Below, Richard C. Jennings looks at the use of modern genetic technologies of plant breeding for increasing agricultural productivity. The author notes the wide range of such technologies that are available and considers the debate that has developed over one of them – genetic modification. He argues that for this particular technology to succeed the GM industry must be open in evaluating the safety of these new plant breeds.
Genetic Technology and Agricultural Efficiencies
It is almost universally accepted that recent developments in the genetic technologies of plant breeding can help to increase agricultural efficiencies and save people from hunger in a sustainable manner. For many people this is taken to refer to the genetic modification (GM) of food crops. However GM is only one of the many new technologies that our understanding of genetics makes possible, and the progress of genetic technology and agricultural research offers many other and more effective methods for increasing agricultural efficiencies. Allergen-free peanuts, striga-resistant cowpeas, salt-resistant wheat, beta-carotene rich sweet potatoes, and virus-resistant cassavas have all been produced without recourse to GM1 – these are among the many non-GM success stories.
The Future of Food and Farming
In January 2011, the UK Government Office for Science published a report on The Future of Food and Farming.2 This report, argues that “New technologies (such as the genetic modification of living organisms and the use of cloned livestock and nanotechnology) should not be excluded a priori on ethical or moral grounds” but it puts little emphasis on these new technologies. Instead, it argues that “much can be done today with existing knowledge… any claims that a single or particular new technology [e.g., GM] is a panacea are foolish” (p. 11). The report notes that GM food crops have so far been largely a commercial product and, though their use is increasing, they still make up only a small part of worldwide food production. The report rates biotechnology highly as a source of increasing food production, but GM crops are not of central interest – rather they are included with cloned livestock and nanotechnology as potential sources of improvement. In this report of over 200 pages “genetic modification” is only mentioned eight times. Much is made of what genetic technology offers in the way of developing new varieties and breeds of crops, as well as livestock and aquatic organisms, but GM is only mentioned as a last measure:
Modern genetics offers new ways to select for desirable traits (for example, marker-assisted selection) that are far more efficient than traditional breeding. They make use of information about an organism’s genome … offering the prospect of the improvement of relatively neglected species. … Yet some advances would also require, or could be done faster or more efficiently, using genetic modification or techniques such as animal cloning. (pp. 90-91).
In a word, modern genetic technology has much to offer, but GM is only a small part of that offering.
IAASTD Global Report
One of the most well developed and well balanced analyses of the state of world-wide agriculture is provided by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) which was initiated in 2002 by the World Bank, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The Report consists of a Global Report, a Synthesis Report, an Executive Summary (ES) of the Synthesis Report, and various summaries and sub-reports.3 The Assessment aims to provide an analysis of the state of agriculture across all regions of the world and what is needed for the development and sustainability needed to feed a growing world population. It addresses the world-wide complexity and diversity of agricultural knowledge, science and technology (AKST) and asks: “…how can ASKT be used to reduce hunger and poverty, improve rural livelihoods, and facilitate equitable environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable development?” (ES, 3)
One of the most important recognitions of the Report is that modern biotechnology is only one of many contributions to sustainable development of world agriculture. A leading concern in the report is the number and needs of small-scale farmers in the world, the fact that the poor in the world are mainly rural poor, and that the most effective way to alleviate the poverty and hunger of rural populations is to improve the productivity of small-scale farmers. The Report states that the policies and institutional changes it envisages “Should be directed primarily at … resource-poor farmers, women and ethnic minorities” (ES, 4-5). The Report argues that biotechnology may well have a place in responding to this concern, but should only be implemented once the health, environmental, and social impact has been assessed. The ideal is to combine indigenous knowledge and local best practice with any acceptable biotechnology – to develop partnership between farmers and scientists. Such a partnership will encourage and enable farmers to “manage soils, water, biological resources, pests, disease vectors, genetic diversity, and conserve natural resources in a culturally appropriate manner” (ES, 5).
Biotechnology in the IAASTD report is not confined to GM. It states that:
[Biotechnology] is a broad term embracing the manipulation of living organisms and spans the large range of activities from conventional techniques for fermentation and plant and animal breeding to recent innovations in tissue culture, irradiation, genomics and marker-assisted breeding (MAB) or marker assisted selection (MAS) to augment natural breeding.” (ES, 8)
The report recognises the current controversy over “the use of recombinant DNA techniques to produce transgenes that are inserted into genomes” (ES, 8), that is, the controversy over GM crops. But in spite of the controversy over GM, there still remains a wide range of useful modern technologies for crop development. The IAASTD Report is certainly not opposed to the use of GM as a technique – recognising as it does, that these are early days and many of the points of contention are as yet undecided
Genetic Technology in a Global Context
So far, as pointed out by the UK Government report, The Future of Food and Farming, GM has only been seriously developed for commercial purposes – the benefits that it offers to industrial farmers has facilitated its widespread distribution in the North America, some countries in South America, and a few other countries in the world. But it is still only a small part of the global food supply. Can this technology provide the basis for worldwide agricultural development? There are a number of concerns that are shared globally by the critics of GM technology and which inhibit such development.
