Genetically modified future

Adam Kelly

Staff writer

Illustration: Chloë Nagle

Genetically modified food is the past, present and future. While Europe is sidetracked by spurious health scares, Adam Kelly outlines how the rest of the world is moving on.

How does one best approach the problem of starvation in a famine-prone country? Emergency supplies? Financial assistance? A military presence? If you are Norman Borlaug, the so-called father of the Green Revolution, the answer lies in providing the means to self-sufficiently feed a country in a remarkably short period of time.

In the first year after the introduction of selectively-bred wheat varieties to famine-stricken India, and no doubt to the delight of its schoolchildren, so exceptional was the grain output that some local schools ended up being redesignated as grain stores. Over the course of a decade, the Indian subcontinent was able to shift from a position of importing one-fifth of the wheat output of the US to almost complete self-reliance.

Selective breeding of plant varieties has been used since the inception of agriculture, whereby preferred crops build up a collection of traits over time by means of artificial selection. The progression of technology has allowed deliberate hybridisation of plant species, with crossbreeding taking place to consolidate characteristics such as drought resistance and increased yields within a species.

The emergence of the field of genetics has facilitated a greater understanding of gene flow, and genetic-engineering techniques have allowed for greater efficiency and variety in crafting superior species of plants. The two techniques employed are transgenic engineering, wherein genes derived from other plants are inserted, and cisgenic engineering, wherein genes are implanted from plants of the same species. The latter technique is so comparable to conventional methods that it is usually employed when traditional crossbreeding is difficult.

The stigma surrounding genetically modified (GM) crops is certainly more prevalent in some parts of the world than others. The US is by far and away the largest GM farming country, with 66.8m of a total 103m hectares containing genetically engineered seeds. Developing countries, which stand to see the greatest benefits from adopting the technology, are also showing remarkable increases in GM crop use, with Brazil overtaking Argentina in 2010 to become the second largest grower, planting 25.4m hectares containing GM seeds.

This market can only be expected to grow, as last year’s GM seed market was worth $13.2bn (€10.2bn), and the crops that grew from that seed were worth over $160bn (€124bn). Aside from financial and gastronomical benefits, the environment is also proposed to make slight gains by removing the need to clear forest for new farmland, thanks to high yield techniques, a hypothesis named after the aforementioned Borlaug.

This enthusiastic embrace has not been felt around the world, however. Europe, whose vociferous liberals are characterised by hardnosed groups such as Greenpeace, has worked hard to slow the establishment of GM crops despite lacking convincing evidence to support their claims.

To date, the proposed health risks associated with the consumption of GM foods have fallen flat. A 2008 report by the Royal Society of Medicine concluded that no ill effects were detected over a 15-year consumption period, a conclusion consistent with findings by the World Health Organisation, the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development and the European Commission.

It had also been suggested that we apply the precautionary principle: there is too much potential for currently unknown risks to emerge. Yet, regardless of the potential risk involved, it is an argument made with a full stomach. The position of denouncing a GM solution while simultaneously lamenting hunger in developing countries is untenable in the face of a swelling population.

While disputes concerning the health fears of GM crops might fall flat, there are definite difficulties concerning an increased agrarian monoculture. The mid-90s saw the displacement of over 150,000 small farmers in Argentina at the hands of larger farms looking to cash in on the soya bonanza.

Monoculture farming also has severe consequences on biodiversity, so much so that, according to the International Centre for Agricultural Research: “Unless the rate of plant genetic loss is halted or slowed substantially, as many as 60,000 plant species, roughly 25% of the world’s total, could be lost by the year 2025.” Solutions to these issues are clearly related to agricultural practices, rather than inherent issues with the crops themselves being artificially engineered.

Corporate fears are indeed understandable as companies begin to push for gene patenting, the morality of which is not to be taken lightly. The vast majority of those utilising GM crops are farmers living in developing countries, which assuredly does nothing to alleviate fears of corporate bullying.

However, internal pressures are forcing governments to invest in their own means to increase their agricultural productivity. Both Brazil and China have seen local researchers engineer crops for native planting: soya beans in the case of Brazil, and rice and maize in China.

According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, a non-profit organisation that monitors the use of GM crops, the GM rice varieties have the potential to provide benefits of over $4bn (€3.1m) to 150 million or so Chinese rice farmers. Even Monsanto, an agri-tech company more at home in the courtroom than the farmyard, have donated technology to Water Efficient Maize Africa, a partnership funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with the goal of developing and deploying drought-tolerant maize to small farmers, free of royalties.

There is still a long way to go in the development and implementation of GM technology, but in the midst of a population explosion, the father of the Green Revolution himself agrees: “It is a change in the right direction, but has not transformed the world into a Utopia.”