Do We Need GM to Feed the World?

Chief Scientist, Sir John Beddington, who said at a recent conference that “GM is not a solution to the world’s hungry, but it is has the potential in certain circumstances to solve problems that can’t be done in any other way.”

“If anyone tells you that GM is going to feed the world, tell them that it is not… To feed the world takes political and financial will.” – Steve Smith, head of GM company Novartis Seeds UK (now Syngenta), public meeting on proposed local GM farm scale trial, Tittleshall, Norfolk, UK, 29 March 2000

“We strongly object that the image of the poor and hungry from our countries is being used by giant multinational corporations to push a technology that is neither safe, environmentally friendly nor economically beneficial to us. We do not believe that such companies or gene technologies will help our farmers to produce the food that is needed in the 21st century. On the contrary, we think it will destroy the diversity, the local knowledge and the sustainable agricultural systems that our farmers have developed for millennia, and that it will thus undermine our capacity to feed ourselves.” – Statement signed by 24 delegates from 18 African countries to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, 1998

A statement that is frequently made by proponents and by the industry behind GM crops, is that GM is the only answer, or a large part of the answer when it comes to feeding the hungry. It is frequently accompanied by reminders that the world is facing a burgeoning population, and there needs to be a sustainable way to feed all those mouths….

The biggest problem with global malnutrition is politics. Distribution and supply, skewed wealth and corrupt governments are doing more harm to the starving masses than conventional food production ever will. There is plenty of food, enough produced globally even now, for nine billion people. We just need to tackle the more complicated political issues.

GM is not the quick fix it is often purported to be. The promises of higher yields, drought and salt resistance are currently unfulfilled by the GM industries, where as conventional crops quietly solve these problems with barely a mention from the press. GM technology has so far proven successful as a massive profit leader for a few giant companies, promoting inherent pesticides and powerful herbicide use whilst failing to deliver unbiased, peer reviewed scientific research into the environmental and health risks that arise from such novel organisms.

The latest IAASTD (The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development) report clearly reported that 70% of the world's food supply is produced by small farmers, and that sustainable agro-agriculture, not genetic modification, was the only way to feed the world. IAASTD involved over 400 scientists, was established by the UN agencies, and was accepted by most countries and civil society organisations.


Does GM Increase Yields?

“Commercial GE crops have made no inroads so far into raising the intrinsic or potential yield of any crop. By contrast, traditional breeding has been spectacularly successful in this regard; it can be solely credited with the intrinsic yield increases in the United States and other parts of the world that characterized the agriculture of the twentieth century.” – Doug Gurian-Sherman, former biotech advisor to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, DC

A US Department of Agriculture report confirmed the poor yield performance of GM crops, saying, “GE [genetically engineered] crops available for commercial use do not increase the yield potential of a variety. In fact, yield may even decrease.... Perhaps the biggest issue raised by these results is how to explain the rapid adoption of GE crops when farm financial impacts appear to be mixed or even negative.”

The commercial GM crops that are grown today were never modified to increase yield. The strains that were used to modify were high yielding varieties anyway, but the modification process often resulted in what is known as ‘yield drag’, so the modified plants produce a lower yield than the original unmodified variety.

The GM crops we have at the moment were designed to help farmers manage insect pests and weeds. By reducing the amount of crop farmers lose to pests, in theory GM means they have more to harvest.

However, GM crop yields fall after a few years as insects and weeds become resistant to the pesticides that the plant is modified to tolerate or produce.

Some studies show that current GM crops have increased the size of harvests. Others suggest they haven't, and in some cases yields have even decreased. It depends on the crop, the region, the conditions and the farming practices used.

A major report was wary about the role GM crops had to play in the developing world.

The IAASTD (The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development) report was written by 400 international experts from governments, universities, research institutes and private companies. The authors felt there were too many problems for GM crops to be of real benefit. They were concerned the technology was not regulated enough in many countries to ensure its safety. The authors said local knowledge and methods already used by farmers were more valuable than GM – and less risky. Critics are concerned that using the food crisis to put GM back on the agenda distracts from other, more effective solutions.

The report stated; ‘GM crop yields were “highly variable” and in some cases, “yields declined.” The report noted, “Assessment of the technology lags behind its development, information is anecdotal and contradictory, and uncertainty about possible benefits and damage is unavoidable.” This assessment was based on the most comprehensive evaluation of yield since the introduction of commercial GM crops.

If GM cannot increase yields even in the United States, where high-input, irrigated, heavily subsidised commodity farming is the norm, it is irresponsible to assume that it would improve yields in the Global South, where farmers may literally bet their farms and livelihoods on a crop.



Will GM Reduce Pesticide Use?

