What’s wrong with GM food?

Fussy Eaters – What’s Wrong With GM Food?
– Jonathan Jones. BBC, July 6, 2010

With the world’s food security facing a looming “perfect storm”, GM food crops need to be part of the solution, argues Professor Jonathan Jones. In this week’s Green Room, he wonders why there is such a fuss about biotechnology when it can help deliver a sustainable global food system. (In the US, where many processed foods contain ingredients derived from GM maize or soy, in the most litigious society in history, nobody has sued for a GM health problem)

A billion humans do not have enough to eat. Water resources are limited, energy costs are rising, the cultivatable land is already mostly cultivated, and climate change could hit productive areas hard. We need a sustainable intensification of agriculture to increase production by 50% by 2030 – but how?

Food security requires solutions to many diverse problems. In the US or Europe, improved seeds could increase yields by 10% or more, reduce pesticide use and give “more crop per drop”.

However, improved seeds can only help impoverished African farmers if they also have reliable water supply, roads to take crops to market, and (probably most important) fertiliser. Better farming methods are also part of the solution; these require investment in technology and people. Fortunately, after 25 years of “food complacency”, policymakers are taking the issue seriously again.

I want to reduce the environmental impact of agriculture while maintaining food supply. The best thing we can do is cultivate less land, leaving more for wildlife, but if we are still to produce enough food, yields must go up. There are many contributors to yield; water, fertiliser, farming practice, and choice of seed.

‘Simple method’
We can improve crop variety performance by both plant breeding (which gets better every year with new genetic methods), and by genetic modification (GM).
Ouch; yuck – GM. Did you recoil from those letters? Why? I started making GM plants (petunias, as it happens) in 1983, working at a long defunct agbiotech company in California called Advanced Genetic Sciences.

In the early 80s, we did wonder about – in Rumfeldspeak – “unknown unknowns; the unknowns we didn’t know we didn’t know about”, but 27 years later, nothing alarming has been seen. The method (GM is a method not a thing) is simple.

We take a plant, which typically carries about 30,000 genes, and add a few additional genes that confer insect resistance, or herbicide resistance, or disease resistance, or more efficient water use, or improved human nutrition, or less polluting effluent from animals that eat the grain, or more efficient fertiliser uptake, or increased yield. We could even (heck, why not?) do all of the above to the same plant.

The result is increased yield, decreased agrochemical use and reduced environmental impact of agriculture. In commercial GM, many hundreds of independent introductions of the desired new gene (the “transgene”) are made, each in a different individual plant that is selected and tested. Most lines are discarded. To be commercialised, a line must carry a simple, stable and well-defined gene insertion, and show heritable and effective transgene function, with no deleterious effects on the plant.

Growing demand
GM is the most rapidly adopted, benign, effective new technology for agriculture in my lifetime. Fourteen million farmers grow GM crops on 135 million hectares; these numbers increased by about 10% per year over the past decade, and this rate of growth continues. More than 200,000 tonnes of insecticide have not been applied, thanks to built-in insect resistance in Bt crops; how could anyone think that’s a bad thing?

Bt maize is safer to eat because of lower levels of mycotoxins from fungi that enter the plant’s grains via the holes made by corn-borer feeding; no insects, no holes, no fungal entry, no toxins in our food. There are not enough fish in the sea to provide us all with enough omega 3 fatty acids in our diet, but we can now modify oilseeds to make this nutrient in crops on land.

Protection from rootworm means maize crops capture more water and fertiliser, so less is wasted. Farmers must always control weeds; herbicide tolerant (HT) soy makes this easier, and has enabled replacement of water-polluting persistent herbicides with the more benign and rapidly inactivated glyphosate. HT soy has enabled wider low-till agriculture, reducing CO2 emissions.

And yet in Europe, we seem stuck in a time warp. Worldwide, 135 million hectares of GM crops have been planted; yet in Norfolk, I needed to spend £30,000 of taxpayers’ money to provide security for a field experiment with 192 potato plants, carrying one or another of a disease resistance gene from a wild relative of potato. It boggles the mind. What are people afraid of?

‘Wishful thinking’
Some fear the domination of the seed industry by multinationals, particularly Monsanto.
We need smart, sustainable, sensitive science and technology, and we need to use every tool in our toolbox, including GM Monsanto is certainly the most determined and successful agbiotech company. In their view, they had to be; they bet the company on agbiotech because unlike their rivals (who also sell nylon or agrichemicals) they had nothing else to fall back on.

But monopoly is bad for everyone. Here’s a part solution; deregulate GM. If it costs more than $20m (£13m) to get regulatory approval for one transgene, lots of little GM-based solutions to lots of problems will be too expensive and therefore not deployed, and the public sector and small start-up companies will not make the contribution they could. Never before has such excessive regulation been created in response to (still) purely hypothetical risks.

The cost of this regulation – demanded by green campaigners – has bolstered the monopoly of the multinationals. This is a massive own-goal and has postponed the benefits to the environment and to us all.

Some fear GM food is bad for health. There are no data that support this view. In the US, where many processed foods contain ingredients derived from GM maize or soy, in the most litigious society in history, nobody has sued for a GM health problem.

Some fear GM is bad for the environment. But in agriculture, idealism does not solve problems. Farmers need “least bad” solutions; they do not have the luxury of insisting on utopian solutions.

It is less bad to control weeds with a rapidly inactivated herbicide after the crop germinates, than to apply more persistent chemicals beforehand. It is less bad to have the plant make its own insecticidal protein, than to spray insecticides. It is better to maximise the productivity of arable land via all kinds of sustainable intensification, than to require more land under the plough because of reduced yields.

Some say GM is high risk, but they cannot tell you what the risk is. Some say GM is causing deforestation in Brazil, even though if yields were less, more deforestation would be required to meet Chinese and European demand for animal feed.

Some say we do not need GM blight resistant potatoes to solve the £3.5bn per year problem of potato blight, because blight resistant varieties have been bred. But if these varieties are so wonderful, how come farmers spend £500 per hectare on spraying to protect blight sensitive varieties? The answer is the market demands varieties such as Maris Piper, so we need to make them blight resistant.

I used to be a member of a green campaign group. They still have campaigns I support (sustainable fishing, save the rainforests, fight climate change), but on GM, they are simply wrong.

Even activists of impeccable green credentials, such as Stewart Brand, see the benefits of GM. Wishful thinking will not feed the planet without destroying it. Instead, we need smart, sustainable, sensitive science and technology, and we need to use every tool in our toolbox, including GM.

—-
Professor Jonathan Jones is senior scientist for The Sainsbury Laboratory, based at the John Innes Centre, a research centre in plant and microbial science

Full article and readers comments at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/8789279.stm

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