The demise of GM and the new future of food

Golden rice is an example of GM which has failed to deliver what has been promised. International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA)

Golden rice is an example of GM which has failed to deliver what has been promised. International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA)

BASF are to halve their GM research and development and reduce the time spent on developing these technologies, writes Peter Melchett. Given the many problems that GM agriculture is facing, and that new non-GE technologies offer such valuable benefits as increased crop yields, does BASF's announcement spell the beginning of the end of GM crops?
If recent developments in alternative crop breeding technologies, and commercial decisions by companies like BASF, do not mark the death of GM, they certainly confirm that GM is in the grip of a serious and ultimately terminal illness.

It sounds just the sort of news campaigners against GM crops do not want to hear.

Last month, one of the UK's major farming magazines, Farmers Weekly, reported that two new herbicide tolerant sugar beet varieties were going to be trialled in the UK.

It went to to say that UK scientists have developed a new 'super' pea which can help farm animals absorb more protein when it is used in their diet.

Most GM crops grown around the world are herbicide tolerant, meaning they can be sprayed with a weed-killer that kills all growing plants, except the GM crop. In the USA, where GM crops are widely grown, this has led to horrendous problems of weeds that are resistant to a range of weed-killers.

And, of course, GM companies and their scientific supporters have long been promising a whole variety of 'super crops' which would provide some sort of nutritional benefit, combat drought, yield more, and so on.

If new GM super crops have been developed in the UK, you'd expect the news to be reported nationally, but these two new interesting crop developments only made it as far as the pages of the farming press.

The most exciting crop breeding techniques are not GM

Why? Because in fact these are not the results of GM technology at all - these new crops have been developed using normal crop breeding techniques. This may come as a surprise to many outside farming, who must have got the impression, quite wrongly, that the only exciting new crops being bred nowadays are GM crops.

In fact, the exciting new crops that are being bred and actually used by farmers are almost all non-GM. In particular, crop breeders are using our new knowledge of crop DNA, and the functions of specific genes in a crop's genome, to greatly accelerate the process of breeding new crops with desirable characteristics.

The technique, called Marker Assisted Selection or MAS, has proved phenomenally successful all over the world, with numerous new crops with advantages to farmers being used worldwide. Indeed, some of these crops have been so successful that proponents of GM have taken to claiming, from time to time, that these crops are actually genetically modified when they are not.

The reality is that GM is an old technology, developed in the 1980s, and first used in the 1990s, with what is now a long history of agricultural and environmental problems evident when it is used by farmers. Concerns about super weeds and resistant insects, raised by environmentalists when GM crops were first introduced, were widely derided as scaremongering at the time.

No longer. Some American farmers have had to resort to hand weeding because they have weeds which are resistant to multiple weed-killers. Both GM maize and GM cotton, genetically engineered to kill insects, are now subject to attack by resistant insects, or by new pests which have expanded to fill the gap left by insects killed by the GM crop.

If recent developments in alternative crop breeding technologies, and commercial decisions by companies like BASF, do not mark the death of GM, they certainly confirm that GM is in the grip of a serious and ultimately terminal illness.

There is now a growing demand for non-GM crops, both as animal feed in Europe, where France and Germany are moving away from GM animal feed, and in the largest global consumer market for GM food, the USA, where the non-GMO label is the fastest growing grocery label in supermarkets, and some big food manufacturers, along with Chipotle, are going non-GM.

BASF cuts their GM research & development work by half

Even without these market signals, the economics of crop breeding and the practical problems of farming with GM crops mean that the technology is rapidly running out of steam.

This is illustrated by the announcement in the last few days that BASF, a major player in developing GM crops for many years, is now, as their press release delicately puts it, 'refocusing its plant biotechnology research portfolio and will restructure its Plant Science operations'.

This is a major decision. Again, as their press release says in classic corporate speak: 'The company will adjust the site footprint of its plant biotechnology research and development network in North America and Europe and intends to reduce approximately 350 positions, thereof 140 positions in North America and 180 in Europe'.