“GE crops have been responsible for an increase of 383 million pounds of herbicide use in the US over the first 13 years of commercial use of GE crops (1996–2008). This dramatic increase in the volume of herbicides applied swamps the decrease in insecticide use attributable to GE corn and cotton, making the overall chemical footprint of today’s GE crops decidedly negative… The primary cause of the increase [is] the emergence of herbicide-resistant weeds.”– Dr Charles Benbrook, agronomist

“The promise was that you could use less chemicals and produce a greater yield. But let me tell you none of this is true.”  – Bill Christison, president of the US National Family Farm Coalition


With the invention of GM crops that can tolerate herbicides, you would immediately assume that herbicide levels would increase with their widespread adoption, and you’d be right. The manufacturer’s claims were that herbicides would only need to be used 1-2 times a season, and initially this was an effective strategy. However, with increased selection pressure, weeds very soon adapted to the broad spectrum herbicides that were sprayed, and became resistant. This resulted in more chemicals of stronger concentrations being used to combat the problem.

The same has happened with GM crops that produce their own insecticide. At first chemical use declines as the pests are killed by the plant. Then secondary pests emerge that are not affected by the insecticide, or worse still, the target pests become resistant. So insecticide use increases again, but so much so, that it outstrips pre-GM days in quantity and concentration.

So do GM crops result in a decrease in pesticide? Initially yes, but very quickly (a couple of years) the problems triggered by the GM crops cause a huge increase in pesticide use, which more than makes up for the moderate reduction in the first few years of GM adoption.


Is Genetic Modification Just a Faster Way of Natural Breeding?

You often hear the claim that conventional plant breeders have been “genetically modifying” crops for centuries by selective breeding and that GM crops are no different. This is misleading and incorrect.

The term “genetic modification” means the use of recombinant DNA techniques to move genetic material between organisms in a way that would not take place naturally, and in order to do so, bypassing the cell’s defences to bring about alterations in the genetic makeup and consequently its properties.

The term “genetic modification” is sometimes wrongly used to describe marker-assisted selection (MAS). MAS is a largely uncontroversial branch of biotechnology that can speed up conventional breeding by just identifying the genes that are linked to important traits, and then allows the use of this knowledge to improve the success of conventional breeding.

MAS does not involve the risks and uncertainties of genetic modification and is supported by organic and sustainable agriculture groups worldwide.

GM is completely different from natural breeding and poses different risks.
Natural breeding can only take place between closely related forms of life (e.g. cats with cats, not cats with dogs; wheat with wheat, not wheat with tomatoes or fish). In this way, the genes that carry information for all parts of the organism are passed down the generations in an orderly way.

It is unnecessary to take risks with GM when conventional breeding, assisted by safe modern gene mapping technologies; is capable of meeting our crop breeding needs.

One of the arguments proponents often use is that conventional breeding takes much too long and GM is a quicker way to get the traits that we want. However, the opposite is true.

Because of MAS, conventional breeding for new or improved traits is much quicker than the lengthy process of GM. Quite often yield and plant disease resistance is adversely affected by the GM process, and correcting these takes longer than conventional breeding ever would. For example the biotech industry has for years promised drought resistant and higher yielding varieties of staple crops, and so far has only managed to produce maize variety (that took 10 years to get to the trial stage) that can cope with moderate drought periods, but still uses the same amount of water as conventional crops. But there are numerous drought resistant and higher yielding varieties now being used in developing countries that have been developed conventionally that have made real headway in improving people’s lives without the controversy and seed licences that go hand in hand with GM crops.

Will GM Reduce Food Prices?

You would expect one of the benefits of GM to be reduced cost for farmers and therefore ultimately the consumer. But in comparison with conventional crop seeds, GM seeds are more expensive. The value of GM technology is considered 'worthy' of such an increase according to the manufacturers because the seeds have beneficial traits that make life easier for the farmers by allowing the use of highly potent pesticides like glyphosphate (which ordinarily kills all plants) on crops to control weeds without damaging the crop.

Manufacturers also cite that the increased cost of the seeds serves to fund further research into genetic modification techniques and developments. There are often promises of increased yield with GM crops but most of these claims have little evidence to back this claim up. There is often an increase in yield in the first few years of adoption, this quickly plateaus as weeds and pests become resistant to the modified plant, and these results in more pesticides being used in an expensive chemical arms race that will never be won and adds to the spiralling costs of the technology.

It is well documented that GM Soy- which is one of the most extensively grown GM crops in the USA and Latin America, and a crop that Europe heavily depends on for its animal feed imports, has much lower yields than conventional soy which does little to bring food costs down.

A report published by an organisation in the UK stated that GM crops have actually been disastrous from an economic perspective. Farm subsidies and lower crop prices as well as reduced availability of export markets because of a low acceptance of GM foods in large markets like Europe has resulted in an overall loss effect in the billions of dollars. This particular report did find GM crops to have a lower market value, compared to non-GM products.

