Could GM crops be making a quiet comeback? When the technology first arrived in the 1980s, it faced a huge backlash, and GM crops have never been grown in the UK except for tightly controlled experimental trials. But with the world population growing, the climate changing and food security becoming increasingly precarious, will GM crops be the thing that saves us? I am neither an advocate nor an opponent of GM crops, so this article aims to examine them from a neutral scientific perspective.
In September, Professor Keith Lindsey from Durham University gave a stimulating and even-handed talk on GM crops for the Botanical Society of Edinburgh. He touched on the PR disaster that accompanied the introduction of GM crops to a European audience by the company Monsanto (regarded as a corporate super-villain by green campaigners of the time), which made the mistake of pushing forward the technology without any thought for whether the public wanted it.
The backlash was immediate, uniting the unlikely bedfellows of the right-wing tabloid press (‘Frankenstein foods!’) and environmental groups, driving public opinion that would otherwise have been largely indifferent to coalesce against the technology. The result was not quite an outright ban, but a regulatory process in Europe that is so convoluted and challenging that only one GMO has ever been approved for human consumption, a type of maize that was only grown in five countries. Even so, some think the approval process still not rigorous enough. Meanwhile, large quantities of GM crops are consumed by farm animals, none of whom read the Daily Mail and are hence largely unconcerned about it.
Now however, the right-wing press is too busy defending the indefensible (Brexit and the Tories) and fighting their culture war to bother much about GM. Meanwhile prominent environmentalist Mark Lynas has reversed his opposition to GM, stating like a true scientist that evidence has made him change his mind. The WWF, which wanted a full moratorium on GM technology in 1999, now takes a more nuanced position and drops in a non-critical mention of GM technology in a lengthy article on sustainable food production. This parallels to some extend what has happened with nuclear power, which environmentalists and others may not like very much, but now is vastly preferable to climate-wrecking fossil fuels.
Here are some examples of GM crops, and differences in their regulation
European regulations treat all GM crops the same, but the USA considers them on a case-by-case basis, e.g. considering whether the specific gene inserted might be toxic or allergenic to humans. For once, I think the USA has got it entirely right. Let us consider the three examples of GM crops Prof Lindsey’s talk highlighted, all of which are now commercially grown outside of Europe.
First, there are GM soybeans that have been modified to be resistant to the herbicide glyphosate (Roundup). That means that fields of it can be sprayed with glyphosate to kill all other plants, leaving the soybeans standing and benefitting the farmer. On the plus side, glyphosate supposedly does not last more than six months in the soil and should not get into groundwater, but increased amounts of the herbicide have been detected in soybeans from this crop. So, I can’t say I’m enamoured of any advance that has greatly increased the spraying of poison into the environment.
Modifying crops to make them pest-resistant, however, has the opposite effect, reducing pesticide use. Instead of spraying insecticides onto a field of crops, killing any and all insects in the vicinity, genetically modifying a crop so that it makes that insecticide itself ensures that only species that try to eat its leaves will be affected (it won’t get into the nectar). Meanwhile, modifying tomatoes to soften more slowly is a boon to developing world farmers who have a much better chance of getting them to market or even to western supermarkets.
So the first example arguably leads to environmental harm, but the second to environmental benefits, and the third to less food waste. Of course, GM technology is not inherently evil, so its products should be considered on a case-by-case basis.
The two great fears around GM are both greatly exaggerated
What of the great fears about GM crops? The first is that they are bad for our health. But as a biologist, I can tell you that this is a vast exaggeration. If you add a particular gene to a plant, it will affect your health only if that gene makes a harmful product. For example, you might not want to eat a plant that contains insecticides, but we do that all the time with all the spraying that happens unless we eat organic. Even organic crops still include those natural insecticides that plants have evolved over millions of years.
The other fear is GM crops might escape into the wild or ‘pollute the countryside‘. Non-native invasive species are a research topic of mine and two facts are pertinent. First, we already have terrible problems with invasive species all over the world, and none of these are GM, though a few like the Rhododendrons in Britain have been altered by natural or intentional crossing with other cultivated species. So, even if GM crops did escape, they would merely be a small addition to an existing problem.
Second, centuries of conventional breeding have changed our crops so much, relative to their wild progenitors that they have little or no chance of establishing themselves in the wild. They are like pampered, fat and de-clawed house cats. Individual plants of wheat and oilseed rape are quite commonly seen on roadsides and other disturbed spots in the UK seeded from nearby farms or seed dropped by people but they never manage to form lasting populations, because they can’t compete with wild plants. GM rape has apparently established in a few places in the USA, but as it only differs from non-GM rape in herbicide resistance, it will only have an unnatural advantage where herbicide is applied.
So it might be a bit of a weed for farmers, but this is hardly an environmental apocalypse and insignificant compared to the numerous highly invasive alien plants wreaking havoc worldwide. Those plant species that escape into the wild and become invasive always come from gardens, and tend to be species barely altered from their wild progenitors, like giant hogweed or Japanese knotweed. In short, GM crops present, at most, a tiny threat to human health and the environment.
