Food FightsHow GM got up in your grill

Since scientists gave the world a genetically modified tobacco plant 30 years ago, biotechnology has taken root across the world.

Corn, soybeans and canola are commonly modified, their seeds engineered to help farmers limit weeds and pests. The resulting “GM” ingredients make their way into an overwhelming amount of processed foods (in America, an estimated 70 per cent). But apples, bananas, papaya, zucchini and rice, even salmon … all are now the subject of research aiming to unlock the promise of biotechnology. That promise? Food that delivers more vitamins, or is more likely to grow in adverse conditions, or that might better provide for the world’s almost 870 million starving people.

Such developments have all taken place in the past 30 years, and it’s become a multi-billion-dollar food fight. Neither the public’s understanding nor anyone’s political framework has moved as fast as the science.

Genetically modified food is a profoundly complex debate. The Global Mail, in partnership with the ABC Radio National’s Background Briefing, is exploring some critical flashpoints.

Our How Much Do We Approve? data visualisation allows you to explore the worldwide data around the escalation in GM food and feed approvals — by country, company and crop type.

And we have a mate-against-mate saga from Australia, where a wind-borne canola pod has blown the legal issues for farmers all the way to Western Australia’s Supreme Court – a landmark case not only for the neighbouring farmers and former friends, but also for advocates of both organic and big biotech.

We also investigate Uganda’s 10-year push to deregulate GM: champions point to Africa’s dire need for cheap, disease-resistant food crops; critics speak darkly of neo-colonialism and corporate plots.

Over on the Radio National website, Ian Walker investigates how the weight of scientific evidence, together with the demands of a hungry world, have shifted the GM debate — which is also the subject of his September 15 Background Briefing. An important player in this shift is a former high-profile anti-GM activist who’s defected and now argues passionately for the benefits of GM foods.