and thus reduces the need for
further land with its natural vegetation cover to be converted to agriculture with
implications for carbon storage and global warming.