Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Some thoughts on GM Crops

In 1998, I wrote a book about genetic engineering and agriculture called Eat Your Genes (Zed Books). It was not intended as a polemic, but was written as a (hopefully) readable primer outlining everything you needed to know about How Genetically Modified Food is Entering Our Diet (the subtitle). Nevertheless, my scepticism about the heavy-handed introduction of this technology, and the initial uses to which it was being put, obviously coloured the text.

The so-called First Generation of Genetically Modified (GM) crops were developed by Monsanto and other multinational corporations. Monsanto’s first GM crops were genetically engineered, for example, to resist certain herbicide sprays and sales were tied to the specific use of branded herbicides. Genetic engineering opened the door to crop seed patenting for the first time, while genetic mechanisms were proposed to prevent farmers being able to save seed for replanting. The US government aggressively promoted this US-based technology (e.g., via aid programmes and threatening trade wars). This all raised genuine concerns about seed monopolies for commodity crops, and for food security in developing countries.

Although GM food is the norm in North America (e.g., through maize and soybeans in processed foods), relatively little is consumed or grown in Europe. Public opposition to the technology was a major factor in a European-wide moratorium on the planting of GM crops.

Last weekend, protestors assembled at the Rothamsted Experimental Station (Harpenden, England) to demonstrate against an experimental plot of GM wheat. I thought I would use this blog to put down some thoughts on this.

The wheat being trialled at Rothamsted is part of the so-called Second Generation of GM crops. These crops are being developed with an eye to what consumers will find acceptable in the future. The Rothamsted wheat incorporates a gene that causes the plant to smell of aphid alarm pheromone (E-beta-farnesene). Aphids are important insect pests of wheat. They are much less inclined to land on the modified plants (as shown in greenhouse trials). This could result in much less pesticide being sprayed on the crop; something which the field trial at Rothamsted has been established to test. This could mean less agro-chemical in the environment and less chemical residue in the flour. Pesticides have been implicated, for instance, in the dramatic decline of bees in the UK, which has serious repercussions for the pollination of crops.

My view is that you can no longer generalise about the use of this technology in food production. Each modified crop should be looked at on an individual basis. A wide range of problems are now being addressed, such as drought resistance (which could be beneficial in areas worst impacted by climate change) and resistance to numerous pests and diseases. The degree to which pollen can cross-contaminate non-GM crops also varies widely according to crop type and the type of modification made. There is currently a re-evaluation of the GM issue; things are now not so black-and-white.

Some of the banners and rhetoric at the Rothamsted demonstration are starting to look a little dated. For example, banners like “No to Corporate Control of Food” and “Big Business Bad Science”. I broadly agree with many of the sentiments expressed and remain highly sceptical about GM crops generally. However, Rothamsted is a publically-funded government research station and the wheat being developed there will not be owned by multinational corporations and will not be patented.

The sad thing is that there are environmentalists on both sides of this fence: Scientists who want to utilize this technology to benefit the environment and campaigners who are passionate about preserving the integrity of our food. They should get together to start establishing some common ground. 

I think it is important to preserve consumer choice. Food labeling was a hard-fought victory; organic standards are likely to continue to exclude GM for the foreseeable future.

The corporate vision of a nation covered in patented GM crops that can only be sprayed with proprietary agro-chemicals will hopefully never come to pass in the UK. However, genetic engineering has the potential to be a very useful tool in the plant breeder’s armoury, particularly in areas where farmers' needs are being addressed in ways that don't threaten food security. Where the benefits are high and the risks of transgene (modified genes) spread are shown to be extremely low, then it would be worth keeping an open mind.

A note on terminology:
Of course, all crops are genetically modified by plant breeders, but GM has become the term in general use to describe organisms that have been modified using the techniques of genetic engineering (usually the introduction of genes derived from another species). 

Wikileaks and GM Crops:

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