3 Oct 2018 01:43pm

Debate: will GM food solve the crisis or cause irreversible damage?

We asked a number of experts, professors, business groups and firms if genetically modified food will solve the world’s food crisis or lead to irreversible ecological damage

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Nigel G Halford

Professor at Rothamsted Research and fellow of the Royal Society of Biology

 “The question is not specific enough, because GM food would include the yoghurts, cheeses and other foods made using enzymes produced in GM micro-organisms, whereas the controversial aspect of GM has been GM crops. GM food has been around since the 1980s and GM crops have been grown commercially since 1994, with large areas of GM commodity crops grown since 1996. Over two billion hectares of GM crops have been grown since then without causing irreversible ecological damage. The amazing thing is that we in Europe are still debating the issue.

“While European regulators and NGOs keep GM crops out of Europe, GM is being used in other parts of the world to improve food safety (the low acrylamide potatoes on the market in the US for example) and nutritional value (such as high vitamin A GM rice and other crops, which are finally edging towards release to farmers).

“The regulatory situation in Europe has to change if any progress is to be made, not only on GM but on the more recent technology of genome editing and any future innovations in plant breeding. But there is no sign of where the drive towards an evidence-based approach could come from.”

Mark Lynas

Writer of Seeds of Science: Why We Got It So Wrong on GMOs, in Newsroom

“When it comes to the more toxic pesticides, like insecticides, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have helped to reduce them. Nobody knows that story because of the big Monsanto Roundup story from the beginning.”

Sheril Kirshenbaum

Science writer and the executive director of Science Debate, on Twitter

“Genetically modified food makes a lot of people nervous, often due to a misunderstanding of the science.”

Stefan Jansson

Professor and head of the department of plant physiology at Umeå University

“People starve primarily because they are poor – wealth and food resources are unevenly distributed – not because they don’t have access to GMOs. But GMOs could, if it would be better accepted on a global scale, give a higher production of better food to a lower price, and with less environmental impact in terms of pesticides.

“There is scientific consensus about this, also that GMOs are if anything less risky for human health and the environment than those plants that you eat every day that are the products of ‘older breeding methods’. But there is probably no other issue where public perception of what is known is so far from scientific consensus; a failure of science communication.

“It is farmers, consumers and the environment that pay the price for this. Relieving plant science and breeding from the troublesome burden of ‘GMO-phobia’ would make the world a better place to live in.”

Sarah Attwood

Rural and agri-business insurance specialist, Lockton Companies LLP

“Per capita worldwide we have never produced so much food, yet the world’s food crisis is not one of production alone; economic and geo-political issues also affect distribution. The use of GM crops has the potential to increase production and improve the environmental impact of farming.

“Fewer chemicals would need to be used as GM crops have the potential to be resistant to damage from disease and insects. Increased yields could see less green space required for food production, leading to more space for wildlife through arable reversion and reduced destruction of habitats.

“If this technology is embraced and properly researched, it has the potential to revolutionise farming and food production. Progress should not be prevented by populist opinion. The benefits of GM technology need to be seen by the consumer rather than the producer before they can be truly valued for the food and environmental revolution they will provide.”

Jonathan Jones

Senior scientist at Sainsbury Laboratory, Norwich

“The term ‘genetically modified’ for transgenic plants is misleading. All crop plants have been bred to be very different from their wild ancestors – they have been modified, through genetics. So the term GM begs the question ‘modified from what?’.

“Agrobacterium ‘naturally’ delivers DNA into plant cells. Scientists have used this process to deliver genes into plants that improve crop performance. There are no data to support any concerns about the method. You begin with a plant carrying 30,000 - 50,000 genes, and recover a plant carrying a few more genes. Since different crop varieties already can differ in 1000s of genes, the differences introduced by the GM method are negligible.

“It is irrational to regulate on the basis of the method by which a genetic change is delivered, rather than on the genetic change itself.

“Feeding nine billion people in 2050 will not be easy. About 10% of humans are already malnourished. Sustainable food production is an enormous challenge, especially against the unpredictable backdrop of climate change. We are going to need every tool in the toolbox. Pest and disease resistance genes enable us to replace chemistry with genetics to control many crop problems.

University of Vermont

On Twitter

“Consumer attitudes toward genetically modified food improved by 19% after mandatory GMO labeling in Vermont, finds UVMResearch”

Liz O’Neill

Director of GM Freeze, a not-for-profit campaign group on GM food, crops and patents

“GM crops won’t solve the world’s food crisis because it’s not caused by shortage of food. Rothamsted Research is currently trialling a GM wheat with “improved photosynthesis” to increase yield, but nobody is starving because of some fundamental flaw with photosynthesis; they are starving because they are poor. If we want to address malnutrition we need to start by understanding the political problems that prevent access to nutritious, culturally appropriate food.

“It can be difficult to de-couple the harm caused by GM herbicide tolerant and Bt-toxin-producing crops due to the fact they are GM, from the fundamental problems of industrial farming. Herbicide-tolerant ‘super’ weeds, loss of biodiversity and soil damage are all caused by a mix of factors but what remains at the heart of the GM project is a belief that we can solve systemic problems one gene at a time. We can’t. Resilience in an uncertain future relies on diversity, not GM monocultures.”

Chris Vogliano

MS, RD, dietitian, nutritionist and research fellow at Bioversity International

“Modifying genes has been a part of growing food since the dawn of agriculture. New technologies have allowed us to speed up this natural process. There are risks with any new technology and it should be researched and regulated appropriately.

“There are, however, benefits that could come from enhancing crops in the face of climate change and malnutrition. My biggest concern is with genetic modification scaling up single crop varieties, which leads to large mono-cultured crops. This has a long-term negative impact on the environment.

“Earth is already rich with genetically diverse food crops that are currently neglected, underutilised, and lost. Leveraging existing biodiverse foods could prove less expensive and more sustainable. However, as our climate continues to change, our population rises, and crops become less nutritious - we must utilise all of our evidence-based tools in a science-based and ethical manner that aims to improve the health of people and the planet.”