The European perspective on the genetic modification of foods generally seems like an unrelentingly negative one. While the dangers inherent to tinkering with nature are real and should be discussed, there are nonetheless a lot of appealing uses for the technology.
One significant example has to do with photosynthesis: the process whereby plants produce sugars from carbon dioxide and sunlight, generating oxygen as a by-product. Some plants use enzymes to turn CO2 into sugars composed of three carbon atoms (these are called C3 plants) while others have an enzyme (PEP Carboxylase) that allows them to produce four carbon sugars (C4 plants). The latter variety are much better at turning solar energy into sugars at temperatures above 25 degrees Celsius. The evolution of the C4 process has apparently taken place more than fifty times, in nineteen families of plant. Helping a few more important plants make the transition seems like it could be very beneficial.
C4 plants can be up to 50% more efficient than C3 ones in hot climates, while also using less water and nitrogen. Maize, a C4 plant, can yield a harvest of 12 tonnes per acre, while rice, a C3 plant, does no better than eight. If we could genetically modify rice to be a G4 plant, we could simultaneously increase crop yields, reduce the water and fertilizer needs of farmers in hot areas, and produce crops that would be less vulnerable to global warming. While there could certainly be some nasty unintended consequence of doing so, that does not seem like sufficient cause not to try.
The idea that the foods we eat now are ‘natural’ is not one that meshes very well with the fact that they have been ceaselessly modified, over thousands of years, through selective breeding. While there may be special dangers involved in mixing genes in the lab rather than out in the fields, there are also special opportunities, like the one listed above. It will be interesting to see if someone manages to pull it off.