Can GM crops actually help mankind?
So, GM crops are not the monsters they are made out to be. But how much can they help humanity in the face of climate instability and a growing population? Two issues are pertinent here. First, GM crops are often costly and time-consuming to bring to market, and ironically this is increasingly more because of the regulation process than the actual scientific development. This may make it less likely, for example, that pest-proof GM crops are made available to subsistence farmers in poor parts of the world, where they could make a real and direct contribution to minimising world hunger. One GM crop that was developed specifically for humanitarian purposes was golden rice, which has been modified to produce vitamin A in its rice grains and hence help tackle vitamin deficiencies in places where rice is a staple crop. But even this has faced severe regulatory hurdles which, its advocates claim, have cost lives.
While golden rice perhaps shows the best of what GM crops can be, it also highlights their limitations. The whole GM process is geared towards solving one very particular problem in any given crop, be it resistance to pests, speed of ripening, or an absence of vitamin A. Meanwhile, climate change, alien (non-GM) species, emerging pathogens and other environmental issues are throwing multiple problems at us, at an alarming rate, and in ways we cannot always predict. GM technology is already being used, for example, to develop drought-resistant crops. But that won’t protect those crops against other extreme events.
This could well be the future of farming
Perhaps, therefore, we need to look elsewhere for our salvation. Monoculture farming (a single crop alone in a field, with all other plants and usually most or all animals unwelcome) has been de rigueur for over a century in the so-called ‘developed world’. Moreover, usually everything in the field is the same cultivar, or even the same genotype. This means that any pest or disease that can attack one of them, can attack them all. It also means that every individual requires the exact same resources as every other, putting a great strain on resources within the field, which usually has to be addressed via fertilizer. Other problems with monoculture include soil loss, which could seriously threaten global food supplies by 2050.
Polyculture and permaculture (both overlapping the term agroecology) address these issues. Polyculture means, very simply, growing more than one crop together, or intercropping. For example, legumes actually fertilize the soil around them via special bacteria-containing nodes on their roots, so if you grow them beside another crop, the other crop benefits.
There is one remarkable system developed by collaboration between British and African scientists, which uses a legume called Desmodium to enhance maize production. Though not edible to humans, this species provides four separate benefits: it increases soil fertility, emits chemicals that deter pest insects from entering the field, suppresses a parasitic weed called Striga, and eventually can be fed to cattle as fodder. Elsewhere, long-established traditional farming practices combine rice production with ducks or fish, where in each case the animal provides first pest control then later human food.
This is a better way to produce food
Permaculture takes this further. The term means ‘permanent agriculture‘ and the idea is to build a community of plants and associated animals (most but not all of these animals come in from the wild), which is effectively self-sustaining. Nature abhors a monoculture almost as much as it does a vacuum. And therefore, much energy is expended keeping out weeds and pests.
Permaculture, by contrast, mimics a natural ecosystem, with the crucial difference that most or all plants present are selected for their value, directly or indirectly, to humanity. Some might be there solely to attract birds or hoverflies, each of which will help keep aphids and other potential pests under control. Crucially, a stable man-made ecosystem built around perennial and woody plants will be far more resilient to extreme weather events than a monoculture.
These are not magic bullets. Permaculture requires time and skill to set up, and the more plants you have present, the more impractical it becomes to mass harvest them by machine, as happens in monoculture fields. However, human labour is hardly in short supply, and harvesting edible products grown locally is good for the soul. Combining a four-day week with encouraging folk to grow and harvest food in this manner once a week, would improve both quality of life and food security. I fully recommend learning more about permaculture to anyone looking for more contentment in their lives.
Polyculture and permaculture need to be funded the same as GM
But what of feeding the world? Scaling up permaculture farming remains a huge challenge, not least because what to grow depends so much on the local conditions, whereas modern agriculture is capable of successfully imposing monoculture crops on almost any landscape. The future may lie in finding ways to form polyculture and ultimately permaculture farms on a large scale, with harvesting conducted by intelligent solar-powered drones.
If this sounds fanciful, look afresh at conventional agriculture. Its heavy reliance on fossil fuels and chemicals would not be sustainable, even if there were not also issues with vulnerability. Clearly we cannot just bin monocultures straight away because we need the quantities of food they provide, but equally we cannot go on as we are for much longer.
Hence while I have no particular issues with GM technology, I worry that it may be a distraction and that scientists may focus their resources in the wrong place. Yes, where a vital crop is under severe attack from a particular pest or pathogen species, GM might save it. However, many of the benefits GM can provide can also be acquired much more cheaply and with additional gains through a polyculture approach – e.g. golden rice would not be needed if rice was intercropped with something that naturally produces vitamin A.
I believe that if the challenge of scaling up polyculture and permaculture farming received the same amount of money and research expertise that is currently aimed at GM, it would take us a very long way towards safeguarding and future-proofing food.