To GM or not to GM?

It’s not about the science.

In 1983, a gene from Agrobacterium (a plant-infecting bacterium) was successfully inserted into a plant cell, marking a ‘coming-of-age’ moment for plant genetic engineering. The resulting possibilities seemed endless; pest-resistant, self-fertilising and nutritionally-fortified crop varieties. But relatively little of this technology has been implemented on a global scale.

Casual viewers might think the technology is not safe, which is understandable given the ‘frankenfood’ labels given to the new GM crops. But this is a misconception as there is scientific consensus on their safety. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) stated in 2012 that the ‘science is quite clear’ regarding the safety of biotechnology for crop improvement.

Demand for GM crops

The failure to integrate GM crops into main‐stream agriculture is not due to lack of demand. In Tanzania, the loss of cassava crops due to virus outbreaks contributes to malnutrition and a shockingly high infant mortality rate. Tanzanian scientists have developed disease-resistant cassava strains that produce much greater yields than native varieties.

Despite this, Tanzania is one of many African countries that has a ‘strict liability’ stance against GM crops. Even when the crops were tested in fields, ‘biosafety’ rules saw their destruction following harvest—mere miles away from starving families.

Why did GM fail?

The science says that genetically modified (GM) crops are safe, so why doesn’t the public believe this? First impressions stick, and the entrance of GM crops into the industry has shaped the public perception of them ever since.

The herbicide Roundup™, originally manufactured by Monsanto, is one notable example. The first GM product launched was Roundup Ready soy in 1996; this allowed soy farmers to spray their fields indiscriminately without killing the soy plants. This caused outrage over the effect of rampant herbicide use on the environment, and fears of the technology being monopolised by large corporations.

The company could instead have developed a crop variety that produces a natural pesticide, which would have reduced the need for spraying. Had this been the case, today’s public perception of GM might have been different.

Monsanto’s insensitive move, followed by fear-mongering from environmental activists, overshadowed other successful applications of GM in agriculture. These include Bt cotton, which is genetically engineered to produce a natural insecticide usually produced by soil bacteria. Although the promised increase in crop yields has not been attained, partly due to disregard for practices to slow down the evolution of resistance, the figures for Bt cotton in India are not as low as activists have claimed.

In spite of such advances, public pressure has led governments to adopt anti-GM policies, such as the EU’s effective moratorium on approvals of GM crops; the process for evaluating new GM crops is so slow that economic viability is limited. Yet these same countries import GM corn for animal feed, revealing a disparity between the goals of campaigners and the actions of governments.

Nonetheless, the use of GM crops has rapidly expanded in developing countries, where potential benefits to farmers are most acute. Addition‐ally, the potential of the bacterial viral defense mechanism CRISPR-Cas9 to edit genes was realised in 2012, accelerating the creation of new GM products.

Researchers at the University of Oxford are part of a team using this technology to engineer rice with C4 photosynthesis, where carbon dioxide entering the leaf takes a more efficient route at high temperatures and in arid environments. This has the potential to increase yields by up to 50%.

The future of food

GM is here to stay. But will it become the future of food? Proponents of GM draw parallels between the processes of selective breeding and genetic modification: both artificially alter an organism’s genetic makeup to confer an advantageous trait. They argue that the differences between today’s staple crops and their wild ancestors are just as ‘alien’ as changes created by GM.

Moreover, some GM critics are starting to accept its potential use in publicly funded projects to benefit small-scale farms as well as industrial ones. But GM, if it is the ‘future of food’, is not a silver bullet solution to the problem of sustaining the world’s population.

Technologies such as Bt cotton in India must adapt to problems such as bollworms evolving immunity to the Bt cotton gene. This mirrors the pattern of over-reliance on pesticides, creating another monoculture. Just as flawed is the idea of land-intensive organic farming, though promoted as the ideal solution by many environmental activists.

Instead, the ‘future of food’ should involve the deployment of every feasible method to protect the environment while maximising yields. With headlines detailing the stark reality of a burning Amazon and a changing climate, the public is beginning to grasp that we must change, and this should include doing some‐thing different to re-integrate our food system with a changing planet.

This article was first published in our Michaelmus Term 2019 Issue: Perspective