The 2nd article in the series: 7 reasons to choose organic – an in-depth look at the issue of organic vs conventional produce.
An analysis of GMO crop success and sustainability
Can GM crops fight malnourishment, create healthier fruits & vegetables, feed the growing population, keep food prices affordable and farming sustainable, all more effectively, more cheaply and faster than other traditional breeding programs?
Or do they have a questionable record of safety, along with inadequate testing and regulatory processes? And are therefore resulting in negative impacts on the environment, biodiversity, and your health.
A recent report by the USA National Academy of Sciences (NAS) brought a curious mix of headlines from worldwide media. These ranged from enthusiastic claims that 300 Nobel Prize winners have declared GM foods to be safe and able to deliver higher yields for farmers, to more considered stories that discussed the report’s call for increased transparency around regulations and testing.
From other sources you can find in depth analysis on the details of the 400 page report, and on just how much research has been glossed over by mainstream media. Or how 11 of the 20 person committee have biotech industry affiliations. And yet other sites that call such inspection of details ‘scaremongering’.
Taken in total, this multitude of differing opinions around the NAS findings indicate that the GM ‘debate’ is far from resolved. Even the report’s lead author was careful to say that it is impossible to give an authoritative answer, despite the public’s hope for one.
So why are GM foods such a loaded topic?
Arguably, the issue of GM crops is even more divisive than the issue of climate change. And despite the fact the argument is often portrayed as an issue of science vs activists and luddites, the real reason for divisiveness is more complex.
In search of some clarity, I set out to address these questions over a two part series:
- After 20 years of commercialisation, how well have GMOs lived up to their promises?
- Is there enough research to confirm that GMOs are safe for human consumption?
- Is there any substantial difference between GE technology and traditional crop breeding?
- Is it anti-science to be anti-GMO?
- How well do geneticists understand how genes behave in the real world?
- Should decisions on the roll-out of GM crops be based solely on science, or do we need to take other things into account?
What are GMOs & GE technology?
For those unsure of terminology, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) result from modifying a plant or animal’s genome using genetic engineering (GE). In this country, the Australian Gene Technology Regulator authorises the use of GMOs that it has concluded are safe to humans and the environment.
GE biotechnology works outside the natural limits of genetic diversity in a species through artificially introducing novel traits that would be impossible to incorporate using traditional breeding methods.
The resulting crops are also referred to as ‘transgenic’ as the inserted (foreign) DNA is present in every cell.
Some GE efforts focus on reducing the time conventional plant breeding takes to create new varieties with increased yields, drought tolerance, improved flavour or better colour.
However the most commercially successful transgenic crops are either herbicide tolerant or insect resistant.
In a few cases, a single GE crop may contain 2 or more ‘genes of interest’ in ‘stacked’ traits.
The major GM insect resistant (IR) crops use specific genes taken from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a common soil bacterium, to produce proteins that are toxic to certain insect pests. Bt corn (maize) now accounts for 30% of worldwide plantings of maize.
The most widely adopted GE trait is tolerance to certain herbicides, such as Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybeans. In 2015, 83% of the world’s soybean plantings were GM herbicide tolerant (HT) crops. And herbicide tolerant canola accounted for 24% of all canola. Source: ISAAA
Even though around 50 different GM plants have been approved for use, very few of them are currently being grown, and some, like the Bt potato, have been discontinued.
What GM crops are grown in Australia?
While Australia ranks no 13 on the list of biotech producers, currently, the only GMOs grown in Australia are HT canola and ‘stacked’ trait cotton.
The CSIRO has been trialling GM wheat for improved crop yields, digestibility of protein, drought and frost tolerance.
There is also research underway on bananas, rice, corn, pineapple, papayas, barley and sugarcane. Traits being engineered include insect resistance, herbicide tolerance, colour, oil production, sugar composition, flowering and fruit development.
Genetically modified crop stats:
- 2015 marked the 20th year since GMOs were first commercialised.
- The top 5 growers are USA, Brazil, Argentina, India & Canada who produce over 89% of all transgenic crops.
- Of the 179.7million hectares planted worldwide, over 54% are planted by small-scale farmers in developing countries – mostly in Argentina, Brazil and India.
