by Amy Finch
The first people to genetically modify food did not wear white coats.
It was around 12,500 years ago that hunter-gatherers began cultivating plants. By selecting and proliferating larger and more productive specimens, they created mutant crops unrecognisable from their wild relatives.
The advent of the first GM crops, where DNA has been directly edited, was immediately met with resistance; some critics believed such interference with natural processes could have unpredictable and dire consequences. But according to leading scientific bodies, including the UK’s Royal Society, this technology just a “natural” step in this long chapter of human history.
Now, the Agricultural Biotechnology Council, which represents the interests of GM crop companies in Britain, has announced the end of the age of “Frankenfood” fears. Their new survey of 1,600 18-30 year-olds found that just one in five had concerns about their crops.
Are we ready to reassess our relationship with our food?
Professor Philip Jones recently led a study outlining potential benefits if farmers in the EU were allowed to use currently available GM crops. Innovations such as potatoes resistant to blight- responsible for the devastating Irish potato famine in the mid-19th century- could increase production by as much as 13 per cent, while product values could be increased by up to 9 per cent.
“Conflicting attitudes towards GM across the EU have led to an impasse with no new approvals for over a decade,” he says. “It could be argued that this legislation was damaging to economic development compared with other parts of the world.”
Jones argues that GM could have dramatic benefits in the developing world. Rice, for example, is the staple food in many parts of the world, but it is not a good source of the essential nutrient Vitamin A.
Deficiency of Vitamin A can lead to immune problems, which results in the deaths of 2.7 million children each year, according to the World Health Organisation in 2012. Golden rice purported to have a simple solution- genetic modification to produce beta-carotene, which is converted to Vitamin A in the human body.
“In what some would see as a tragic turn of events, international pressure by campaigning groups led to the banning of this crop in the very countries which might have benefited from it, although research on this crop continues,” says Professor Jones.
“Over the last 20 years there has been no confirmed case of harm to any of the millions of humans that have eaten GM food.”
A “no Frankensteins” media policy
Liz O’Neill, the director of the UK’s anti-GM umbrella group GM Freeze, is used to defending her position. Having studied biochemistry at university, she enforces a strict “no Frankensteins” media policy and points proudly at a new peer reviewed study that found that the campaign’s polemic was not emotional or dogmatic.
“The idea that safety to the humans that consume them is the only value is horribly reductive,” she says. “There are massive ethical and social concerns, which we don’t think enough about with agriculture.”
Though a single issue campaign, the group asserts that they are working towards producing a broader sustainable food strategy. The majority of GM crops varieties that have been developed have engineered herbicide resistance, with 89% of American corn acres planted with the trait, for example. The largest American study on the subject found that their adoption had in fact increased herbicide use.
“We think it’s the wrong answer to the wrong question,” says O’Neill. “The idea of tweaking current practices and causing great environmental damage is a step in the wrong direction.”
She also believes that herbicide resistance raises questions of food sovereignty. According to US law, GM crops can be patented. Monsanto, the multinational company that recently attracted protests in 436 cities worldwide, holds patents on its products that mean they can stipulate strict rules on their use. They can require farmers not to collect seeds, requiring that they buy new ones each planting season.
“Golden rice is actually the perfect example. Rather than changing one micronutrient, we need to examine why people are eating only rice, and properly address it,” says O’Neill. “Allowing huge, huge multinationals control of their food just to change one micronutrient.”
Conventional and integrated strategies
Professor Stephen Morse, Chair of Systems Analysis at the University of Surrey, takes his lessons from a career in development that spans more than 30 years, beginning before GM crops had even emerged.
“To be frank, as a technology, I have a mixed view on GM, I’m not anti-GM but sometimes the scientific lobby can overstate what it can achieve,” he says. “We’re at a danger of overselling too.”
Cotton, for example, was a special case according to Morse. In South Africa, cotton bollworms could reduce yield by a half, meaning farmers would spray crops with potent pesticides twelve times a year, in fields where children would also play. With engineered pest resistance, they were able to reduce this number to five applications, with his research finding cost and health benefits even to small farmers.
“It can make a difference,” says Professor Morse. “But we need to pick our battles, we can’t always be reaching for the GM gun.”
In many cases, he believes, more conventional or integrated strategies may make the most difference. His current work in Central Nigeria on food security with the Gates Foundation is very low tech, and mainly involves teaching farmers how to identify and remove virus infected plants.
Similarly, he believes policy interventions in the UK might be the best way to tackle environmental problems, paying farmers to plant diverse woodlands or maintain hedgerows on their lands.
“The problem is that GM has become the sexy side of biology. From the 1990s, biology moved to a more molecular field, with all the top minds going into it.
“Talking to farmers became passé. We need to remember it’s not all about magic bullets in development.”