GM corn failure - a lesson for the future?
Years of investment in GM technology have done more harm than good, claims Dr Helen Wallace
Last week, The New York Times reported that a new genetically-modified corn maize variety produced by US company Monsanto did not perform any better than conventional varieties. The findings come from a US Department of Agriculture draft environmental impact assessment, produced as a step towards approval of the new GM crop. It could mean that years of investment in this technology has been a failure.
The problems highlight an unpalatable truth for advocates of GM crops and foods - the technology has been spectacularly unsuccessful at delivering complex traits such as drought tolerance, which involve multiple genes and complex interactions with the plant's environment. Meanwhile, conventional breeding and new techniques such as marker-assisted selection - which uses knowledge of the plant's genome to inform breeding, without engineering the plant - have produced a long string of successes.
Monsanto's rivals DuPont and Syngenta both announced new drought-tolerant corn varieties several months ago. Both were produced using conventional breeding rather than GM. These findings should be a wake-up call to British ministers as they develop the coalition government's stance. A major new public relations push to introduce GM crops to the UK was started by the New Labour administration back in 2007, when ministers gave their backing to a renewed campaign by the GM industry.
They believed that public opinion would shift in favour of GM crops on the grounds that they would be needed to feed the world in the face of a growing global population and rapid climate change. A Labour government spokesman had said: "The ability to have drought-resistant crops is important not only for the UK, but for other parts of the world. And the fact that some GM crops can produce higher yields in more difficult climactic conditions is going to be important if we're going to feed the growing world population".
This rationale was always based more on public relations than on hard reality. The industry employed at least one major firm "to develop concepts which link agribusiness with important global issues - such as climate change, water scarcity, deforestation and position the company as a positive force". Now these claims have been exposed as an empty fantasy.
New GM traits - including drought-tolerant, salt-tolerant and nitrogen fixing crops - were first promised 30 years ago, when the US government first decided to invest taxpayers' money in bio-technology research and development, in the belief that this was vital to boost competitiveness in global markets. But, only two GM traits - herbicide-tolerance and insect resistance Bacillus thuringiensis crops - have been commercialised on a significant scale to date. Major problems are now occurring in the US and South America, where most GM herbicide-tolerant soya is grown for animal feed, as herbicide-tolerant super weeds spread across farmland.
Pest resistance is also beginning to develop in India and China, where the main developing country crop Bt cotton is grown, and infestations of new pests are also an increasing problem. Developing weed and pest resistance locks farmers into a vicious cycle where they are forced to pay for seed price hikes and increasingly expensive chemicals as their GM crops begin to fail. Patents on GM seeds mean that farmers cannot save them and have to buy new seeds each year, making them vulnerable to the monopolistic practices of the small number of companies that now control the global seed market.
Most GM corn maize and soya is used as animal feed or subsidised by the American government for use in industrial-scale biofuels. The increasing consumption of grain-fed meat and use of land and food crops for biofuels are both thought to be factors in driving global hunger.
Farmers across Britain are increasingly looking at closer links between producers and consumers, via box schemes and farmers markets, as a better way to make farming more viable and sustainable. This sector could be significantly expanded if local food procurement was more widely used by old people's homes, hospitals, prisons and government departments as well as schools. The benefits to health as well as the farming sector could be considerable, helping to tackle the rising costs of obesity and diet-related disease in the NHS.
Growing GM crops in the UK would add to conventional farmers' costs through the need for segregated processing lines and the loss of precious organic markets. And GM is a tool best left at the bottom of the tool box if we want to support Britain's farmers and feed the world in a sustainable way.
Dr Helen Wallace is director of GeneWatch UK
Busting the myths about GMOs in agriculture
We know enough to distinguish between high-risk and low-risk genetic modifications, and it is now time to apply that knowledge in practice, write Sven Ove Hansson and Martin Weih
The GM lobby won't stop exaggerating the quality of their products, even in the face of evidence. However, denial won't change reality, the reality that genetic modification is a bad idea for food crops and more and more people are understanding this as time goes on. The GM jig is up.
Radu Mihai - Bucharest