- 98% of transgenic crops grown worldwide are the Big 4: soybeans (51.25%), maize (29.8%), canola (4.7%), or cotton (13.34%).
Source: International Service for the Acquisition of Biotech Applications (ISAAA)
How well have GMOs lived up to their promises?
20 years on from initial commercialisation, has GE technology increased yields, reduced pesticide use and improved farming practices?
How far have it come in increasing the nutrition of certain foods for the world’s malnourished people?
To be viable over the long-term sustainable farming should:
- Sustain farmers economically while it also takes care of the environment, and maintains healthy soils and waterways.
- Consider the wellbeing of farmers, local communities, and consumers in general (e.g: by minimising exposure to risk or toxins).
- Support biodiversity including natural predators and pollinators, as well as species that are just ‘innocent bystanders’.
- Provide sufficient quantities of nutrient dense food to consumers, including those facing hunger or malnutrition.
Has GE technology improved farming practices?
Like any business farmers are always looking for ways to improve their bottom line. And, as with most industries, various technologies promise to do this.
However, because the complex system of farming depends on so many other factors (climate, soil & water quality, individual farmer’s knowledge, market forces etc) simplistic solutions will invariably cause an imbalance.
Can GM crops help farmers be more economically sustainable?
Agronomy experts worldwide have been encouraging the monocultivation of staple crops since long before GM seeds came on the scene. Putting resources into planting one large crop provides economies of scale for farmers, reducing costs and simplifying things like pest control, transportation and processing. Thus, since the Green Revolution monocultivation has been advocated as the best option if farmers want to have a viable business.
A 2010 article by David Zilberman of University of California Berkeley, and others, assessed economic benefits for farmers who’ve taken up GM crops. The authors pointed out that while experts predicted insect resistant (IR) crops would show higher yields and reduced pesticide use, it was thought that HT traits would reduce damage to crops but not necessarily boost overall yield.
Gains are expected to come to farmers over the longer term, via time and money saved from less work on managing pests, and reduced exposure to toxic pesticides for the farm workers.
However, as more land is planted to single large crops such as corn or soy, the increased supply reduces the price farmers get for their crop. The idea is that for most this should balance out against reduced costs, but benefits have fluctuated for US farmers.
Importantly, Zilberman’s report notes that the majority of the economic benefits accrue to the ‘innovators’ (the seed and chemical companies) who see 5%-30% more economic gains than do the farmers.
Narrowing the farmer’s seed options increases risks of crop failure
Increasing the quantity of cropping area planted with GM seeds has further intensified monocultivation in the sense that where GE seeds predominate genetic variety is narrowed.
As GM corn and soy come to dominate the US farming lands, market forces narrow the seed genetics available to other farmers, including organic farmers and those in the developing world. However not all seeds do well in all climates. Genetically uniform seeds are bred to grow well with all external conditions being equal, but local conditions such as serious droughts or a virulent pest, etc can mean massive crop loss for multiple farmers, impacting farming communities as well as food prices.
And strict intellectual property (IP) laws for the GM seeds that farmers increasingly rely on, concentrate the price-setting power of suppliers. Legally farmers can’t save and replant seeds but need to buy them year after year. Thus they become vulnerable to seed price increases eroding their profits.
The USDA reported that relative to 1994, seed prices have risen by 140% compared to an increase of 80% for other US farm inputs.
Variation in seed genetics, and saving your own seed, can offer a kind of ‘crop insurance’, especially for farmers in the developing world who are more vulnerable to cost of inputs.
The impact of this on farmers has the potential to be worse for communities in developing countries. The on-the-ground experience of Bangladeshi farmers, who’ve narrowed their diverse brinjal crops down to planting just Bt brinjal seeds, doesn’t match the rhetoric of major research institutions touting their success.
For these farmers the GM crop may fix a major pest, yet fail to deal with other issues. Reduced yield or even crop failure in a GM staple crop leaves these farmers unable to feed their families. Or unable to buy more seed to try again next year.
And when GM crops fail to meet expectations and yields drop, the seed companies and agronomists shunt the blame back to the farmers.
Have GM crops increased yields?
