New Internationalist

Is there a place for GM crops in a sustainable future?

November 2012

Author and journalist Mark Lynas and researcher and writer Claire Robinson go head-to-head.

ARGUMENT

Every month we invite two experts to debate, and then invite you to join the conversation online. The best comments will be printed in the next magazine.

This feature was published in the November issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

Mark

Agriculture today faces many challenges. In a world of seven billion people – a population which will grow to over nine billion by mid-century – I’m sure you will agree that there is no room for ideological rigidity when seeking sustainable and equitable ways to ensure food security for everyone. But it seems to me that anti-GM activists have latched on to one particular technology as ‘evil’ and refuse to consider any other possibility.

I see genetically modified (GM) foods as one of a variety of different options for technological innovation in agriculture. In some contexts it can be extremely useful in potentially eliminating the need for toxic pesticides to be used on crops – I’m sure you will have heard of the aphid-resistant wheat that researchers at Rothamsted are currently trialling, much to the ire of green activists. This is intended to reduce the use of toxic sprays.

A similar environmental motivation underlies the aim of several other public sector research institutes – including Teagasc in Ireland and the Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich – to develop a blight-resistant GM potato. The greens are against this too, despite the fact that the introduced novel gene comes from another potato. Perhaps they think it is better that large-scale growers spray their potato crops 15 or more times every season with toxic fungicides. And no, organic is not the answer: organic growers use equally toxic copper sulphate, or simply watch the crop get devastated – as many did [in Britain] this summer.

I hope we can both agree that publicly funded, non-commercial, non-patented applications of GM technology aimed at reducing the use of toxic chemicals should be supported.

Claire

Feeding the world is a challenge, but not because there isn’t enough food. We already grow enough for 10 billion people. Hunger is a result of poverty. That’s a political problem that GM crops can’t solve.

Even if hunger could be solved by increasing yield, GM crops don’t yield more, and often yield less, than non-GM crops, according to US government data. Yield was never the point of GM. Virtually all commercially available GM crops are engineered to survive being sprayed with herbicide or to express a pesticide, or both. GM herbicide-tolerant crops increased herbicide use by 174 million kilograms in the US in the first 13 years of cultivation.

A tiny initial reduction in chemical pesticides attributed to GM Bt pesticidal crops proved unsustainable as pests are now munching away on the very crops engineered to kill them. It’s not surprising: exposing a pest 24/7 to a pesticide – chemical or genetically engineered – is a recipe for resistance. Aphids will quickly get used to Rothamsted’s aphid-repelling GM wheat, as was found in studies on other GM plants that express the same chemical.

‘Publicly funded, non-commercial, non-patented’ GM crops that reduce chemical use may seem a nice idea. But public-private partnerships mean that while public money funds the research and development (R&D), the developed trait is sold to companies. Only patents make it attractive.

Rothamsted’s John Pickett has said he hopes the GM wheat project will ‘generate very good intellectual property for commercial development’. That means patents ­not on the experimental crop line, but on the final commercial line generated. The herbicide tolerance gene in this wheat will be used because GM seed companies are agrochemical companies. Chemical-dependent patented seeds are their business model. Result: more herbicides.

Solutions lie in agro-ecology and conventional breeding, which outperforms GM, even in producing blight-resistant potatoes!

Mark

If GM crops are so ineffective, why are millions of farmers in 29 countries (the majority in the developing world) using them across 160 million hectares of agricultural land?

Your arguments are grounded in the ideological battles of 15 years ago, when I was on your side. But the world has moved on, and forced me to change my mind. There is clear evidence from a multitude of sources now pointing to the benefits of GM crops where they have been adopted. A recent EU/Food and Agriculture Organization joint expert workshop was crystal clear on this (Lusser et al, 2012). For example, Bt cotton in India is now 90 per cent of the entire crop and ‘strongly reduces insecticide use and increases yields’.  

For you, this all seems to be about corporations and patents. I hope you don’t use a mobile phone, or any other modern technology whose intellectual property is protected by a patent and manufactured by a transnational corporation. Actually, an ‘open-source’ approach is perhaps more applicable to GM than many other modern technologies; and for the record, Rothamsted has made clear that its aphid-resistant wheat (if it works) will remain patent-free.

Your arguments are grounded in the ideological battles of 15 years ago, when I was on your side. But the world has moved on, and forced me to change my mind – Mark

Your casual dismissal of the yield issue is particularly troubling. Yields are critical for food security, particularly in a subsistence farming context. Why deny poor farmers the best that modern technology can offer?

