GM biotechnology first appeared in 1983, producing an antibiotic-resistant tobacco plant. It emerged in the food industry in 1994 with the Flavr Savr tomato and has since become one of the most hotly debated issues in agriculture and green politics.
It is both uniting and divisive, science and ideology, representing hope and despair.
In truth, we have been changing ecosystems and natural patterns all over the world for at least the last 10,000 years. We have domesticated wild animals, changed the course of rivers and wiped out species we didn’t even know existed.
So why is that growing GM crops generates such emotions?
Biotech giants run the gauntlet of a disapproving public while farmers fight increasing climate change and harvest failures. Stubbornness to look beyond the very basics has left many wondering what the issue is and, indeed, what the arguing is about.
How Does GM Biotechnology Work?
Genetic manipulation has existed for thousands of years, whether at the direction of human needs or a chance exchange in nature. The technique of genetically modifying plants via biotechnology takes things several steps further.
The process involves the insertion of a gene (or number of genes) into the genome of the host. There are two methods of insertion.
The first involves small metal particles that are coated with the relevant DNA which are then bombarded into the plant cells.
In the second method, the relevant DNA is inserted into a bacterium (the most commonly used is the Agrobacterium tumefaciens) which adds the DNA to a new plant as it grows. The additional genes are expected to produce certain abilities, whether it be to help a plant become disease resistant or develop resistance to certain herbicides or insecticides.
As is usually the case, these variations come from plants within the same species group though sometimes a specific gene has to come from another species if that necessary gene doesn’t exist within the group.
Each plant typically contains approximately 30,000 genes; the GM process adds between 1 and 10 genes.
Advancements and our knowledge about plant genes is reportedly growing and picking precise genes to help with improving sustainable food production is becoming easier.
GM Biotechnology Applications
GM crops have a range of important applications, most of which are interlinked.
Food security and crop protection top the list; resistance to diseases and, if possible, drought-resistance are becoming ever more important as weather patterns are being altered due to the effects of climate change.
Storing and transporting crops over vast distances can lead to the loss of up to 20%. GM crops are hardier and better designed for food travel.
The second goal of UNICEF’s Sustainable Development Goals is to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture”. GM biotechnology can certainly make a strong contribution towards that.
The ability of GM crops to be resistant to drought and disease can help harvests to succeed, ensuring financial security for the farmer as well as providing goods for the market. This can, in turn, potentially result in a lowering of global prices for crops.
By being able to grow crops in famine affected areas as well as those struggling with climate change, food security can be improved to help those that need it the most, providing much needed nutrition.
Certain GM crops also reduce the need for herbicides and insecticides. Data from the US Geological Survey has shown that the amount of toxins and insecticides have fallen by a third. This means less financial expenditure for a farmer while also being beneficial to the environment.
Excessive farming can result in soil degradation, leaving land unusable and spoilt. One of the biggest problems this planet has is deforestation to provide more farmland, the rate at which this happens can be slowed down by GM crops.
GM Crops – The Stats!
As of 2015, 28 countries are growing GM crops, covering a area of about 180 million hectares, covering 10% of the world’s arable land. The USA, Argentina and Brazil and the current leading producers.
There have, however, been no GM fresh fruit or vegetables approved for consumption in the EU. Despite this, meat, milk and eggs that come from animals fed by GM crops, are being eaten by people in many different countries, including the UK.
83% of the world’s production of soybean, 29% of maize production and 75% of cotton production come from GM crops. Cotton is not just used as fibre, it also provides cooking oil, ingredients and animal feed. It would be naive not to recognize that GM biotechnology already plays a large part in agriculture.
Yet the potential of GM biotechnology has not been fulfilled.
The intention of higher-yield crops has not appeared as successfully as was first suggested. While the USA and Canada embraced the technology, Europe largely rejected it. There is little to show that GM crops have significantly higher crop yields in the US or Canada than those of Europe. Research has shown that the use of herbicides in the US have risen by 21%. By comparison, use of insecticides and fungicides have fallen by 65% in France and herbicides by 36%.
Arguments against GM Crops
There is no scientific evidence to indicate that GM crops are unsafe to eat. Alarmist reports are unsubstantiated and tend to become the focus of the GM issue rather that the lack of success that it is supposed to provide.
Regulations are in place to test case-by-case products before they are introduced into the market, evaluating whether they are any less or more different from those foods already available for consumption.
The fight against GM crops is more of an ideological battle, less to do with the technical aspects and more of an emotional stance. The belief that nature shouldn’t be altered is natural but external factors, such as climate change and pollution, cast a shadow over this belief.
The fact is the environment and ecosystems are changing and methods or survival and success are going to have to adapt to this. So what this becomes is more of an issue regarding the business of GM biotechnology.
Business of GM Biotechnology
In 2001, EMBO Reports published ‘Public Perceptions of Agricultural Biotechnologies in Europe’ in which it was found that the public had key questions regarding biotechnology, many of which still remain unanswered.
A number of these focus on the business aspect, such as: ‘why were we not better informed about their use in our food, before their arrival on the market?’, ‘ why are we not given an effective choice about whether or not to buy these products?’ and ‘do regulatory authorities have sufficient powers to effectively regulate large companies?’.
The inability to assertively inform the public about these issues is what has contributed significantly towards the deep suspicion of GM technology.
It is these suspicions that affect the business potential of GM crops. The controversy surrounding Monsanto’s ‘terminator’ seeds lives on in anti-GM protests and literature despite the product never actually having been commercially available.
The issue of the rate of suicide amongst Indian farmers was linked to GM crops and their cost. Many GM seeds are more expensive than standard seeds leading farmers taking on more debt in order to purchase GM seeds.
But suicides have sadly been quite a common occurrence before GM seeds went on sale, suggesting that this is a result of the industry not the technology.
Government and corporate attitudes to seed technology have not helped with public perception either. The North America Free Trade Agreement required members to join the Union for the Protection of New Plant Varieties (UPOV) which gives companies the rights to prevent farmers from using second generation seeds.
While this rightly protects intellectual property, the insertion of this demand into trade agreements favours companies ahead of farmers. The firms that own the seeds continue to seek monopolies on the industry in countries where farm-saved seeds are regularly used to force governments to adopt laws that require the use of patented seeds.
GM Crops and the Future
GM biotechnology is a piece of the puzzle but it cannot provide food security on its own. The rapid increase in global population demands that something be done and innovation is required. Without doubt many other things need to change but GM tech offers a positive path that could be taken.
The early promises have yet to be fulfilled but that doesn’t mean without the proper effort and development that they couldn’t be achieved.
GM crops have not yet overtaken conventionally grown crops but climate change may alter that.
The crops that farmers grow follow trends of demand and supply but this too may have to change to focus on nutritional requirements or we may risk laying a huge potential medical problem on already over-burdened global health services.
The questions raised by the public need to be answered and more transparency is needed when it comes to production and commercialisation.
Customers will remain wary of products that governments allow companies to hide the production process.
But customers also need to be more willing to look at the scientific arguments and not just follow ideology. GM tech continues to divide opinion but at the current rate of environmental deterioration it may one day become the only option.