Increased yields are seen as the solution to food shortages, and this has become a measure of crop success. It’s also been hyped as the only way to provide enough food for everyone by 2050. (I’ll be looking at this issue more in depth in a later blog).
Higher yields also mean more profits to farmers who are paid per tonne of crop harvested.
The NAS report of May 2016, stated that it was ‘somewhat unclear’ whether GE technology has actually increased crop yields.
Meanwhile, a recent report by the association of global agrochemical companies CropLife International showed Australian GM canola growers have had both increased yields and reduced pesticide use. On the surface this appears to be a good thing, putting aside the fact that it’s in CropLife’s best interests to show how much GM canola benefits Aussie farmers – in other words they’re hardly a neutral data source.
However, canola has only been growing here since 2007. What if these farmers are in the ‘honeymoon period’ as compared to 20 years of GM herbicide tolerant crops in the US? Or what if yield is more influenced by other factors?
Long term analysis in US shows that GM crops don’t improve yields when compared to conventional crops, and pesticide use has actually increased.
And in India, where about 90% of cotton is now Bt cotton, yields are actually dropping, for reasons as yet unclear.
This is not surprising because, despite the claims, the majority of GM crops haven’t been engineered specifically to increase yields.
GE aims to enhance the potential for a crop to yield well by giving it a ‘head start’ on surviving predatory insects or competitive weeds. And as Zilberman’s report indicated, experts theorised an improvement in Bt crop yields but didn’t actually expect any major differences in HT crop yield. In support of the theory, a 2014 report by USDA noted that operational yields of GM crops are more tied to the original parent cultivar than to GE traits.
Any farmer can tell you that yield itself is the result of multiple factors: the genomics of your chosen seed, prevalent pests and diseases, soil health, good farming practices and unpredictable weather, to name a few.
Has GE technology reduced pesticide use?
With the introduction of insect-resistant (IR) and herbicide-tolerant varieties (HT) one promise of GE was reduction in use of pesticides. Using less pesticides, saves time, money, and the farmer’s health. Based on these promises, many farmers were quick to adopt HT crops, to the point where 83% of the world’s soybeans are now the HT variety.
But the claims to reduce pesticide use are not holding up over the long term.
A 2013 study by Jack Heinemann from the University of Canterbury, and others, casts doubts on the sustainability record of major GM crops. The study showed that GE technology has brought no significant reduction in long term pesticide use for US or Canadian farmers. Nor has it improved crop yields compared to Western Europe over the same period.
The researchers looked at pesticide use and yield, per arable hectare, for maize, canola, soybeans, cotton & wheat (a non-GM crop) in the US. They then compared the data to the same crops in Western Europe, which has not taken up GMOs.
By 2007 (the latest data available in US) insecticide use had only dropped to 85% of the pre GM crop levels (1995). Meanwhile, over the same period, farmers in France growing non-GM crops, managed to reduce insecticide use to 24% of 1995 levels.
Herbicide use in the US had actually risen to 108% of 1995 levels, while farmers in Western Europe, even without planting HT crops, managed a very small reduction to 94% of 1995 levels.
Most HT crops are engineered to resist glyphosate, and the use of this herbicide has increased exponentially – more of it has been applied in the last 10 years then in it’s previous 30 year history.
To be fair only about 56% of glyphosate usage is on HT crops, and about 10% of worldwide usage is on parks and gardens. That means approximately one third of it is being used for a wide variety of applications in conventional agriculture, such as pre-harvest ‘drying-down’ of the crop, and no-till farming.
The NAS report was unable to definitively say that GM crops had decreased the use of pesticides.
No doubt this is because the data is confused by the increase in glyphosate use, beyond HT crops, and the fact that neonicotinoid pesticide treatments are still being applied to Bt seeds to combat non-Bt susceptible pests.
Do GMOs encourage the use of safer pesticides?
Glyphosate is considered somewhat of a star in the pesticide world ( it ‘offers significant environmental and other benefits’ in comparison to the technologies it replaces, making it ‘virtually ideal’ according to Duke and Powles). Add to its halo of safety the simplicity and ease of applying just one pesticide and you can see why farmers quickly adopted HT crops.