It seems that attitudes against GM products have been a key factor in preventing the foods from being embraced. Due to the loss of export trade, the crop prices ultimately were reduced for GM crops and the government then stepped in with subsidies, which resulted in billions extra spent each year on GM crops, and as this money is in large part from public taxes, the cost of GM food and feed is high indeed. In contrast, globally, organic foods are experiencing rapid growth, although the industry may be threatened to some extent due to contamination of GM seeds from poor co-existence measures and mis-
handling of GM seed and end product in countries that allow the cultivation of GM crops.

Clearly, assessing the cost benefits of GM foods is difficult although some organisations are concluding quite adamantly that not only are there no cost benefits, but that GM results in losses to farmers,  the industry itself and ultimately the consumer where these products are mainstream. Add to this the damage to conventional and organic practices, and the overall picture is one of heavily subsidised, industrial farming practices that upset ecological balances and disrupt supply chains of other types of farming.

Is GM Better for the Environment?

This is a controversial question. Proponents claim that GM crops can reduce pesticide use and require fewer inputs, but what’s the real story?

One of the biggest threats to the environment is the damage to soil. Soil is an ecosystem in its own right, and farming practices damage its composition and nutrient content. The worst culprits are pesticides. These chemicals damage the fauna and flora that are such important components of the soil.
GM crops predominantly fit into two categories. Those which tolerate pesticides, and those which produce their own insecticides. Both of which threaten the health of the soil in which they grow.

Despite the many promises of the biotech industry to engineer plants to grow without fertiliser and tolerate extremes of climate, none of these promises have borne fruit. The problem lies with the genetic transformation. Genes that control stress tolerance and nutrient uptake are just too complex for scientists to replicate in a laboratory.

There are now problems with the GM crops that are commonly grown. Whereas the promises of herbicide tolerant crops were of easy weed control and fewer chemical applications, this is now not the case. These crops, like conventional crops, still require fertiliser, have ‘superweeds’ growing with the crop that are also now herbicide tolerant and so require stronger and different herbicides applying to control them. Plus the transformed crops also seem to be more susceptible to fungus and mildew, so must also be sprayed for this. This is hardly the reduction that was advertised.

The Bt crops- those which produce their own insecticide, produce a vast amount of the toxin, compared to the levels of naturally occurring toxin that it is derived from. It also produces toxins from every cell in the plant. This is effective against the target organisms for a time. Then the inevitable happens and just like the weeds, you get ‘super insects’ which are resistant, and then require more spraying to control. However, at the same time as killing off target organisms, there are concerns that the toxins within the plant affect non-target organisms like Monarch Butterflies.

Research was undertaken to test that this was not the case. The major conclusion of the research was that only one of several Bt-corn varieties (Event 176) approved and planted for use in the United States produced high enough levels of Bt toxin in pollen to be lethal to butterfly larvae. It is worrying that this research was conducted retrospectively, when it should have been done prior to approval for commercial planting. The regulatory bodies are playing fast and loose with the ecosystem that they are there to ‘protect’.

There are also indirect effects of Bt crops; the affect upon beneficial insects. Swiss researchers have shown that green lacewings, beneficial predatory insects, suffered a higher death rate and delayed development when fed European corn borers which had eaten Bt corn compared with lacewings fed borers given non-Bt corn.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, “other than for insect resistance, there is no systematic monitoring underway in the United States (the biggest grower of GM crops globally) to detect adverse effects of genetically modified crops. So much may be going on that we are simply not aware of.

There has been a notable near miss with the monarch butterfly, a situation that has much to teach about the weaknesses of the U.S. regulatory system.”

This is in the country that has apparently sophisticated environmental protection protocols. This makes the planting of GM crops in countries that don’t have such ‘stringent’ regulations very concerning for the environment.

Is GM a Precise Technology?

Supporters of GM claim that the modifying technique is quick and accurate, and can insert the desired gene for a desired trait quickly and with no disruption to the rest of the DNA.
This is a very optimistic claim.

The genetic modification process is multi stage process. The first step of this process is cutting and splicing genes using enzymes, and this is precise, but subsequent steps are not. The most critical stage is the process of inserting a genetically modified gene into the DNA of a cell. It is crude, uncontrolled, and imprecise, and causes mutations, which are then heritable in the DNA. This basically means that these changes are passed on from one generation to the next.

But manipulating one or two genes does not just produce one or two desired traits. The DNA is too complicated for that to be the case. Just a single change at the level of the DNA can give rise to multiple changes within the organism, many of which are unpredictable. These changes occur because genes do not act as isolated units but interact with one another. The functions and structures that the engineered genes confer can cause a cascade of effects within the organism.

Because of these diverse interactions, and because even the simplest organism is extremely complex, it is impossible to predict the impacts of even a single genetically modified gene on the organism.
The unintended changes in the plant could include alterations in the nutritional content of the food, toxic and allergenic effects, poor crop performance, and generation of characteristics that harm the environment.