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

EU Wants to Put GMO Dispute to An End

– EurActive, July 2010 12 http://www.euractiv.com

The European Commission will tomorrow (13 July) propose an overhaul of the EU’s policy for approving genetically modified (GM) crops, which will allow countries more freedom to ban cultivation on their territory while retaining an EU-wide authorisation system.

The new policy for GM crop cultivation, to be unveiled tomorrow, aims to draw a line under years of stalemate between countries that support GMOs and those opposed to their cultivation. The initiative aims to deliver on a promise made by European Commission President José Manuel Barroso before his reappointment last year (EurActiv 03/09/09).

At present, EU member states are only able to restrict GM crop cultivation under strict conditions, as authorisation licences are valid across the 27-country bloc, in accordance with the principles of the EU single market.

The plans would allow large-scale commercial planting in pro-GM countries such as Spain, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic, opening up new markets for major biotech companies, while at the same time legally endorsing existing GM bans in countries like Italy, Austria and Hungary.

Legislative proposals
The legislative proposal seeks to insert a new article (Article 26b) into the 2001 Directive on the Deliberate Release of GMOs. The proposed new article allows member states to prohibit cultivation provided that the reasons are not related to GMOs’ adverse effects on health and their environment, or to their socio-economic impact.

Health and environmental concerns can continue to be raised using the existing safeguard clause (Article 23 of the directive).

Meanwhile, prohibition on socio-economic grounds will be authorised under a new Commission Recommendation on guidelines to prevent GM contamination of conventional and organic crops, which will also be tabled tomorrow. The guidelines are set to replace 2003 Commission guidance on national co-existence measures.

Speeding up authorisation processes
The draft new texts also stress that member states should adopt “a more positive stance” on GMO authorisation at the risk assessment stage and “avoid” seizing the safeguard clause to address non-scientific issues.

The idea is to trade a broader right to restrict GM crop cultivation on national territory in exchange for some member states dropping their long-standing opposition to GM crops.

For years, EU member states in the Council of Ministers have been unable to reach a qualified majority for or against GMO authorisations, referring the matter back to the Commission, which has invariably authorised them via a special regulatory procedure.

NGOs denounce flawed proposal
Under the proposed deal, the GMO approval process would therefore speed up. But environmental NGOs Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace argue that restrictions on invoking Article 26b would limit the set of admissible grounds for bans mainly to ethical concerns.

According to them, national decisions based on ethical grounds are likely to be subject to legal challenges brought by crop companies due to the difficulty of defining “objective” criteria in the field of ethics, they stress. A legal opinion on the draft proposal commissioned by the two NGOs argues that it does not provide the legal certainty that member states need in order to adopt permanent bans on GMOs that have received EU approval.

NGOs also note that while the Commission proposals address the banning of GM crops by national governments, there is nothing to protect conventional and organic farmers in countries that decide to allow them.

Business worried about legal uncertainties, single market
EuropaBio, the European bio-industry association, says the Commission’s plan to “nationalise” the GMO issue should be seen as positive step.

But it notes that the “devil is in the detail,” arguing that the draft proposals could in practice cause legal uncertainty as farmers will be able to challenge their national authorities for restricting access to products, for example. The industry underlines the importance of allowing all EU farmers the same choice of technology once it has received scientific approval from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

In this regard, EuropaBio notes that tomorrow’s proposals represent a move away from the EU single market as they would allow member states to restrict products on non-scientific grounds.

New environmental risk assessment guidelines under way
Before a GM plant can be cultivated in the EU it has to undergo an extensive Environmental Risk Assessment (ERA) to identify any possible adverse effects it may have on the environment. Following criticism from some member states, the European Commission mandated the European Food Safety Authority’s GMO panel to revise the agency’s guidelines on environmental risk assessments.

The guidelines assess, for example, the persistence and invasiveness of a GM plant, including plant-to-plant gene transfers, its impact on non-target organisms and criteria for setting up field trials.

However, a report analysing the EFSA’s draft guidelines for the environmental risk assessment of genetically engineered plants, presented by the Greens in the European Parliament last week (6 July), argues that the agency fails to properly address risks posed by genetically engineered plants.

The report stresses that there is a “basic misconception” in EFSA’s thinking, which assumes that genetically engineered plants are similar to those obtained by conventional breeding. The Greens argue they are fundamentally different.

Marco Contiero, GM policy officer at Greenpeace, added that if this concept of “substantial equivalence” were taken as a basis, it would be impossible to assess unpredictable long-term effects of GM plants. French Green MEPs José Bové and Sandrine Bélier said that together with the Commission’s upcoming new policy on GM crop cultivation, the EFSA’s current environment risk assessment proposals “would allow companies to reduce risk assessment to just a few studies and to speed up market authorisation for the EU territory overall”.


At present, EU member states are only able to restrict genetically modified (GM) crop cultivation under strict conditions as authorisation licences are valid across the 27-country bloc, in accordance with the principles of the EU’s single market.

Several member states have repeatedly invoked an EU safeguard clause enabling them to suspend the marketing or growth on their territory of GM crops that enjoy EU-wide authorisation, but the European Commission has never substantiated their applications and has always ordered the lifting of national bans.

In addition, the safety assessments performed by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) have come under criticism over the years (EurActiv 05/12/05 and 10/03/06). The EU executive has tried to introduce practical changes to the EFSA’s GMO-approval process and in spring 2008, it mandated the agency to revise its guidance for the long-term environmental risk assessment of GM plants (EurActiv 12/04/06).

The EFSA itself has been trying to improve the openness and transparency of its work. During the French EU Presidency in 2008, EU ministers also called for the long-term environmental risk assessment of GMOs to be improved.

Facts about biotech…

Did you know?

…In 2007, the reduction in carbon emissions accomplished from adopting biotech canola in Canada alone was equal to removing 781,000 cars from the road for a year?! Global savings from all biotech crops equalled removing 6.3 million cars!

Yeah, but how does this compute?

Farmers that grow biotech crops are not only able to adopt conservation tillage practices, but they are also able to produce higher yields (good for them) with FEWER applications of crop protection products (good for the environment). Reduced applications means reduced number of passes with equipment and lower emissions!

(Thanks to the Council for Biotechnology Information (2009) for compiling this useful information!)