The recent Rome food crisis summit has reinvigorated the debate about genetically modified (GM) crops as a solution to hunger. But GM proponents couldn’t be further removed from critics than now.
The GM lobby has jumped on global warming. The lobby frequently cites the argument that improving food crops prevents hunger. And that sounds good. The planet’s exploding demography problems are closely linked with global warming. By the year 2050, it’s estimated that the world population will be around 9.3 billion. This means that in only a few millennia, the world population will grow by a massive 3 billion. Feeding all the people will have a dramatic impact on our food production. It already has. Millions of hectares of rainforests and wilderness have been destroyed to fullfil the global population’s energy needs. And accelerating CO2 problems.
So who could argue that better crop yields are a bad thing? The better your crops perform, the less land you need, so the logic goes. But as GM trials have rolled out over the past decade, the argument has turned out to be unsupported by the facts. Various studies deeply undermine the claim that GM crops have higher yields and are of better quality and taste.
The most recent one of those studies was the United Nations report entitled International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development, which indicates that the negative side effects of GM foods are being neglected beyond what’s acceptable.
The report’s timing coincides with a consumer awakening. Now, some thirteen years after the first GM tomatoes went on sale commercially, it’s beginning to dawn on increasing numbers of people that the blessings of GM are a mixed bag to say the very least. Controversies and GM mishaps reported in the media over the past decade will be revisited again and again because the GM regulations of the US, Canada and the European Union all are long overdue. These regulatory processes tend to go accompanied with in-depth public consultations.
The agronomy department of the University of Kansas recently published research revealing that GM soybeans commercially distributed to farmers do not grow spontaneously. The research, published in the journal Better Crops, found that the plants died if they were not given a dose of manganese.
Other research, by the University of Nebraska, showed that another variety of a Monsanto GM soybean rendered average yields of 6% less than conventional soybeans. US officials at the Department of Agriculture took note of this according to a report in the UK Independent newspaper. The article indicates that the normally rather pro-GM officers said that GM crops might actually have lower yields than their biological counterparts. Nebraska University academics point out that by the time a plant has been fully modified, conventional plants are being developed that outperform GM plants. So if one issue is being understood by all involved in agriculture right now it is that timing is of the essence. Which might be no bad thing given the food crises in 36 countries around the world.
Other majorly damaging issues have involved Monsanto´s pesticide Roundup. Many of its seedlings are immune to this product. Professor Gordon’s findings are supported by 5 similar studies conducted between 2001 and 2007, which all show that glyphosate applied to Roundup Ready soybeans inhibits the uptake of important nutrients essential to plant health and performance. The resultant mineral deficiencies have been implicated in various problems, from increased disease susceptibility to inhibition of photosynthesis. Thus, the same factors implicated in the GM soya yield drag may also be responsible for increased susceptibility to disease.
That all sounds ugly enough but what to make of the assertion that GM crops can help feed the hungry? Not at all, say many scientists. The UK’s Soil Association comments on this issue when responding to a trust building campaign by the UK´s GM lobby. "GM […] products have never led to overall increases in production, and have sometimes decreased yields or even led to crop failures. As oil becomes scarcer and more expensive, we need to move away from oil dependent GM crops to producing food sustainably, using renewable energy, as is the case with organic farming," according to the Soil Association.
According to a study by independent US scientists the only crop that has actually shown yield increases enough to be described as a trend has been Bt maize. Now here´s the catch; the corn is not yielding any better as a result of being engineered. The study published in Sciencedirect.com points out that ‘the rate of increase is no greater after than before biotech varieties were introduced’. In other words, it was just a massively strong plant without having been doctored on.
The public perception of GM crops is not favorable at all. Monsanto’s tests with the NK603 maize which is known for its immunity to the Roundup pesticide has caused uproar in the Netherlands. The project has been interpreted by Greenpeace activists as a political move -designed to test public perception- and last month the activists threw a spanner in the works. They dispersed millions of flower seeds on the Monsanto project using two confetti cannons. The flowers grow a lot quicker than the corn and will prevent the pollination of the corn plants.
In the next decade or so, the debate about GM controversies will intensify and any misgivings are not taken too lightly. Already, federal US courts and top EU policymakers have intervened to prevent certain types of GM licenses from being approved. Last year, US Federal Courts overruled Department of Agriculture (USDA) decisions to allow three types of GM crops. And last month, the European Commission, Europe´s top policians, rejected official recommendations by official EU food and health safety experts to allow three GM crops. The decision reflected strong objections to GM crops in some European countries.