Using GM crops in combination with glyphosate has helped to develop conservation tillage (no-till) farming, a method that conserves precious topsoil lost to ploughing of weeds prior to planting. This is considered a major contribution to agricultural sustainability.
However there are signs that over the long term no-till farming may exacerbate pollution of waterways.
It has been known for some time that glyphosate can alter soil microbes but some experts have tended to insist ‘results can’t be interpreted yet’.
This may be more a state of denial aimed at preserving glyphosate’s star-like qualities, because its ‘sustainable’ uses have been called into question by multiple studies into the impact of its unique mode of action (it affects an enzymatic pathway only found in plants and bacteria) on soil health.
A 2016 study found that Roundup (the active ingredient is glyphosate) is toxic to a valuable soil fungi, even when applied below the recommended dosages.
Apparently we are to read this as a case of hazard (it’s probably a carcinogen) mediated by exposure (how much of it and how often), to arrive at probable risk (the levels we consume in food).
But all this shilly-shallying over whether glyphosate is or is not a ‘probable’ cause of cancer misses the point that cancer is only one of a multitude of health issues we need to be concerned about when it comes to pesticide use.
The 72% rise in glyphosate use just in the last 10 years is reflected in regulators like the EPA in the US permitting much higher ‘safe residue levels’. Up to 30x more than 1999 levels are now allowed for US crops such as wheat and oats.
Following the ‘hazard + exposure = risk’ scenario, with it’s safety now in question, increased prevalence means increased risk – to farmers, soils and consumers.
“Few studies have provided integrated assessments of the effects of GE crops on ecological services at the landscape scale.”
LaReesa Wolfenbarger, Micheal D. K. Owen, and Yves Carrière: Environmental Opportunities and Challenges of Genetically-Engineered Crops.
Do GMOs and GE companies support biodiversity?
Biotech corporations like Syngenta are attempting to co-opt the high-ground of sustainable farming declaring that their technology supports biodiversity. However the only basis for this claim appears to be reduced pesticide use, and we’ve already seen that this just isn’t the case.
University of Minnesota’s Karen Oberhauser is convinced the massive decline in Monarch butterfly populations is due to loss of their food source milkweed, which has been exterminated by over-use of glyphosate in many crops.
Bt crops appear to have a ‘halo affect’ where there’s a decrease in targeted insects in the whole region, not just within the Bt crop. However, other pests can come to the fore when Bt pests are suppressed, meaning farmers still have to use chemical controls.
And the big questions about the impact of Bt pollen on insect predators and pollinators remain unanswered.
While it’s well known that GM traits can ‘escape’ the field and propagate with related non-GM plants, there’s much contention over whether this presents an issue. Scientists can only speculate on the full impacts, since ecological systems are complex arrangements of interdependent elements. For example, genetic diversity may be reduced in non-GM relatives, or valued species could be lost. Crop yields could be affected due to invasive weeds that are wild relatives of the GM crops. Non-target species could be affected by changes in their food or habitat.
On a human level, the impact of this flow of GM traits into non-GM crops is clear. It threatens the livelihoods of organic farmers – and ultimately threatens the availability of non-GM food to consumers.
Pests are becoming resistant to pesticides
The rise of superweeds
Putting aside the questionable wisdom of allowing more glyphosate residues in our food crops, the over-application of one chemical leads to a ‘selective pressure’ that helps resistant weeds get the upper hand, creating legions of ‘superweeds’.
It wasn’t as if farmers and researchers didn’t expect this to happen.
It had already happened with the previous ‘most popular’ herbicide atrazine, which has the dubious distinction of having created more than 60 resistant weed species. “Any ecologist would have predicted this, and many did,” said Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist and plant pathologist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
But, 20 years ago Monsanto and the EPA considered such a scenario ‘unlikely’, which at best, can be described as wilful ignoring of ecological facts.
However, when a company produces a crop designed to tolerate a specific herbicide that the company already sells, it sounds more like PR spin than good business sense when that same crop promises to reduce pesticide use.
And in fact the reality bears this out. In the last 10 years glyphosate has far outstripped it’s competition (such as atrazine) in terms of worldwide application. And the ‘hypothetical’ debate on glyphosate resistant super weeds 20 years ago has now come to fruition.