I’ll leave you with a quote from Norman Borlaug, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for saving billions from starvation with his Green Revolution: ‘If the naysayers do manage to stop agricultural biotechnology, they might actually precipitate the famines and the crisis of global biodiversity they have been predicting for nearly 40 years.’ Be warned.

Claire

GM crops are only grown on around three per cent of farmland by 2.8 per cent of farmers. GM is confined to a few commodity crops: soy, maize, canola and cotton, most of which are used for animal feed in intensive feedlots, biofuels and fibre. That’s after 30 years of GM technology and billions of dollars in R&D funds.

In contrast, conventional breeding outperforms GM on producing crops with valuable traits like high yield, disease resistance, and drought tolerance (‘GMO Myths & Truths’, 2012). And the UN says agro-ecological farming has delivered yield increases of 80 per cent in poor countries.

Meanwhile, GM technology is in meltdown.

The movement against genetic engineering in food crops began with scientists, not environmentalists. Scientific debate about the safety and efficacy of GM continues – Claire

In the US, rootworms are eating GM insecticidal maize, and herbicide-resistant superweeds are choking GM herbicide-tolerant crops. In Argentina, GM soy producers have been convicted of polluting a neighbourhood with agrochemicals, resulting in high rates of birth defects and cancers.

The picture you paint of Bt cotton in India has been rejected by a Parliamentary Committee which, after examining evidence and talking to farmers, published a scathing report on the crop’s impact and demanded an end to GM crop trials. Studies claiming benefits from Bt cotton have been criticized for being based on unverifiable industry data.

Farmer adoption of GM seeds in some countries has been forced by consolidation in the seed industry. GM seed companies have withdrawn less profitable non-GM seeds from the market in North and South America and India.

Criticism of GM crops isn’t based on ideology but on harsh facts.

Mark

I do wonder if, as with climate change deniers, there is any weight of scientific evidence which could change your mind on GM. I suspect not. Are there any circumstances you can imagine it being useful for crop breeding? Perhaps you don’t realize how ‘conventional’ breeders have messed with plant genomes using far more clumsy and uncertain techniques, like mutagenesis, to create the modern cultivars you eat every day. 

It is true that most applications of GM so far have been for the big staple crops grown on a large scale. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Rothamsted and others are working on an oilseed that might replace wild-caught fish as feedstock for fish farming – that could help marine biodiversity. You ignored this, but there is overwhelming evidence that Bt crops have drastically reduced pesticide applications. Drought-tolerant crops are also in the offing. 

Thierry Roge/Reuters
GM crops - a force for good or a future nightmare? Thierry Roge/Reuters

No doubt these should all be banned, and farmers only permitted to grow politically correct crops you approve of. Anti-GM activists want to freeze technology at a level that they feel comfortable with, in some imagined past ideal when everything was simple, organic and quaint. It is a wholly reactionary vision, with a huge opportunity cost on the environment and people’s livelihoods, especially in poor countries. I hope you will reconsider.

Claire

The movement against genetic engineering in food crops began with scientists, not environmentalists, who took up the topic later. Scientific debate about the safety and efficacy of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) continues to rage.

That’s why I got together with genetic engineers to write the report, ‘GMO Myths and Truths’, which summarizes scientific and other evidence on the hazards and limitations of GMOs. It presents evidence of escalating pesticide use associated with GM crops and pest resistance problems with Bt crops – which are pesticides in themselves, so people and animals who eat them are eating a pesticide.

It explains that GM is an imprecise and outdated technique that differs from conventional breeding and carries special risks, as the US Food and Drug Administration’s own scientists warned when the US government first allowed GM companies to release inadequately tested GMOs into our food supply.

High yield, disease resistance and drought tolerance are complex traits that are much easier to achieve with conventional breeding than GM. Safe, modern biotechnologies include marker-assisted selection and GM used as a research tool, though the final crop is not GM (as with the well-publicized flood-tolerant rice). If it weren’t for the fact that GM crops are more easily patented, obsession with this failed technology would die.

Mark Lynas is an environmental writer and journalist, and author of several books, including Six Degrees (2007) and The God Species (2011). He is former climate change advisor to the president of the Maldives and a visiting researcher at Oxford University’s School of Geography and the Environment.

Claire Robinson is research director at Earth Open Source and an editor at GM Watch. She is a co-author of the report ‘GMO Myths and Truths: An evidence-based examination of the claims made for the safety and efficacy of GM crops.’

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