A vision of food and farming beyond GM

November 11, 2014 by Lawrence Woodward

Just over two decades ago GM crops and food made their appearance in fields and shops; first in North America, then in the UK and the EU (mainly in the form of products from animals fed GM feed), and latterly in a few other countries – notably Argentina and Brazil.

The terms used for them vary; sometimes GM (or genetically modified), sometimes GE (or genetically engineered), often GMOs (genetically modified organisms) but, whichever term is used, they have generated an unprecedented level of controversy and blighted the emergence of a genuinely sustainable, equitable and healthy farming and food system throughout the world.

Some people argue that the technology itself is not a problem; that it is neutral but problems have been caused by the way it has been implemented. In contrast, others believe the technology is potentially a risk to animal and human health and has not been adequately assessed and regulated.

Furthermore it is argued, that far from being neutral, genetic engineering crop technology is intrinsically part of the corporatisation of global agriculture and food where patents are being used to privatise biological systems and biodiversity and give a few multinational corporations unprecedented levels of control over food and farming.

How far the technology is a cause, a symptom or a co-incidental factor is debateable but what is clear is that the genetic engineering perspective of agriculture and food now dominates the research establishment, politicians and policy makers, and preoccupies the media; so much so that their vision has been corrupted and they no longer recognise problems or alternatives.

The reality is that the age of GM – the two plus decades of genetically engineered crops and the incursion of GMO derived ingredients into our feed and food chains – has been characterised by false promises, technology failure, increased corporate control, increased environmental damage and increased health risks.

It is an age which has spurned ecological and equitable alternatives and has locked the world’s farming and food systems into a technocratic, corporate driven mindset and approach which is not resilient, not innovative, is not scientific, is not sustainable and is not working for anyone other than a few short term profit- focused multi-national companies.

It’s time to move beyond this mindset and approach; to move Beyond GM and we can do so because there are viable alternatives in existence.

“Feeding the world”

The most potent argument that is used in support of GM farming and food is that it is needed to feed the estimated 9 billion people who will inhabit our planet by 2050.

Yet we already produce enough calories to feed 14 billion people.

How can it make sense in a world of finite and diminishing resources to push for more production when we already produce more than enough? But such questions are dismissed as irrelevant.

Scientists working on food and agriculture, almost all agri-industry leaders, most politicians and policy makers and much of the media all chant the same ritualistic credo.

It goes – “the world’s population is going to be over 9 billion by 2050 and in order to feed that number of people we have to increase food production by between 65 and 70%”

All manner of high technology, intensive, corporate driven approaches – including and especially genetic engineering – are then framed and presented as the only way forward.

But if these researchers, policy makers, media commentators and – stretching imagination to breaking point – agri-business leaders – were obliged to start their papers, presentations, articles and interviews with something approximating the truth we might see a different framework and logic.

If they started with something like: – “we already produce enough calories to feed 14 billion people but we are not managing to do it because of waste, disparity in wealth, a dysfunctional farming and food system, the malign power of corporations and speculation in food that borders on the corrupt and the immoral:”

They and we might draw different conclusions and we might look Beyond GM.

The agro-ecological alternative

In fact back in 2008 the most comprehensive scientific and technical assessment ever completed – the International Assessment of Agriculture Science and Technology (IAASTD) – did reach the radically different conclusion that GM is not a suitable technology for alleviating hunger.

The IAASTD report highlighted that agro-ecological approaches were the most appropriate technologies to tackle food security and hunger.  Techniques focussed on building organic matter in soil to help in drought situations, utilising mixed cropping and rotations, and the use of agro-forestry are showing they can deliver increased yield and greater resilience in all parts of the world.

IAASTD was commissioned by the UN and other international agencies. It involved nearly 600 scientists from many countries and disciplines.

Its findings have been confirmed and reiterated – for example the FAO (UN Food and Agriculture Organisation) Director General, Jose Graziano da Silva told the Ugandan parliament; “Our position as FAO is not that we are against GMOs but we are saying we don’t need them now to eradicate hunger,”

He went on to say that he had concerns about the impact GM has on the environment as “we don’t know what will happen to areas of production and the crops.”  “It is risky for continents whose crops have GMOs; we want to ensure that proper security measures related to environment contamination are taken.”

Agro-ecology has been described as ‘the application of ecological concepts and principles” to agricultural systems. These applications are many and varied. They range from the relative complexity of Sustainable Rice and Crop Intensification to the straightforward, traditional approaches of rotational cropping which GM maize farmers in the US are now being advised to go back to in order to deal with weed and pest problems.

As recent surveys and reports have made clear, in all parts of the world these methods provide a more resilient and sustainable approach to agriculture, food production and food security than does the rusting “silver bullet” of GM.

Smart plant breeding moves Beyond GM

Following the advent of genome mapping developments in plant breeding have rapidly progressed so that “traditional” breeding approaches are outperforming the so called “modern” genetic engineering techniques.

In 2012, the leading science journal Nature published the genome sequence of domesticated tomato and a draft sequence of its wild relative.  This was the outcome of the EU-SOL project which had engaged over 300 scientists from 14 countries and 90 institutions.

