YUK! - Grain alert!

It’s about the weirdest apocalypse you could think of. One day, our planet may become completely overgrown with… food. And the problem is: it could happen a lot sooner than you held possible.

It will be some end. Suddenly, there will be grain everywhere. Grain in the countryside. Grain on the beaches. Grain shooting up along every road. In your backyard: grain. Popping up from the cracks in sidewalks: more grain. Everywhere you look and everywhere you go – grain, grain, grain. Now if that isn’t a green revolution, what is?

Of course, there’ll be plenty to eat. But there’s a drawback: bread will also be the only thing around. The grain will overrun all other crops. Agriculture will be disrupted. Forests and grasslands will be demolished. Slowly, the entire food chain breaks down, as the face of the planet turns into an endless field of waving grain.

Governments will speak of the `Grain Problem’ and cook up plans to push the grain back. But the grain won’t listen. Suddenly, mankind finds itself in trouble. Diseases emerge, people go blind or develop brittle bones -- all because of the one-sidedness of their diet.

And then there are the side-effects. Every now and then, suffocating grain dust tempests sweep over the planet. Incredible grain field fires occasionally burn down a country or two. Entire continents dry up, as the grain sips up all the water. The atmosphere, having to deal with the grain dust, the smoke from the grain fires and the lack of water, will get messed up. There may be an Ice Age, or even a kind of Nuclear Winter. It isn’t very hard to see what it all boils down to. Humanity is thrown back into the Stone Age – well, `Grain Age’ is a more accurate word. So next time you have a slice of bread, just remember: one day, bread could do us all in.

Sounds far-fetched? Sorry, but it isn’t – not at all. The grain we’re dealing with here isn’t just the next species of grain. We’re talking Super Grain here; grain that is genetically modified. Already, there are hundreds of genetically modified (GM) crops around. The idea is quite simple. Genes define the properties of everything that grows and lives. So in genetic engineering, what you basically do, is take a crop, add a gene here, take out a gene there – and there you have it: a new species of grain, with some handy new properties.

Genetic engineering is quite cool, really. You can make Super Maize that’s resistant to certain diseases, so you don’t have to spray all those polluting pesticides over them. You can create a new brand of Super Rice that’s nutritious enough to feed even the poorest country. Heck, you can even piece together a Super Apple that protects your teeth from rotting. Or a Super Potato that survives frost. A Super Tomato that grows in salt water. If you think that sounds too weird to be true, don’t look now: all these crops already exist today!

Of course, governments and genetic companies are cautious. You just DON’T want your new breed of Super Crop to accidentally mix up with the common stuff. Genes pass from one generation to the next. So if you mix up genetically modified crops with common crops, in no time you’ll only have the GM species left – GM crops having a huge evolutionary advantage over the ordinary stuff.

Still, this `leaking’ of GM crops into normal nature is exactly what is happening as we speak. In China, where there’s little government control over GM farming, the so-called Golden Rice is rapidly replacing common rice. At the moment we write this (March 2002), 5,5 million farmers worldwide grow GM crops. In only four years time, the amount of farmland occupied by GM crops has doubled, from 25 million hectares of farmland in 1998 to more than 50 million hectares in 2002. That’s an area the size of Italy!

Corn killers: Experimental GM crop fields are regularly demolished by protesters. But there's a catch: on at least two occasions, the protestors helped the GM plants escape into nature, accidentally taking the seeds with them on their clothes and shoes.

Meanwhile, in the West, every now and then an accident happens. In Canada, genetically altered oilseed rape `escaped’ from the test fields into the countryside. Right now, Super Oilseed Rape is shooting up everywhere in Canada. And in Mexico, genetically altered Super Maize suddenly showed up in November 2001. This really baffled everyone – Mexico has banned all GM farming years ago!

So, it only seems reasonable to conclude that one day, most crops on the planet will be genetically tinkered with in one way or the other. OK, so what, you may ask. As long as it tastes good, there’s no need to worry, right?

Well – there are these disturbing risks. One day soon, we may create a true Super Crop that is utterly resistant to disease and pollution, and is able to grow in literally every environment. A crop like that might take over the countryside in no time – and start haunting us. Your beloved new crop will turn out a pain in the ass, an ineradicable Super Weed. No deterrent will kill it, no climate will stop it. There you have it: the Grain Problem. And of course, we said `grain’ only for arguments sake. It could be soy, or maize, or rice. Or raspberries, tomatoes, cucumber or lychees -- whatever you can think of.

Oh, and of course it would be rather inconvenient if of all crops the Super Crop that conquers the world turns out to be... cotton. What would we have to eat? Cotton cookies, perhaps?

And wait: what about `Contraceptive Corn’? In early 2002, the San Diego-based biotech company Epicyte developed a new breed of GM corn that can be used as a contraceptive. The corn kills the sperm cells of men that eat it, rendering them infertile. Well, you just DON’T want a crop like that to conquer the world. Humanity would be, er… fucked. Within one or two generations, our species would no longer be there.

Paris, 2050?

And then there’s the remote but rather unpleasant possibility that a GM crop suddenly brings forth some kind of new killer virus or bacterium. No, really! Toying around with a plant’s genes may accidentally `awaken’ an inactive, old virus that lays buried deep within the plant’s DNA. Just picture that: cheerfully, you go out to harvest your brand new GM crop, but when you get back, your skin has suddenly turned blue with pink dots, due to some incredibly weird and exotic new disease.

Just imagine what a bummer that would be. Finally, we’ve created a crop that is so totally perfect that you can grow it anywhere you like. Well – except you can’t eat it, it’s growing all over the place, and it makes you ill or infertile. It would be the biggest joke in history. And, probably, the last.

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