Bt resistance is beginning to emerge
Meanwhile, over in the corn fields of US (GM maize varieties count for 89% of corn hectarage), there’s increasing evidence that insects are evolving resistance to the various Bt traits.
Since 2010 corn farmers who’ve noticed resistant insects have gone back to applying the old pesticides to the crops. There is debate over whether this is really necessary or it’s a scare-mongering profit-drive on part of pesticide makers.
However, a recent 2016 study shows broad-spectrum insect resistance to Bt crops, and raises ‘concerns about the long-term durability of Bt crops for management of some insect pests.’
Researchers blame bad farming practices encouraged by both seed companies and the EPA, although, as with Bt cotton it may be a case of blaming the farmer for the failures of science.
Regardless of whose fault, resistant insects are emerging. Like engineering a crop to resist a specific herbicide, engineering Bt pesticide into a crop is now looking like it’s not such a smart idea after all.
The implications go beyond the trait failure of Bt crops because Bt soil bacteria is commonly sprayed on many non-GE crops, including organic crops, to resist the same pest. When Bt toxin is used organically as a spray, applied at specific growth cycles of the pest, it then breaks down in UV light. However in Bt crops, where the plant itself is the pesticide, its constant presence creates the same ‘selection pressure’ as the over-generous applications of glyphosate herbicides.
Thus world-wide spread of bt crops is now endangering an effective organic pesticide.
“Most scientists agree that the development of resistant insect populations is a potential hazard associated with the use of genetically engineered Bt crops. These crops currently lack additional insecticidal components or synergistic compounds found in Bt spores that might act to prevent or delay development of resistance.”
Transgenic Crops, an introduction and resource guide from Colorado State University.
In the end you can’t beat nature’s powers of adaptation
Traditional crop pests are varied and notoriously complex. Biotech scientists continue to believe the answer to pest’s growing resistance is new GM crops that resist a wider variety of pesticides, or contain a wider variety of Bt toxins.
Dow chemicals were clearly aware of looming threat of herbicide resistance, and by 2010 had already engineered a soybean resistant to a new pesticide cocktail of 2,4-D (considered more toxic) and glyphosate called Enlist Duo. Monsanto has since introduced a soybean resistant to a mix of dicamba and Roundup, which is already causing problems for farmers.
Because the active pesticide ingredients have already been approved no new studies are required, even though there is mounting concern that pesticides are more toxic in combination. In 2014 Canada and USA approved GM maize and soybeans, despite many reservations due to risks Enlist Duo and other pesticide cocktails pose for non-target species.
Adding more pesticide resistant traits also negates the claim that GM crops reduce farmers’ exposure to pesticides.
Like many plant ecologists David Mortensen, a professor at Penn State University, points out that these new pesticide approaches will lose their effectiveness as well.
It’s hard not to agree with his prognostication. Even with at least 24 glyphosate-resistant weed species arising since the introduction of Roundup-tolerant crops, and targeted insects becoming resistant to Bt toxins, it appears that industrial agriculture has still not learnt the lesson that nature cannot be beaten – it must be worked with.
“In our view, the science and the risk assessment supporting the Enlist Duo decision are flawed. The science consisted solely of toxicologic studies commissioned by the herbicide manufacturers in the 1980s and 1990s and never published… These studies predated current knowledge of low-dose, endocrine-mediated, and epigenetic effects and were not designed to detect them… It failed to consider ecologic impact, such as effects on the monarch butterfly and other pollinators. It considered only pure glyphosate, despite studies showing that formulated glyphosate that contains surfactants and adjuvants is more toxic than the pure compound.”
GMOs, Herbicides, and Public Health. Philip J. Landrigan, M.D., and Charles Benbrook, Ph.D.,New England Journal of Medicine, August 20, 2015.
How do we effectively feed the world?
One of the most hyped claims made by biotech industry is the potential for GM crops to feed the world via higher yields, with traits that allow crops to grow in poor soils and drought conditions, all while having enhanced shelf-life and quality, plus tolerance to insects, disease and herbicides.