In its editorial Nature stated this “has the potential to radically advance plant science” and place traditional plant breeders back “in the vanguard of plant sciences” and that “It is not necessary to go down the genetic modification path again, at least for tomatoes.”

The editorial concluded; “that the skills of traditional plant breeders – who have a feel for the whole organism – will have to come back into fashion in the world of science”.

Since then it has become clear that using genetic marker techniques – Marker Assisted Selection (MAS) – non-GM plant breeding along with agro-ecology is marching ahead of GM breeding and cropping.

For example, since its launch in 2010, the Improved Maize for African Soils Project (IMAS) has developed 21 conventionally bred varieties which have increased yield by up to 1 tonne per hectare.

In contrast, the project’s researchers say that they are at least 10 years away from developing a comparable GM variety.

In another programme – The Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa project – 153 new, conventionally bred varieties have improved yields in 13 countries. In field trials, these varieties increase yields by up to 30% under drought conditions. It is estimated that by 2016 the extra yields from these conventionally bred, drought-tolerant maize varieties could help reduce the number of people living in poverty in these 13 countries by up to 9%.

“Smart” traditional or non-GM breeding using MAS is also delivering on crops with enhanced nutritional status while GM approaches like the much hyped “Golden Rice” are repeatedly failing to live up to the claims made for them.

Private patents and corporate control

The EU-SOL researchers analysed 7000 tomato varieties, from old to the most modern. All of the great range of nutritional and sensory characteristics this represents has been achieved using traditional breeding methods.  This highlights firstly; just how much non-GM approaches have to offer; and secondly, the dangers of narrowing the skills base of plant breeding and the control of genetic resources through patents.

As part of the project the issue of patents was investigated. In interviews, some stakeholders argued that patents facilitated the exchange of knowledge but others cited negative impacts on innovation and a tendency to “accelerate the process of concentration.”  One interviewee “indicated that in the case of tomato breeding, patent applications for about 20 traits have been submitted; if these patents are granted, other tomato breeders will face a serious problem “

Another argued that “the possibility to protect germplasm with utility patents in the US has narrowed access to germplasm for universities, public institutions and smaller breeding companies in the US. It also has resulted in a faster consolidation in germplasm, especially among big seed companies….”

There is no doubt that undertaking work such as mapping the tomato genome and openly publishing the results is an outstanding use of public money.  But this does not guarantee “public good”.  The misappropriation of publicly funded research knowledge by private and corporate interests through intellectual property “rights” such as patents is the hallmark of GM technology and needs to be challenged.

Alongside this corporatisation of plant breeding is the growing concentration of corporate ownership of seeds and traits. Four firms control an estimated 40% of the global seed market – all of them involved in GM – and in some seed sectors the control increases to up to 90%.

The non-GM seed sector has also fallen under corporate control. Monsanto for example, owns an estimated 60% of the EU’s fruit and vegetable seed varieties.

Considering that a handful of companies own or control the food commodity supply chain logistical structure – storage facilities, transport etc – we have to conclude that we are a long way from a healthy and equitable agriculture and food system which is democratically accountable.

Moving away corporate control to Beyond GM

Throughout the world citizens are increasingly concerned about the use of GMOs in farming and food production but their questions and objections are continually ignored by governments and politicians. A pro-GMO mindset dominates the research establishment, the media and politics.

In the US – where GMOs have long been embedded in farming and the food systems – the government is fighting or ignoring the wishes of citizens to have more transparency, accountability and regulatory oversight over GMO technology.

Governments in the EU and especially the UK are heavily promoting the use of GMOs in farming and food and are set on making genetic engineering the primary driver of agriculture.

On both sides of the Atlantic the research establishment and the media are colluding with government and the biotech industry to thwart the wishes and concerns of citizens.

There is no doubt that genetic engineering technology and industry – and its underpinning patents and intellectual property rights – has had a corrupting influence on the interface between science, technology, government and media.

Journalists and politicians who should be asking questions and calling industry, government and the research establishment to account, are not doing so.

Ending the GMO love-fest

Vested interests, the influence of industry funding and lobbying and blinkered self-interest play a role in this dereliction of duty.

But so does ignorance.

Some, who ought to know better, have become mesmerised by technological hype but too many politicians and journalists are simply ignorant of some key facts and are either too busy or too lazy to find out more. So they accept the hype and join in what has been called the GMO “love-fest”.

This has to change because the management of natural resources to produce food on our planet of finite and diminishing resources is one of the critical pillars upon which our civilisation is built. It is one of the few areas of human activity which, if we get wrong, will fundamentally undermine our existence.

And there is every reason to think we are getting it wrong.

We will only move beyond this dire situation if citizens take action, stand up and be counted and make their voices heard. Alternatives do exist but they are not given the support they deserve.

It is often said about climate change that “business as usual is not an option”. It is true about climate change and equally true about agriculture and food.

A healthy, equitable, sustainable food system from a healthy, equitable, sustainable agriculture is attainable but to get there we have to move Beyond GM.