Today’s paradox: non-GM crops help promote GMO

This week the EU considers decentralising the rules on the production of Genetically Modified Organisms. If they do so, it won’t be Brussels stating GMO risks are unacceptable, but individual member states deciding for themselves – no doubt weighing in their own economic arguments.

Everything about GMO is politics, with advocates and opponents equally confident of their own arguments. The divide runs parallel to the Atlantic rift. And when you read an American study that focuses on a corn pest named European corn borer, you know you have to be extra careful, Science editors.

They did however publish in last Friday’s edition (vol 330, issue 6001) and it is indeed an interesting read.

The main argument of ‘the Americans’ is [irony?] more food is better. Of course it’s very easy to place this in its own sustainability context. As even China eases down on birth restrictions, global population is expected to surpass 9 billion within four decades. With better distribution of wealth a bigger percentage of the world population switches to an inefficient meat-based diet. The first generation biofuels may have been a misstep, but we’ll still be needing lots of biomass. Agricultural land hunger already contributes some 15 to 20 percent of annual anthropogenic CO2 emissions, mostly at the cost of rainforests – and with 20 percent of plant life already at risk of extinction. Carry on the rationale and you may even reach the conclusion GMO efficiency could help preserve biodiversity.

This does not in any way prove the GM opponents wrong. It’s hard to compare the arguments of what is in the end an economic lobby, with an ecological risk assessment. Last week Dr Michael Antoniou, a leading expert on genetic engineering for medical purposes and Head of the Nuclear Biology Group at King’s College, joined the critics of agricultural use of GM technology. He is an interesting voice in the debate, as he himself works with genetically modified organisms, investigating human gene therapy in an attempt to combat diseases in humans – so in their special on GMO last week, the BBC’s One World allowed him ample airtime:

“I’m not comfortable at all with the way that GM is being used in agriculture, because compared to what we do in a clinical context, where not only all the research is done under contained use, but even when we use our GMOs for clinical use, they’re non-replicative, they can’t reproduce and spread and cause harm.”

“…whereas in agriculture the same technology is being used in an open field. The organisms can spread in an uncontrolled way and then we’re stuck with the consequences of that forever.” Mister Antoniou names marker assisted selection, gene mapping combined with natural breeding, as a safe alternative to developing drought-resistant, saline tolerant or simply better yielding crops.

Sceptics also argue that GMO’s proclaimed benefits are exaggerated. Some state failure to meet the world’s food demands should be tackled as an issue of insufficient distribution instead of an output problem.

Again it’s hard to compare arguments. Armed with the new study in Science the advocates can at least claim GMO does seem to improve agricultural productivity, overall. In fact, not the genetically modified crops provide their best evidence; it’s the non-GMOs that would be benefiting most.

The study, that saw all the US corn state local universities collaborating, focuses on a widespread variant of genetically altered corn, that produces a pesticide protein, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a toxic to Ostrinia nubilalis (European corn borer), a primary maize pest. Since introduction of the GM maize variant in 1996, the study shows, in the key maize-growing states of Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin and Nebraska, this lead to a 6.9 billion dollar higher corn yield.

Odd little detail: the conventional farmers saved 4.3 billion dollars of that total benefit. The authors suppose a halo effect, where the GM variant led to a decline of the maize pest on a nationwide level – also benefiting conventional farmers.

But it is strange they actually seem to benefit more – three times as much actually(!) – as in the US only 37 percent of corn comes from traditional fields with non-genetically altered corn.

One would expect the GM farmers to have had at least an equal saving of 7.3 billion dollars. So did they save their 2.6 billion – or did they lose out on 4.7 billion dollars? A tough one – let’s not bother the hardworking men in the field.

Of course, agricultural output depends on many factors – and not even only on the 50,000 ‘other’ genes in the maize genome. Perhaps the GM variant disappoints a little in practice, when compared to the somewhat better forgiving environment of a Petri dish. That is quite common for lab results, science wide, Antiniou would agree.

(c) Rolf Schuttenhelm |

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