However after 20 years, 98% of viable GM crops focus on just 2 traits – herbicide and insecticide tolerance. And since most of these (soybeans & maize) end up as animal feed, ethanol fuel and industrial additives, they are not getting food into the stomachs of the hungry in the developing world.
Over the long term there doesn’t appear to be appreciable differences in crop yields or pest control to justify claims that the current GM crops are the only way we’ll have enough food for the expected global population in 2050.
“Business as usual is not an option”
In 2009 the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) brought together a broad collection of expertise from diverse cultures to clarify a sustainable path for agriculture.
The most significant finding was that the majority of the world’s food is produced by small-scale farmers, and the report saw a more viable future in moving away from ‘high-external-input-dependent industrial production agriculture’.
The report called for “a thorough and radical overhaul of present international and national agricultural policies” if we are to meet the enormous challenges of the 21st century.
Not too surprisingly both Syngenta and CropLife International walked out of the IAASTD process. Such a future vision of agriculture threatens their bottom line. And at the final plenary session USA, Canada and Australia refused to sign the report, even as these governments mouthed platitudes about the report being a “valuable and important contribution”.
In both cases it was due to the critical assessment of the role that GM crops and industrial agriculture play in a sustainable future for all.
Staple crops and food security
Agroecology shows yield is increased and pests reduced by more sustainable practices like crop rotations and mixed cropping. However, this approach is not favoured by big agricultural corporations, not least because there’s no profit in it for them.
Maize is the world’s largest staple crop and the US grows the lion’s share of this (55%).
Of course it’s not all being eaten. About 40% goes into ethanol fuel. And a large number of industries now use it in a wide variety of things from plastic bags to antibiotics, textile dyes to building supplies.
The US plans to grow the market for maize but when there’s an increased dependency on one food type, which is also in demand for industrial applications, crop failures have the potential to produce higher prices and food shortages in those countries that can least afford to buy it.
Thus, over reliance on staple crops like maize, and encouraging more farmers worldwide to depend on one crop, can actually threaten rather than increase food security.
Are there effective GE Drought-resistant crops?
When it comes to developing drought resistant traits, conventional breeding is still leading the race – and at a much lower research cost.
The Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa project launched in 2006 with a budget of US$33 million. By 2014 it had developed 153 new varieties which yield up to 30% more in drought conditions, while a comparable GM variety is still a decade away. Researchers acknowledge that conventional breeding ‘will probably have a greater impact’ but still feel they must ‘consider all the options’.
To date those options aren’t that impressive. The USDA noted that Monsanto’s DroughtGard had not improved on conventionally bred crops in either yield or water use.
Many genes control a plant’s drought tolerance, but it’s also connected to external variables like soil quality, and timing and severity of the dry period. This presents a greater challenge to genetic engineers who work with a few genes at a time, whereas conventional breeders are working with whole plant qualities (i.e multiple genes and epigenetic response to environments).
The saga of Golden Rice
For anyone who’s been listening to the GM debate you will have heard a lot about golden rice. It’s often presented as the answer to blindness and death for millions of malnourished children worldwide.
While enriching rice with beta-carotene to save people’s eyesight sounds like a noble pursuit, after 24 years and millions of dollars in research, the rice is still not ready for market.
And despite recent hype about 107 Nobel Laureates calling for ‘activists’ to stop obstructing poor people’s access to the rice, it simply hasn’t passed field research or regulatory approval yet. In what looks more like a headline-grabbing PR stunt than a humanitarian gesture, the Nobel winners have actually revealed their ignorance of the real story behind golden rice.
It’s also questionable whether the beta-carotene could effectively be absorbed by poor kids. A recent paper showed that the rice ‘worked’ when accompanied by a diet of 20% fat, including pork and egg. If such foods were available daily to malnourished children it’s likely they wouldn’t be malnourished in the first place.
Like many simplistic answers, the premise behind beta-carotene rice may be flawed. Nutritionist Marion Nestle considers Golden Rice a highly technical approach to solving a problem that is actually due to cultural and economic issues.
The focus on golden rice as the golden solution doesn’t solve poverty, the real cause of the deficiency. And a healthy diet depends not just on eating rice with one vitamin, but on a spectrum of nutrition, where a multitude of vitamins, minerals and other elements work synergistically. The research money spent on golden rice could have been better spent improving impoverished people’s access to a diversity of fresh fruits and vegetables available in tropical countries like the Philippines.