One of the central issues that concerns the critics of GM food is the intellectual property rights that it creates, and the consequent damage to global equity. This is particularly true when GM seeds are not sold to the farmer and are not owned by the farmer, but are only licensed to the farmer for one planting as is normally the case for GM seeds. If national food security is to be attained, it will require that the seed be owned by the farmer, or at least by the nation. National food security depends on national ownership of the means of food production. This is a problem that does not affect organic agriculture, nor even conventional agriculture – it is unique to GM agriculture. The problem might be overcome by creating public licenses as found in the free software movement, but so much of the technology is already owned by corporations within the biotechnology industry that it becomes difficult to see how this can be achieved.
Another concern is the possible hazards to human health that GM poses. Much research has been done on the health impact of GM foods – mainly through feeding studies on rats – but no consensus has been reached. Indeed there is a raging and highly polarised debate over the hazards of GM foods. On one side is industry and several national governments, including the US and UK governments, who claim that it has been shown that there are no health hazards. On the other side are various critics, including a number of Non-Governmental Organizations, who claim that there is evidence of harm to animal and human health that results from eating GM food. Each side offers support for their views in the form of scientific studies published in peer-reviewed journals.
There is a certain asymmetry in the logic of the debate over health and safety issues between the industry and the critics. Insofar as the critics wish to establish that there are health risks from GM foods, they only need to show real cases of health damage. They do not need to show that all GM food causes damage to health, only that some does. However on the industry side the story is different – the industry wishes to claim that there are no health risks, or at least there is no evidence of health risk. But such universal claims can be falsified merely by providing one instance of health damage resulting from GM food. Now, it may be that some GM foods are safe to eat and some are not. But without an adequate method for testing the safety of GM foods this will never be known. And this is a fact that particularly bothers the critics – the fact that the industry works very hard to deconstruct their evidence of health damage and to undermine adequate testing methods.
This asymmetry also means that those who want to defend the claim that GM foods are harmless must be very vigilant for any sign of discontent with this position. Of course there are those who monitor, record and compile evidence of the hazards of GM foods, and they publish this evidence in various places. One of the best compilations of evidence of the harm of GM food is “GMO Myths and Truths” published by earthopensource.4 The vigilance of GM defenders is clear in the authors’ complaint that:
Not everyone appreciated GMO Myths and Truths. GMO lobbyists launched attacks against it in online forums. These people are online 24/7, defending GMOs. They criticize GMO Myths and Truths every time someone cites it in an article, blog, or online post. While we may be able to manage a couple of comments in response before we have to do our work or otherwise live our lives, the GMO lobbyists seem to have nothing else to do than defend GMOs and attack GMO critics again and again, for hours or days on end. (pp. 12-13)
A recent example of this is the response evoked by the publication of results of a two year feeding trial comparing a control group of rats with a group that had GM maize in their diet, and another group with low levels of glyphosate herbicide in their diets. The study was published by Gilles-Eric Séralini et al. in the Journal of Food and Chemical Toxicology. The publication was immediately attacked on various grounds, and, after about a year, and after the arrival on the editorial board of an ex Monsanto employee, the publication was redacted. The justification for the redaction was that the article was “inconclusive”, but for the critics of GM it was clear that the article was too damaging to the general claim that GM foods are harmless, and had to be eliminated. In the same way, the industry has campaigned vigorously to prevent the labelling of foods containing GM ingredients in various states in the US.
Genetic modification may offer the possibility of providing additional help in saving people from hunger, and it is worth continuing to develop this particular technology along with the other useful technologies. GM technologies have made some contribution to agricultural efficiencies, but they have also created problems, such as the development of super-weeds now afflicting American farmers.5 But most worrying is still the fact that numerous studies have produced evidence that GM may produce foods that are hazardous to our health. If the GM industry is going to survive the opposition that is gathering world wide momentum, it will need to be more open about what it is doing, take seriously the studies showing the health hazards of some GM foods, and stop attempting to suppress and hide the evidence of harm provided by these studies.
About the Author
Dr Richard C. Jennings is an Affiliated Research Scholar in the University of Cambridge Department of History and Philosophy of Science. His research interests are focused on the Responsible Conduct of Research, and the ethical uses of science and technology. He co-edited with David Bennett Successful Agricultural Innovation in Emerging Economies: New Genetic Technologies for Global Food Production published in March 2013 by Cambridge University Press.
1. For a thorough documenting of the these successes in genetic technology, see: https://www.gmwatch.eu/index.php/articles/non-gm-successes
2. GO-Science (Government Office for Science) (2011). The Future of Food and Farming–Challenges and Choices for Global Sustainability.,http://www.gov.uk/government/publications/future-of-food-and-farming
3. IAASTD (2008). Agriculture at a Crossroads. The Global Report (606 pp.), the Synthesis Report (106 pp.), and various summaries and sub-reports are available in pdf format at:
4. Michael Antoniou, Claire Robinson, John Fagan (June 2014), GMO Myths and Truths: An evidence-based examination of the claims made for the safety and efficacy of genetically modified crops
5. Union of Concerned Scientists (December 2013) The Rise of Superweeds—and What to Do About It