Genetically modified organisms: the answer to food security?
Image credit: Monsanto
Since entering into the global spotlight in the 1970s, genetically modified organisms have been met with both praise and disdain. Indeed, GM foods have become a contention for many on both sides of the lab bench - but are all the worries justified?
In the late 1970s, the world experienced two of the biggest oil spills in human history. On 3 June 1979, the Ixtoc I exploratory oil well blew out and spewed 450,000 tonnes of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico during the 10 months it was active. Less than a month later, two oil tankers collided in the Caribbean with catastrophic results. As the SS Atlantic Empress and Aegean Captain sank to the ocean floor, 287,000 tonnes of oil escaped metal containers and wreaked havoc on the local ecosystem. Inspired by the devastation of the nearly 40 oil spills that came before these accidents, genetic engineer Professor Ananda Chakrabarty was fighting an all-out battle in the US legal system when these two incidents hit the headlines. His crusade? He was fighting for the right to patent what history remembers as being the first genetically modified organism (GMO).
It was a new species of Pseudomonas bacteria - later named Pseudomonas putida - that Chakrabarty created by crosslinking the genes of four bacteria already known for their ability to metabolise oil. His ‘super-bacterium’ could consume more oil from spills than any one of its predecessors could achieve on their own, and it was faster at carrying out this biological task.
Nearly four decades on from the Diamond v Chakrabarty court case - which resulted in a showdown in front of the US Supreme Court, ultimately ending in Chakrabarty’s favour - genetic modification is no longer focused solely on increasing an organism’s ability to gobble up oil.
One sector where genetic modification has played a large role is agriculture. According to Brian Chassy, professor emeritus of food science and human nutrition at the University of Illinois, this should come as no surprise. “For thousands of years humans have been directing evolution in a way that is beneficial. The crops we grow today do not look anything like their wild ancestors,” he states. “Since the age of hunter-gathers, we have been selecting crops for domestic fitness and traits that suit us, such as low toxicity, good flavour, high yield and resistance to insects.”
The main difference between this process and using GMOs, Chassy notes, is that through genetic modification scientists are introducing new genes to organisms to generate traits that would not exist otherwise.
This distinction can be seen in the first genetically modified food declared safe and legal for human consumption: the Flavr Savr tomato. Scientists at the biotechnology company Calgene in Davis, California, found a way to put an antisense gene into the tomato that would lengthen its shelf life. The gene did this by slowing the production of pectin depolymerase, an enzyme that fruits release during the ripening process to become softer and sweeter. By giving the Flavr Savr tomato the go-ahead to enter the supermarket, the US Food and Drug Administration opened the door for the many GM foods that have followed.
In the years since, genetic engineers and biotechnologists have used genetic modification to affect the traits of cereal and fruit crops the world over.
According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, herbivorous insects are responsible for destroying approximately one-fifth of the world’s total crop production annually. Another 10 per cent of crop losses are caused by weeds, which are in direct competition with crops for essential inputs such as sunlight, water and nutrients.
In the face of a world where 795 million people - more people than the population of the EU - are suffering from severe hunger and chronic undernourishment, and acknowledging the fact that an additional two billion people are expected to be on the planet by 2050, it is a loss that cannot be sustained.
Scientists proffer GMOs as one solution to help overcome these problems and to help feed the population of tomorrow. “This technology is simply a fairly precise and powerful method of changing DNA in organisms for breeding purposes so that we could improve a crop, animal or microbe in whatever way we perceived as being beneficial,” Chassy explains.
To date, biotechnologists have used GMOs as a tool to make crops more resistant to insects, diseases and drought and to increase their herbicide resistance to effectively snuff out weeds without taking out the target crop.
According to ‘GM crops: global socio-economic and environmental impacts 1996-2014’, a report released by the co-directors of the agricultural consultancy firm PG Economics, Graham Brookes and Peter Barfoot, the benefits that such actions have had on the agricultural industry are large and quantifiable. In the 18-year period in question, the pair concluded that average yield gain for insect-resistant corn was 13.1 per cent relative to conventional production systems, and the volume of herbicides used in GM maize crops also decreased by 8.4 per cent (approximately 210 million kg). Yield gains were even higher for insect-resistant cotton, which experienced a 17.3 per cent increase in the same time frame.
According to the consultancy, there are positive environmental effects correlated with the increased use of GMOs. For example, pesticide spraying reduced by 581 million kg between 1996 and 2014, and there is evidence that farmers are increasingly adopting conservation tillage practices, which reduces the amount of carbon dioxide emitted from upturning soil. And, says Brooke, where farmers have been given the choice of growing GM crops, they earned more money than their non-GM crop growing neighbors, earning “an average of over $100/hectare in 2014. Two-thirds of these benefits derive from higher yields and extra production, with farmers in developing countries seeing the highest gains.”
Despite the benefits that GMOs offer, not everyone is convinced of their merit.
Members of the public who oppose the widespread use of GMOs have done so on many grounds, including fears about GMOs not being natural. Chassy opposes this point of view, pointing out that there is nothing inherently positive about being natural, and this alone should not be used as a yardstick to judge if something is safe. “The fact that something is natural doesn’t inform my evaluation of something’s safety or efficacy. Some of the most toxic things on this planet occur naturally e.g. arsenic, strychnine, belladonna and nicotine.”
Many GMO opponents have called for the labelling of GM crops and foods that contain them. This argument dates back to one of the first articles about GMOs in The New York Times. In 1994, when the Flavr Savr tomato hit the shelves, Jeremy Rifkin of the Pure Food Campaign argued: “Consumers have a right to know if there is something different in their tomato.” However, scientists question the validity of such labels and argue that they would suggest there is something to fear, which science shows is not the case.
This leads to a third concern. In 2015, the US-based Pew Research Center, which calls itself “a nonpartisan fact tank,” released a study which found that many members of the public fear that GM crops could pose a risk to human health. According to the study: “A majority of the general public (57 per cent) says that genetically modified foods are generally unsafe to eat.”
According to scientific bodies, including the National Research Council to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and non-governmental organisations such as the World Health Organization, these concerns are unfounded.
The European Commission stated this emphatically in its publication ‘A Decade of EU-funded GMO Research’: “The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.”
One point that those concerned about widespread GMO adoption would like to see more attention given to is the topic of socio-ecological resilience. Sophie Laggan, research fellow at Schumacher Institute for Sustainable Systems,research assistant at Royal Swedish Academy of Science and hub leader Food Cycle Bristol, explains: “Social-ecological resilience refers not only the ability of a system to adapt and respond to change but also the ability to transform when it is no longer tenable.
“Social and ecological systems are inextricably linked - we depend on nature for our survival, and likewise nature needs our careful management to ensure it can regenerate indefinitely for the benefit of future generations. When we try to find ways to solve problems in the food system we need to make social-ecological resilience central to our decision making.”
Laggan worries that by playing all of its cards of GM crops, society is attempting to patch over the real problems plaguing both the agro-industry and society at large: namely that the food system contributes 17 per cent of the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing climate change and that GMOs encourage farmers to plant the same crop in a field year after year, which could have knock-on effects due to lack of diversity in a so-called monoculture system.
Opponents to monoculture - such as Doug Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace UK - are concerned that in an attempt to replenish the nutrients in the soil that would have been provided by other plant and microbial life, farmers will increase their use of fertilisers and chemicals. They are concerned that the monoculture system will lead to soil degradation due to a reduction in other plant life, such as ground-cover crops, which act to shield the soil from the effects of erosion caused by wind and rain.
“We would like to see a move away from monocultural industrial agriculture, which is efficient in terms of labour and money, but very inefficient in terms of land and water, and destructive to ecosystems and wildlife,” Parr notes.
The BioAg Alliance is a unique partnership between the US agricultural company Monsanto and the Danish biotechnology company Novozymes, which is listening to the diversity and soil quality concerns raised by those promoting resilient food systems. It is trying to come up with microbial-based agricultural solutions that address some of these concerns.
Specifically, the BioAg Alliance is investigating microbes such as bacteria, fungi and algae - which are integral to the health of all ecosystems - to create products that can be used to improve the diversity in soil, while also increasing crop yield and reducing inputs.
The BioAg Alliance has already introduced two types of microbial product to the market, one which helps plants take up nutrients, and the other which can help protect plants against pests, disease and weeds. On 5 December, it launched a third, a seed coating called Acceleron B-300 Sat, developed jointly by Monsanto and Novozyme teams.
Regardless of the innovations that come out of the BioAg Alliance, one outcome is certain: Monsanto - which has been at the forefront of hearing the concerns of GMO opponents for decades due to its long history of work in the agricultural space - plans on paying particular attention to sharing the science behind the BioAg Alliance’s innovations and their implications with the public.
“One of the things that we as Monsanto could have done a better job of earlier on is explaining what biotechnology is, what GMOs are, the science behind them and why they are safe. We will be doing a lot more education early on about the science, and if you go to our website, you will see that we are focusing more about talking about what the technology is, and what the technology is not,” John Combest, media communications manager at Monsanto, says. “We have taken the learnings from the last 20 years concerning the confusion and misinformation surrounding biotechnology, and we are looking to avoid those same challenges.”
Genetics and Greenpeace
Greenpeace’s opposition to Golden Rice - a genetically modified form of rice that produces beta carotene in an effort to counteract Vitamin A deficiency in the developing world - hit headlines earlier this year when 121 Nobel laureates released a signed letter calling for the environmental group to end its campaign against GMOs.
The organisation’s opposition to Golden Rice began in 2012 when US-funded researchers published a paper in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition outlining a nutritional study carried out in China in which the researchers admitted to feeding Golden Rice to children without informing their parents that they were eating GM food.
In this recent letter, the Nobel laureates have accused Greenpeace of “severely and repeatedly misrepresenting facts” related to Golden Rice’s effectiveness and underlined the point that “GMOS are at least as safe as crops produced with other breeding methods”.
Wilhelmina Pelegrina, campaigner at Greenpeace Southeast Asia, responded with the following: “Corporations are overhyping ‘Golden’ Rice to pave the way for global approval of other more profitable genetically engineered crops... Rather than invest in this overpriced public relations exercise, we need to address malnutrition through a more diverse diet, equitable access to food and eco-agriculture.”