Meanwhile, as millions of dollars continue to be spent developing the rice, the Philippines has already made progress in reducing the Vitamin A deficiency by using supplements to slash the rate from 40% to 15%.
Two decades later it’s a good thing children in the Philippines aren’t still waiting for golden rice to provide the solution.
Changing oils with high-oleic soybeans
Commercially available since 2010, the GM high-oleic soybean is higher in Omega-9 oils and has lower levels of Omega-6, making it more like olive oil than other types of soybean oil. It’s main application is to offer the fast food industry a cheaper, heat-stable alternative to hydrogenated oils.
However, omega ratios are only one of a multitude of nutritional problems associated with processed food, which are increasingly acknowledged as the cause for major chronic diseases like obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
So does the high-oleic soybean simply offer a panacea that enables the fast food industry to present the illusion of being ‘healthier’?
In the developed world we now have people with the bizarre combination of obesity and malnutrition, so after all, perhaps there is some justification to GM claims of helping the malnourished people of the world?
Let’s talk about the money
In 2015, the global market value of biotech crops was US$15.3 billion. In comparison, by 2015, the global organic market was estimated at more than $80 billion, having experienced double-digit growth for the last few years.
Consumers in countries like the US and Australia are feeling distrustful of GMOs in their food. And when the only way to be sure that we’re not eating them is to eat certified organics, this certainly translates into a threat for the profit margins of the agricultural biotech corporations.
The research that goes into creating one GM crop is very expensive – ranging anywhere from $100 million to $136 million per trait, according to corn geneticist Dr Major Goodman.
A third of GM trait research costs go to regulatory science and registration costs, but even without this it’s still a far more expensive approach for dealing with complex issues like drought tolerance and nutrition. And when you’re spending that kind of money, you want to be sure of a return on your investment. Which can make the development of GM crops a high stakes game.
An assessment by PG Economics, a consulting firm in Dorchester, UK found GM crops managed to make an 8.9% improvement to environmental impact, when compared to conventional crops.
Considering the cost of developing GM crops one wonders if an 8.9% improvement really has enough substance to translate into GE saving the world with more sustainable farming practices.
So what’s the lowdown on GMO’s contribution to a sustainable world?
Challenges of yield, droughts and pests, have not been effectively solved by GE technology, and reliance on seeds guarded by IP increases the costs of inputs (even if these may be initially offset by lower pesticide use).
In addition, can a system that makes farmers dependent on buying seeds meet the requirements for a sustainable agricultural future for the developing world?
There is also the issue that increasing reliance on a few staple GM crops further reduces seed options, and actually puts more pressure on food security rather than alleviates it.
In places like the US, and India massive uptake of crops with specific GE traits has created selection pressure for targeted insects and weeds to evolve resistance. The surge in glyphosate use and attendant weed resistance can’t solely be blamed on GM crops, however, GMOs are still part of the problem not the solution.
In other words GM seeds can’t offer a solution to an unsustainable agricultural system by simply slotting neatly into the existing paradigm of industrial farming.
This is evident because after 20 years GE technology has not changed the agricultural practices that were already damaging the environment and well-being of humans and other species. And the solution offered to the problems of pest resistance, which the technology has been instrumental in perpetuating, is new GM crops resistant to a variety of pesticides, with the potential to be more toxic for those who grow them and eat them. Not to mention everything else that inhabits the eco-system.
Biotech presents the picture that it is just the messy approval processes that are holding back the big gains in GE technology (or in case of golden rice its GM activists ). And improving regulation will ‘generate the conditions under which GE technologies can provide greater welfare improvements and promote environmental sustainability’.
But the reality is that it takes many years before a transgenic crop reliably does what it’s designed to do.
And even then, can we be sure that its new genes are only doing what they’ve been engineered to do?
The other thing you’ll often hear is that there is a scientific consensus that GM foods are safe, and this is often promoted as the basis for reducing regulation requirements. But just how scientific are these claims of safety, and do they have any real basis in fact?
That’s a question I’ll consider in part 2.
Resources for further information: