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GM Foods – Feeding the World or Destroying the Planet?

The argument about GM technology has often been passionate and not always constructive. But the stakes are high. With food costs rising and the environmental damage of intensive farming increasing in the developed economies and with population growth and climate change making subsistence farming still more marginal in the world’s poorest countries, the case for GM technology seems ever stronger. But is its promise false or even dangerous?

Does GM technology provide for more efficient and sustainable food production; if so how does it benefit producers, consumers and the environment in both the developed and developing world? Or is it a contaminating threat to conventional crops and to the environment in general as well as a pernicious means of exploiting people in poverty? Can a balance be found: is the current regulatory regime either excessive or inadequate and, if so, what safeguards might deliver the benefits of GM while minimising its risks? Or will the dangers always outweigh the benefits?

Two experts in the field join the debate.

Professor Jonathan Jones

The Sainsbury Laboratory

Professor Jonathan Jones is a senior scientist at The Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich using molecular and genetic approaches to study disease resistance in plants.

He received his PhD from Cambridge University in 1980 and conducted postdoctoral work at Harvard. He was head of Sainsbury Laboratory from 1994 to 1997 and 2003 to 2009 and has been Professor at the University of East Anglia since 1997.

Prof Jones has also served as a board member of the International Society of Plant Molecular Biology, is a past editor of Plant Cell and Genome Biology and is a contributor to several publications in the field. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2003, is on the board of European Plant Science Organisation (EPSO) and is a Director of ISAAA. He cofounded Mendel Biotechnology in 1997 and continues as a Science Advisor to the company.

The Sainsbury Laboratory (TSL) is a charitable company of approximately 70 research scientists and support staff and a world leader in plant science. Based on the Norwich Research Park, it has close links to the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, the University of East Anglia and the John Innes Centre.

TSL is dedicated to making fundamental discoveries about plants and how they interact with microbes and viruses and favours daring, long-term research over work that could be equally well carried out elsewhere.

TSL has also developed TSL+ to promote projects with a more direct applied aspect, in many cases building on discoveries that have arisen from the fundamental work in the lab and committing core resources to projects that aim to reduce crop losses to important diseases.

Emma Hockridge

The Soil Association

Emma Hockridge is head of policy at the Soil Association. She was previously a project co-ordinator for Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming.

Emma undertook a Masters degree in Sustainable Development Advocacy and previously worked for the Department for Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

She also carried out conservation work in the Peruvian jungle after completing her degree in Geography and Environmental Studies.

In 2006 she was awarded a Nuffield Farming Scholarship.

Emma’s family have been farming in Devon for over four generations and she gets back to the (beef, sheep and arable) farm whenever possible.

The Soil Association is a charity campaigning for planet-friendly food and farming. It believes in the importance of the connection between soil, food, the health of people and the health of the planet.

The Soil Association pioneered the first organic standards in 1967 and they remain among the highest in the world. Its symbol denotes that food has been produced sustainably and in harmony with nature and that animals have enjoyed free-range, high-welfare lives.

The Soil Association works at all levels of government and community to develop and promote its campaigns and policy work.

The Soil Association campaigns against the use of genetically modified (GM) ingredients in human and animal food and on the commercial planting of GM crops in the UK.

Proposition

GM - For Food Sufficiency and Environmental Protection

There are now over seven billion humans, and there will be two billion more by midcentury. Over a billion are hungry today.

Civilization depends on efficient food production. Plant breeding, chemical fertilisers, chemicals for pest and disease control and mechanisation of agriculture increased food production per acre by up to ten-fold in the last 100 years. But production must be doubled again by 2050, because as world living standards rise, people demand diets richer in animal protein, which requires animal feed, which requires more crops.

Since 1982, we have been able to add or modify genes to protect plants from diseases and pests and improve crops in benign ways impossible by older methods. Their design is based on knowledge of what genes do, in contrast to the scattergun approach of traditional breeding or the  use of chemicals or radiation to induce mutations.

GM crops that contain an extra gene that confers resistance to certain insects require much less pesticide. Thanks to GM, over 200,000 tons of insecticide have not been applied and therefore not run off the land to poison rivers, lakes and oceans. Contamination of our food by carcinogenic fungal toxins is also reduced in insect-resistant GM corn because without the insect damage, the fungi cannot invade the plants.

In Europe, farmers spray potatoes with fungicide 15-25 times per season to control late blight. GM blight resistance can reduce or eliminate these sprays.

The rapid adoption of GM herbicide-tolerant soybeans has also reduced ploughing for weed control. Such “no-till” farming is more sustainable, helps maintain organic matter in soils and shrinks agriculture’s carbon footprint. Admittedly, reliance on one herbicide (glyphosate, or “Roundup”) has resulted in herbicide-resistant weeds but the solution is to deploy and rotate different herbicides and herbicide-resistance genes, rather than return to hoeing.

The technology has been a resounding success. In 2010, GM crops were grown in 29 countries on more than 360 million acres by 15.4 million farmers, 90 percent of whom are smallholders. Farmers use GM crops because yields increase, costs decrease and less hazardous chemicals are needed. In 2011, 88% of US maize, 94% of US soybeans and 90% of US cotton was GM.

Myths about GM crops do not withstand scientific scrutiny.

Myth 1: There has been insufficient safety testing of GM food. According to the European Commission’s report following a €300M study “the main conclusion to be drawn from more than 130 research projects, over 25 years of research, involving over 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than conventional plant breeding technologies.”

Myth 2: GM crops damage the environment in new, unique ways compared to traditional intensive agriculture. Many studies, including from the US National Research Council in 2002, contradict this. To minimise agriculture's damage to the environment, we simply need higher yields producing the same amount of food on less land.

Myth 3; GM is uniquely likely to cause unintended genetic changes. A typical GM plant differs from its unmodified ancestor by an additional 0.001% of its DNA. Unmodified maize varieties differ from each other by far more than this. Also, when plants are propagated through seed, a mutation rate of one per generation has been measured in normal healthy non-GM plants. In summary, GM changes are trivial compared to natural genetic variation.

Myth 4: GM crops are uniquely subject to onerous patent protection. All farming technologies (agrichemicals, machinery, GPS for precision planting etc) are subject to patent protection. Intellectual property law applies to traditionally bred crops as well as GM crops.

Myth 5: By challenging GM crops we are only hurting ill-intentioned multinationals such as Monsanto. In fact, unfounded fears about GM crops have led to a complex regulatory process that only large multinationals can afford to navigate thus making it more difficult for small seed companies and the public sector to bring useful discoveries to public use by GM methods.

Decades ago, when molecular approaches to plant improvement were relatively new, caution was justified. Now, we need to worry that excessive regulation is preventing GM methods from increasing yields and reducing the environmental impact of agriculture. Ultimately those who lose most will be those we cannot feed.

Proposition

There Are Solutions - But They're Not GM

Despite huge amounts of research funding, GM crops have failed to deliver the promised benefits.

In recent years increasing numbers of scientists and policy makers have highlighted the importance of agro-ecological approaches such as organic farming in feeding the world in a future of increasing oil and other input prices dominated by the need to cut greenhouse gases. Support for this approach includes the largest ever review of its kind The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) report supported by 400 scientists and 60 countries.

We need to be honest about the failures of certain technologies – such as GM – to provide food for a growing global population. The majority of the world is fed by small, local, often agro-ecological or organic farmers. Their systems are better for the environment and for animal and human welfare and they offer more resilience to challenges such as oil and fertiliser price rise shocks.

The UN’s ‘Green Marshall Plan’, published in 2011, has condemned large scale, chemical approaches to boost food production. The report promotes the benefits of agro-ecology for farmers in developing countries.

For example, research from the UN has shown that the adoption of organic and near-organic farming practices in Africa have doubled yields, improved access to food for both farmers and local communities and raised incomes through the use of low-cost, locally available technologies and inputs.

Almost all the claims made for GM crops by proponents of the technology are about benefits that GM technology will deliver in future. This is not a new phenomenon - such claims were being made in the late 1990s, when GM crops were first introduced.

But assertions that GM crops will solve world hunger, or will deliver drought resistant, nitrogen-fixing or nutrient rich crops, are not science but prophecy. The pro-GM lobby and the media treat these claims as if they are science, but none of them are based on scientific evidence. They are opinions, often expressed by companies or scientists with a strong financial interest in seeing them treated as fact.

In the meantime, other scientific techniques, such as marker assisted selection, which makes use of knowledge of the genome to assist plant breeding, are yielding much faster results than GM technology.

GM products also have adverse impacts in the real world - for example they are used to alter the relationship between farmers and seed producers, preventing farmers saving their own seed. Once a GM variety has been grown, contamination makes it hard for the farmer to revert to non GM crops, so GM crops tie farmers into long term relationships with GM seed producers. This allows these companies to exert considerable power over the cost of farmers’ inputs. From experience, we know that GM is a ‘one in, all in’ technology, effectively stopping farmers over a wide area growing non-GM or organic crops where a GM variety of the same crop is grown.

GM crops have negative environmental impacts, as the UK Government's scientific research programme (the Farm Scale Evaluations) showed. Existing GM crops encourage herbicide resistant weeds and insecticide resistant insect pests which can then infest non-GM crops.

In addition, the GM traits can be passed by crossing to wild relatives of the crop and the insecticide in GM crops can destroy beneficial soil fungi.

Moreover, as new strains of non-GM soya, maize and so-on were brought to the market, GM crops started by comparison to yield less well than the best new varieties. Overall, and over time, GM crops do not appear to have delivered any yield advantages in most of the countries where they have been grown.

We don’t have more time and money to waste on this outdated and niche technology. Instead, we need to focus our research and policy attention on the areas of agriculture which really hold the answers for the future.

Increasing numbers of scientists and policy makers around the world accept the scientific evidence that agro-ecological systems such as organic farming will deliver the range of outcomes we need from farming - more affordable food where it is needed most, fertility not dependent on fossil fuels, more farmland wildlife, better animal welfare, more farming jobs, less pollution and lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Response

Emma illustrates an additional myth about GM: “if GM technology is so wonderful, world food security problems would already be solved.”

The GM products in commerce— insect control and herbicide tolerance—were envisioned in the 1980s. They are GM's “Model Ts”, simple, useful tools for farmers with much scope for improvement. It's false to assert that GM technology hasn’t helped Africa. Insect-resistant cotton in South Africa and elsewhere already reduces losses to insects and need for insecticides. It's even falser to argue, on the basis solely of existing traits, that GM will never help Africa.

We need more productive crops and cropping to reduce inputs and land required for agriculture. GM improvements already exist (not an opinion but a fact) that increase water and nitrogen use efficiency in crops and that directly increase yield.

And let’s not forget nutrition; Golden Rice and modified soy that provides heart-healthy fish oil substitutes will improve human diets. Where I work, we identify or improve genes for resistance to devastating crop diseases such as potato late blight or wheat rusts; these genes can greatly reduce crop losses. At Rothamsted Research, clever GM approaches in wheat deceive aphid pests and could reduce crop damage. Longer term, enabling non-legume crops to fix nitrogen will reduce fertiliser applications.

Of course, improved agronomy and breeding are also important, but “either agronomy and ecology or GM” is a false antithesis; we need both. Organic farmers are right to be good custodians of their soils, but they should not restrict their non-organic neighbours from choosing the varieties that best meet their needs. For good yields and profitability, farmers everywhere buy hybrid seed each year from seed companies, rather than save seed; GM does not change this relationship. By blocking deployment of scores of useful GM traits, anti-GM activists pointlessly risk hurting us all.

Response

The points that Jonathan makes are either wrong or spun out of context to create arguments for GM which do not stack up in the real world.

He states that we need to double food production. This has been shown to be wrong. The research states a 70% increase, but mainly to feed meat to the rich. Millions of people would still starve. Doing this would also cause catastrophic climate change and add to the current one billion obese people, a problem now spreading to the developing world.

Lack of food is not about levels of production. We already produce over 4,600 kilo-calories per person per day, more than double the requirement. We don’t need any more food; we just need it in different places (mainly in the South), grown by different people (mainly small, subsistence farmers).

Knowledge of genes is very useful – as in ‘marker assisted selection’ breeding, but genetic modification is an imprecise technique, with unpredictable results.

GM crops have already been shown to be failing. A 2008 study in the International Journal of Biotechnology found that any benefits of planting Bt (insect resistant) cotton have been eroded by the increasing use of pesticides needed to combat resistant pests. Soya growers in Argentina and Brazil are using twice as much herbicide on their GM as they do on non-GM crops. After an initial fall when introducing GM crops, spray use in the USA has risen.

Scientists are still nowhere near a commercial blight resistant GM potato, whereas a blight resistant group of varieties has already been bred using conventional methods and is on the market. The fact that  a GM version is still at the field trial stage – after 10 years, no significant results and £1.7 million of (mainly tax-payers’) money – clearly demonstrates what a failing technology this is.

Conclusion

Whether we need to increase food production by 70% or (more likely) 100% before 2050, limited land, climate change, water shortages and increasing energy costs make this goal challenging. No technology for achieving it should be recklessly spurned.

I agree that excessive meat eating is a problem, but try telling that to Chinese consumers who want to eat pork or chicken twice rather than once a week.  This demand underpins the rapid growth in trade of soybeans from Brazil and Argentina to China. Whatever Emma or I might wish, increasing world meat demand will persist.  Likewise, we both might wish that food were better distributed but it is a traded good and people need money to buy it.  High food prices and poverty lead to hunger; low yields lead to high prices.

Emma is concerned about slowness of delivery of GM blight resistant potato. So am I. The BASF Fortuna potato will be available in 2014 or 2015. GM blight resistance is not failing - it works well - but we need multiple cloned blight resistance genes to keep the pathogen under control (hence my research).  American potato growers and consumers will benefit before Europeans from the blight resistance genes I have cloned because of excessive EU regulation influenced by misinformation from anti-GM campaigners.  The market does not favour the existing blight-resistant potato varieties that result from breeding.

If GM crops are failing, why did 15 million farmers choose to plant 150 million hectares of GM crops in 2010, with these numbers increasing each year?  Does Emma think these farmers are misled, misinformed or stupid?  Farmers pragmatically choose “least bad” technology options and do not have the luxury of idealism; they choose GM varieties because they make it easier to control pests and weeds. Within five years, new genes will be commercialised that increase drought tolerance, increase yields and improve our diets.

Emma speaks of GM as imprecise.  This has not hindered deployment or usefulness - there are no credible health risks resulting from the technology - but it would certainly help breeders if additional genes could always be added at the same chromosomal location. New methods are enabling such precision and will help breeders handle multiple GM traits.

It is true that reduced insecticide applications to control boll weevils in Bt cotton resulted in increased populations of other insect pests previously controlled by insecticides.  This does not tell us that GM does not work, rather that Bt proteins (unlike synthetic insecticides) do not kill all insects.

Despite global warming, Northern Europe (unlike much of the world) will still be suitable for agriculture in 2050 and must contribute significantly to global food production.  NGOs which create obstacles to GM crop improvement are part of our problem, not part of the solution.  These NGOs are powerful - especially with supermarkets terrified of anti-GM protests - but with power comes responsibility. Despite the good intentions of their supporters, they make it more difficult to walk the tightrope of balancing yield maximisation on productive land for adequate food production, with maintaining biodiversity.  They need to rethink.

Conclusion

In terms of how we will feed the world’s poorest people, we should listen to those charged with overseeing the best ways of doing so. For example, the IAASTD’s 2,500 page report from no fewer than400 scientists, based on peer reviewed publications, concluded that the yield gains in GM crops “were highly variable” and in some places “yields declined”. Asked at a press conference if GM crops were the answer to world hunger, IAASTD Director Professor Bob Watson (now Chief Scientist at DEFRA) said: "the simple answer is, ‘No’."

After the publication of a major study, New Scientist commented that "low-tech 'sustainable agriculture', shunning chemicals in favour of natural pest control and fertiliser, is pushing up crop yields on poor farms across the world, often by 70 per cent or more... The findings will make sobering reading for people convinced that only genetically modified crops can feed the planet's hungry in the 21st century... A new science-based revolution is gaining strength built on real research into what works best on the small farms where a billion or more of the world's hungry live and work... It is time for the major agricultural research centres and their funding agencies to join the revolution".

The great hope for GM is the so-called ‘second generation’ of crops. These are variously claimed to be crops with clear consumer benefits, such as added vitamins, or with clear environmental benefits including nitrogen-fixing and saline-resistance. These are not recent ideas – they were part of the sales pitch for GM a decade and a half ago. However, many scientists believe that GM technology will not be able to transfer complex, multi-gene traits like these, certainly not without adversely affecting other traits like yield or disease resistance.

GM is not needed to feed the world and it denies people choice. It is impossible for farmers who don’t want GM crops to exist next to those farming them.  Evidence has been accumulating over the years that GM crops have contaminated both non-GM crops and wild plants – and they can never be recalled after their release. They deny people the right to choose GM-free food.

As the CEO of the Waitrose supermarket chain said, “the major problem with the technology is that it is a 'one in, all in' deal, and that simply isn't fair on those farmers who want their land to remain GM-free."

In the US, which is still home to over 50% of the world's GM crops, farmers and plant breeders are increasingly turning against them. Farmers have rejected GM wheat, rice and alfalfa and consumers are prepared to pay premiums for non GM products, while breeders are turning to non-GM techniques to produce higher yielding varieties of soya.

GM has already swallowed up billions of pounds that could have been spent on researching alternative methods of agriculture that do provide a more secure food supply for hungry people. It has failed to deliver promises and threatens real solutions to feeding the world. The alternatives, on the other hand, are safer, more effective, and already available.