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argue your caseScientists are developing ways to make new genetically modified (GM) foods that could transform the way we feed ourselves. GM crops may enable more food to be produced from less land using less water and fewer chemicals. However, some people question whether this 'gene revolution' will really reduce hunger in the world. Others worry that it is being pushed too quickly without enough consideration of its long-term impact.

From Green to Gene Revolution
In the 1960s, new crops were developed by cross-breeding plants to create high-yielding varieties, known as the Green Revolution. Genetic modification goes one stage further. Genes from one organism are isolated, copied and then inserted into a plant to give them new characteristics. Scientists argue that unlike the 'hit and miss' biotechnology of the past, this precise science means that foods can be developed to suit specific environments and food needs.
Roll over the icons to find out some of the characteristics of GM crops that could help the hungry.

A Licence to Farm
Today, much of the research into GM crops is carried out by biotechnology companies based in the developed world. Once a new genetic sequence has been identified, these companies can apply for a 'patent', a kind of licence given to the inventor to stop rivals making or selling their discovery without his/her permission. However, some people argue that these companies have taken genes and local knowledge of plants from elsewhere and called it their own.
Most patents are held by just a handful of transnational corporations who could make vast profits from these inventions. But will these new business opportunities over-ride the need to solve world hunger?
woman in laboratory
Robert Holmgren/Still Pictures
The benefits for large-scale farmers in the developing world could be enormous as they invest in the new technology. But small farmers have traditionally saved and freely exchanged 70% of their seeds. All this could change if farmers give up their self-sufficiency and buy into the gene revolution instead. As well as GM seeds, farmers may need to buy other inputs such as chemicals to make them grow, which many can't afford.

Playing with Nature
Small farmers are reluctant to take risks that may damage the natural environment, the basis of their livelihood. For some, the risks of releasing GM crops into the natural environment are difficult to predict and may be irreversible. When GM seeds mix and breed with their wild relatives, there may be knock-on effects throughout the ecosystem.

In mixed farming systems, pests and diseases are fought off by natural predators, but this natural antidote is under threat. Today, only 20 crop varieties produce 90% of our food, and the gene revolution could reduce biodiversity (the variety of organisms) even further. In addition, pest-resistant GM crops may encourage the emergence of 'super-pests'.

picking rice
Simon Scoones/Worldaware.
Permanent damage to the natural environment may jeopardise the livelihoods of small farmers who depend on it for their survival, like this rice farmer in Cambodia.

But GM techniques could help small farmers in marginal lands such as areas prone to drought or steep hillsides. Also, GM farming may prove more environmentally friendly as they require less pesticides and fertilisers and the higher productivity of GM crop fields may save forests and other natural habitats that would otherwise be turned into more farmland.

Health Risks?
Critics also express concern over the possible risks to human health. Some studies of GM foods suggest that if someone with an allergy eats food that has been spliced with a gene from shellfish or a peanut, they may experience an allergic reaction. But supporters of GM technology claim that all this talk of 'Frankenstein foods' is science fiction rather than fact. GM varieties are among the most tested foodstuffs and there is no proof that these dangers will occur.

Reactions to the Gene Revolution
Click on the highlighted sections of the map to find out how people in different countries in the developing world have reacted to the Gene Revolution:

gene map

Over 3,000 GM foodstuffs are currently being tested. Whether most GM crops remain in laboratories and greenhouses or transform the way we produce food remains an open question, but it will certainly be a long time before we know the answer.