Currently approximately 700 employees work in plant biotechnology R&D. What this means is that BASF are cutting their work on GM by half, affecting operations in Hawaii, India, Puerto Rico, Belgium and at two sites in both Germany and the USA.

Although details are sparse, and certainly some GM crop development will continue, it seems as if BASF is dropping its research and development of more complex traits, like increasing yield, which sceptical scientists have long said GM technology will not be capable of delivering.

GM crops have become an 'English' problem

The news that new crops are being developed in the UK, with exciting or even 'super' new characteristics, which do not involve GM - and that one of the world's major chemical companies is cutting its research and development into GM crops by half - is so out of sync with the dominant view of GM in the English media, that there was little chance of these developments being reported.

They simply do not fit with what many of our scientists, politicians, journalists and commentators think is happening in the world. GM started out as a way of companies like Monsanto maintaining sales of weed-killers when they came off patient.

This was picked up by George Bush and Tony Blair in a fantasy vision of the future of food and farming (remember that according to them all of our food was meant to be GM by 2000), and is now being kept alive in a few countries around the world, like England, by people who have just not woken up to reality.

It is worth emphasising that this is a particularly English problem; Scotland and Wales think more of their farming and food industries, and the importance, as the Scottish Government says, of their 'clean and green' image, to put it at risk by playing around with GM crops. In America, where for a small number of crops GM varieties are pretty ubiquitous, the evidence that GM crops cause horrendous resistance problems is all too evident.

The idea that this technology will save or feed the world faces the practical experience that apart from resistance problems: GM crops seem to be yielding less, and certainly no more, than non-GM.

And in the US market, the only market in the world where GM food is commonplace, the fact that this has happened in secret, without American citizens knowing that they are eating GM food, has started to provoke a real backlash against GM.

GM's slow demise

So is this the death of GM? No - the technology is well-established in some crops and in some countries like the USA, Argentina and Brazil, for soya and maize used for animal feed, and in cotton in India. There are new GM crops coming on the market in some countries, in what is certainly not slowed down by the absurd claims made for GM.

A classic example is Golden Rice, originally meant to deliver additional Vitamin A to children in the Philippines, who used to be Vitamin A deficient. Pro-GM campaigners regularly claim that Golden Rice either is or could be saving lives and curing blindness right now, were it not for opposition to GM.

In fact, although this GM rice has been under development for more than 15 years, it is nowhere near ready for commercial use. In its current form, the Philippines agency which is developing the rice has said that it yields less than rice grown by their farmers and needs more work.

And still no one has done the test to see if the extra beta-carotene (Vitamin A precursor) in the rice would actually be absorbed by those whose nutrition it's meant to enhance. Promoted as saving malnourished children from going blind, all feeding trials to date have included the Golden Rice in high-fat, high protein meals of the kind that poor, hungry children could only dream of. Such meals can only increase assimilation of the highly fat soluble beta-carotene.

Meanwhile the Philippines Government have run an excellent program encouraging the use of vitamin A supplements, which has gone a long way to solving the problem anyhow. None of this has stopped pro-GM campaigners making false claims.

Terminal decline

If recent developments in alternative crop breeding technologies, and commercial decisions by companies like BASF, do not mark the death of GM, they certainly confirm that GM is in the grip of a serious and ultimately terminal illness. The real questions are these. Just how long GM will take to die? How many further environmental problems it will cause before it's finished?

And how much more research money - desperately needed for projects which are actually useful for farmers - will be wasted before England's GM-fixated government and biotechnology research establishment realise that they are wasting their time, and all too often, your money?



Peter Melchett has been Policy Director of the Soil Association, the UK's main organic food and farming organisation, working on campaigns, standards and policy, since 2001. He runs an 890-acre organic farm in Norfolk, with beef cattle and arable seed crops.

He is a member of the BBC's Rural Affairs Committee, and was a member of the Government's Rural Climate Change Forum and Organic Action Plan Group, and the Department of Education's School Lunches Review Panel. He received an honorary doctorate from Newcastle University in 2013, was on the Board of the EU's £12m 'Quality Low Input Food' research project, and is a Board member for two EU research projects on low input crops and livestock.

This article is based on one originally published on Huffington Post.

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