Anthony Kleanthous explains why picking sides on genetic modification isn't as easy as it used to be.
What is a person with a conscience to think about the fraught and complex issue of genetic modification (GM)? Picking sides used to be easy: if you were green, you were against GM because it was unnatural and industrial. It was a weapon of the same corporate behemoths who brought us the Green Revolution and its ensuing ecological devastation; who were using the patent system to force farmers to buy new GM seed every year - and who were exploiting their control of world commodity markets to impose "Frankenstein foods" on unsuspecting citizens. If these were the developers and guarantors of genetic engineering, then their safety assurances were not to be trusted. If you were green, you preferred organic, low-input, agro-ecological methods of breeding and food production that maintained traditional landscapes and socio-economic structures, provided safe, tasty and nutritious food, combated climate change and protected wildlife. If you were a green activist, you risked prison to rip up GM crops.
On the other side were the free market capitalists and biological engineers, optimistic about GM, unfazed by its presence in the food chain, and in favour of field trials. For the big seed companies and their biotech partners, the business opportunities were breathtaking: a huge potential market; a range of products that had to be bought and used together, and could be protected by patent; and a political climate that favoured big agribusiness over small-scale, mixed farms. The products themselves addressed issues related to industrial agriculture only: the lack of natural predators to control pests, and the fact that industrial herbicides can also be toxic to the crops themselves.
The more nuanced aspects of this debate are beginning to find voice
Now, though, the more nuanced aspects of this debate are beginning to find voice. Leading environmentalists, including two of the UK's highest profile ones, Jonathon Porritt and Tony Juniper, say that their minds are not closed as to the future of GM. Former anti-GMO activist, Mark Lynas, shocked delegates at the latest Oxford Farming Conference by saying: "For the record, ... I apologise for having spent several years ripping up GM crops. I am also sorry that I ... assisted in demonising an important technological option which [sic] can be used to benefit the environment." Although a group of leading environmentalists - including Porritt and Juniper - criticised Lynas for overstating his role in the anti-GM movement, many now believe that GM may be part of the solution. "We are trying to question the scourge of either/or-ism", says Porritt. "The condition of the world is so powerless now, and the additional pressure of feeding a potential population of nine billion so great, that we have to optimise every available resource."
These environmentalists, however, do not advocate GM as we have known it until now, with its concentration on pest resistance and herbicide tolerance in intensive monoculture. The claimed benefits of GM crops have been used, they say, to fuel the expansion of industrial agricultural techniques, which have contributed to a host of environmental and social problems, including declining soil fertility, water pollution, climate change and ecological devastation. Extinctions are running at between 100 and 1,000 times their natural rate. Agricultural bird populations in the UK have almost halved in the last 25 years. In the last 40 years, tropical biodiversity has dropped by 60%. The world's richest savannah, the Cerrado, which covers 21% of Brazil's land mass and is home to a staggering 5% of all known species, is being cleared faster than the Amazon rainforest to make way for soya, 80% of which is fed to livestock. Such alarming consequences are associated more with the industrialisation of agriculture and the global food system than with genetic modification per se.
Gary Hirshberg, founder of the leading US organic dairy brand, StonyField Farm, says: "I'm not biased against genetic engineering. The potential is there for nutritional and other benefits to citizens; but there haven't been any yet, and many of the promises have been disproven or have not come to pass. For example, despite predictions to the contrary by the patent holders, GM has led to substantial increases in herbicide and pesticide use. Consequently, weeds and pests develop resistance and farmers have had to move to ever stronger chemicals, in ever higher quantities. The US Geological Survey reports that citizens in rural communities are now routinely breathing herbicides and finding them in the groundwater. We don't know what the consequences will be for human health of these higher concentrations of environmental toxins, and we need to find out. At the very least, citizens need to know whether or not they are purchasing and eating these foods. Since there is no requirement to label products that contain GM, most Americans are unaware." The answer, he says, is compulsory labelling.
Jonathon Porritt agrees: "Most people do not want to eat GM food, so when labelling is introduced, demand collapses. When producers in the US were forced to label GM milk that had been produced with the aid of a genetically modified growth hormone called bST, sales plummeted and Monsanto was forced to sell the subsidiary that produced it. The horsemeat scandal [in which horsemeat has been found in many European products that are marketed as 100% beef] will force multiple retailers to be honest about where their meat and dairy products come from."
Although the European Commission's attitude to GM seems to be softening, public attitudes in most European countries remain staunchly anti-GM, or deeply sceptical. As a result, no GM crops are grown in Europe. However, around 50% of grain imported to Europe for animal feed is genetically modified, and campaigners are calling for that, too, to be labelled.
If GM has let us down so badly to date, how might it contribute more positively in the future? For a start, Porritt cites the potential ability of non-leguminous crops to fix nitrogen. Fossil-based nitrogen fertilisers are a major cause of climate change and water pollution, so the potential ability of commodity crops to fix nitrogen without the use of artificial fertilisers could bring great benefits. Unfortunately, it is likely to be 20 or 30 years before they succeed, if they succeed at all, and plants cannot live on nitrogen alone; they also need phosphorous and potassium, so if they are to be grown in monoculture, or even in three-year rotation, they still risk exhausting soils.
The second advance might come in GM's ability to improve resistance to environmental stresses, such as drought. The first such crop - a drought-resistant variety of GM maize - was launched last year by Monsanto and, with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has been distributed to an estimated two million farmers in 13 African countries, including Ethiopia, Kenya and Nigeria. According to the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture, a research partnership dedicated to agricultural development, these farmers have obtained higher yields, improved food security, and increased incomes.
According to Porritt, the expansion and improved productivity of small African farms is far more important than whether or not the crops they use are genetically modified. While Porritt and some of his fellow environmentalists are open to the potential benefits of GM crops, they consider genetic modification itself to be something of a red herring. Far more important is whether or not a new crop variety brings additional benefits for humans and the planet. If GM crops can prove themselves safe, effective, nutritious, eco-efficient and profitable, there is no reason why they should not be used.
Food manufacturers are also agnostic. "We don't have a view on whether GM is a good or a bad thing in itself", says Andrew Kuyk of the UK's Food and Drink Federation. "We want raw materials at competitive prices that we can turn into products for our consumers. GM comes into that debate if we're priced out of the market by it. There's a risk of that happening in the UK and other European countries if we're not more supportive of some of these new technologies, subject to objective scientific assessment and appropriate controls on use."
However, Mike Childs, Head of Science, Policy and Research at Friends of the Earth, believes that the most promising solutions are not technological in nature. Childs' top seven "hits" for a sustainable and secure food system are: eating less (and better) meat; restoring wild fisheries; cutting waste; growing a greater variety of crops (including 'orphan crops'); replacing monoculture with agro-ecology; empowering women; and reducing poverty. WWF-UK also considers GM to be a red herring, too fraught with emotion and political posturing, and prefers to talk of solutions such as 'less but better meat', and waste reduction. Eating healthily, WWF-UK points out in its recent 'Livewell' report, means eating more sustainably, too.
One thing on which everyone seems to agree is that GM is not the only technology worth developing. Perhaps the most promising alternative is Marker Assisted Selection (MAS). This is a non-GM bioengineering technique, made possible by our ability to map entire genomes. Once you have the genome of a crop fully described, you can use that information to identify traits that you want to import to the target crop from a related species. This might be a less popular commercial variety, a wild relative, or a so-called "orphan species" - an old variety that was abandoned by breeders looking for other traits. After marking the genes that express the desired traits, scientists can use conventional breeding techniques to transfer those characteristics into high yielding varieties of the same species, relatively quickly.
If technologies such as MAS can be used to promote the proliferation and improvement of organic, mixed, agro-ecological and other traditional or alternative farming systems, then there may come a day when the arguments over GM have lost their relevance, as they have for the development of medicines. For now, GM remains a highly emotive issue for those on both sides of the debate, and those left in the middle still struggle to be heard.
Anthony Kleanthous is an independent expert on food sustainability and a Trustee of Sustain.