The debate on genetically engineered crops could delay progress in addressing the global shortage of staple foods, Prof. Gad Galili of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot said Wednesday.
"Distribution of new, genetically engineered crops can help solve world hunger, but the question is where they are used," said Prof. Ayal Kimhi, head of teaching at the Hebrew University's Department of Agricultural Economics.
"If they're used in the US and Europe to increase production and send surpluses to poor countries, it will not solve the problem in poor countries, because farmers there would not be able to make a living" faced with competition from the cheaper imports, Kimhi said. "I think something positive that will come out of this crisis is an understanding that we need to change the agricultural policies in the West."
At a lecture at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Galili, of the Department of Plant Sciences, spoke of the benefits and hazards of genetically modified organisms.
"Between a quarter and half a million children in developing children go blind every year as a result of vitamin A deficiency, and many of them die," he said.
The United Nations resolved in 2002 to end vitamin A deficiency, but despite the distribution of vitamin supplements there had not been much progress, Galili said.
"The question is, can we solve this using genetic engineering?" he said, pointing to a photo of a grain of rice.
The outer shell of rice grains produces vitamin A, but the inside, consumed as conventional white rice, does not, Galili said.
"The tradition in developing countries is to process rice grains in a way that it loses its shell," he said. "And since these are countries where pride is very important, the only way is to try and create vitamin A on the inside of rice grains as well."
According to Galili, this cannot be done by regular breeding, but only via genetic engineering.
By transferring six different genes from the shell to the core, scientists have created vitamin A-rich golden rice. Adults only need 300 grams of golden rice to satisfy their daily vitamin A requirement, Galili said.
Genetically modified organisms can also be more resistant to disease, pesticides, drought and temperature fluctuations, as well as higher in protein, vitamins, minerals and amino acids, Galili said.
But the golden rice and some other genetically modified organisms have yet to be tested or enter the market because of the controversy and public concern that surround the issue.
"There are ethical reasons, that God is the creator of new life forms; health issues, concerning long-term effects; ecological concerns - what would happen if GMO breed with other plants? And a lot of commercial concerns, that someone will find a way to profit off from this," Galili said.
Although scientists do not know the long-term effects of genetically modified organisms consumption, Galili said they were safer than conventionally interbred ones because scientists had full control over all the variables in the gene transfer.
As for the risk of contamination, Galili said, "If you put a virus into GMO, it will spread. But we safeguard it, there are expert committees that approve GMO, and one thing is certain: If someone wanted to insert a virus genome, or there was a contamination risk, it would not be approved."