GM In Perspective

View the full Spiked debate forum on GM crops.

'If the field trials are allowed to progress unmolested, Britons will find that they show GM crops to have real environmental benefits.'

Three years after the UK government initiated its farm-scale evaluations of GM crops, the debate over genetic modification remains as heated as ever. The evaluations, intended to assess the environmental and agronomic impact of GM crops and promote confidence that government policies are based on real-world data, have accomplished few of these goals. Fields have been destroyed, equipment damaged, and farmers and their families threatened and hounded out of the programme. Neither committed opponents of GM nor the broader public have been reassured by the tests. And, consequently, the government that launched the evaluations lacks confidence to move forward with the technology. Critics of GM technology have opposed the trials all along, arguing that genetically modified crops could have negative impacts on the environment, such as displacing wild biodiversity and spreading genes to other crops or wild plants through cross pollination. But by ignoring the broader context in which food production has taken place over the millennia, they miss two important points. First, genetic modification is not, in and of itself, dangerous. Some types of GM crop could pose genuine and substantial environmental or human health risks, while others are safer than their conventionally modified counterparts. The fact that GM techniques were used makes the crop neither dangerous nor safe: it has no meaningful effect on the plant's risk characteristics. What does determine if plants are safe or dangerous is the traits that are transferred to them, regardless of whether this is done with advanced genetic techniques or more conventional methods. Second, every risk that has been legitimately hypothesised about GM plants has a perfect analogue in one or another conventionally bred variety. For example, the UK farm-scale evaluations focus on crops that have been genetically modified to tolerate specific herbicides. Concerns have centred on speculation that the herbicide-tolerant plants could become invasive weeds; that the herbicide-tolerance trait could spread to wild plants through cross pollination; or that use of herbicide in conjunction with the crop could damage biodiversity.  Several rapeseed varieties and at least one soybean variety have been modified with conventional breeding techniques to be herbicide tolerant. And every one of the concerns about GM herbicide-tolerant crops applies equally to conventionally modified herbicide-tolerant crops. GM is just a more effective and more predictable way of accomplishing what Mother Nature can do on her own. But, curiously, opponents of GM have raised not a whisper against more traditional breeding methods. Cross pollination with other crops is also an age-old consideration for farmers. For example, two different varieties of rapeseed are grown in many countries – one used to produce edible cooking oils, the other to produce industrial lubricants – and each can very easily cross pollinate with the other. Industrial rape is harmful if ingested because of high levels of a naturally occurring chemical that is toxic to humans. So rape for consumption and rape for lubricants must be carefully separated – far more carefully, in fact, than GM and conventional or GM and organic crops. The exact same methods developed by growers of rapeseed can be used to control cross pollination from GM crops. Critics note that novel genes introduced into GM plants could produce proteins that are toxic, allergenic or carcinogenic. But potentially dangerous genes, proteins and other substances are routinely introduced into the food supply with conventional breeding techniques. Food-grade tomatoes and potatoes are routinely bred from wild varieties that are toxic to human beings.  But we are not concerned about the unsafe products of conventional breeding because plant breeders, biologists and farmers have identified methods to eliminate potentially dangerous plants before they ever make it to market. GM techniques, which allow breeders to test the genes and proteins before they are transferred, mean that ensuring the safety of GM plants is actually easier.  This broader context suggests that fears about the GM farm-scale evaluations are wholly misplaced. Moreover, if the field trials are given an opportunity to progress unmolested, Britons will find that they show GM crops to have very real environmental benefits, not just hypothetical risks. In the USA, for example, the commercial cultivation of GM crops has reduced insecticide and herbicide use and saved topsoil and other valuable resources. The non-profit National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy found that GM cotton, maize and rape allowed US farmers to reduce insecticide and herbicide use in 2001 by 21million kilograms. GM herbicide-tolerant crops have also promoted the adoption of farming practices that reduce tillage or eliminate it altogether. Low-tillage practices can decrease soil erosion by up to 90 percent compared to conventional cultivation, saving valuable topsoil, improving soil fertility, and dramatically reducing sedimentation in lakes, ponds and waterways.  Opponents of genetic modification argue that organic farming can reduce insecticide and herbicide use even more than GM crops can. But about 20 percent of crop productivity in the industrialised countries of North America and Europe, and as much as 40 percent in Africa and Asia, is lost to insect pests, weeds and plant diseases. Organic production methods would only exacerbate yield losses, and substantially more land would have to be brought into agricultural use to compensate. Perhaps of equal importance to Britons is the fact that, unlike many other advances in farming technology, GM crops have been shown to be scale-neutral. The small, family-run farms of which Europeans are so fond can benefit as much as large industrial farms. This could help put European growers on a more equal footing with competitors in other parts of the world. Indeed, studies of South African and Chinese cotton-growers suggest that small farmers actually achieve higher relative benefits from GM, because expensive machinery can sometimes be made obsolete. Maybe GM critics oppose the farm-scale trials because they realise the results could hurt their case against genetic modification. For true believers, though, no amount of evidence will ever be enough. Before resigning as head of Greenpeace UK, Lord Peter Melchett told a House of Lords Select Committee hearing that his organisation's opposition to GM is 'a permanent and definite and complete opposition based on a view that there will always be major uncertainties'. Perhaps, then, the only good reason for opposing the farm-scale trials is that they are unlikely to ever satisfy GM's most devoted critics. Even the most ardent supporters of genetic modification can not claim that GM will never cause unanticipated problems. But if society demanded absolute certainty of no harm before products could be marketed, we would have to abandon not just GM, but traditional breeding as well. Genetic modification can offer tremendous benefits for the environment, for farmers and for consumers – but only if we give it a chance to prove itself.