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Calm please – it’s not all about the environment

Cormac Sheridan replies to Frank Armstrong’s article about GMOs in the last edition of Village 


The recent furore over a proposal from the agricultural research agency Teagasc to conduct field trials of genetically-modified (GM) blight-resistant potatoes was wholly predictable, but, given the parochial nature of the debate that ensued, also pretty lamentable. It exemplified the zero-sum, either-or kind of thinking that has made any balanced public dialogue on the role of biotechnology in agriculture almost impossible. Fourteen years after this country last considered the technology -that debate fizzled out when saboteurs disrupted Monsanto’s field trials of genetically-modified sugar beet – it seems that little has changed, even if the wider context has changed utterly. The last issue of Village (May-June 2012) published a report on climate change by Michael Smith that made no mention of how the globe’s agricultural systems can or will adapt to the unfolding crisis and a scientifically-flawed report by Frank Armstrong slamming GM crops that made no mention of climate change. We in Ireland may not have – and may never have – any need for GM potatoes but, given the pressing concerns about global food-security, population growth and the continuing obscenity of one billion people not having enough to eat, we cannot afford to cast aside any approach—biotech, organic, low intensity or conventional—that can play a role in increasing food production.

Legitimate concerns about the ownership and control of genetic-modification technology, have always been indiscriminately lumped in with Domesday scenarios of GM crops unleashing environmental meltdown and undefined, but nevertheless catastrophic, effects on public health. The notion that genetically-modified crops – all of them, regardless of crop, trait or habitat – represent a grave threat to human health, the environment and the security of the global food chain is as reductive and simplistic as the claim that genetic-modification technology will feed the world. Scientific truth, to the extent that it can be established, is a frequent casualty of these rhetorical clashes. Writing in the Indian journal Economic & Political Weekly in May N Chandrasekhara Rao, an Indian development economist, and Ronald Herring, a US anthropologist, describe the dynamic thus: “Corporate interests in biotechnology promise miracle seeds; opponents have interests in demonstrating technology failure. There are markets for both narratives and interests in their production”.

In India, adoption of Bt cotton (it carries a gene from a bacterial species, Bacillus thuringiensis, which confers resistance to several insect pests) has been a significant and widely-documented success, in  improving farmer incomes and health due to lower pesticide use. (See ‘Measuring the Contribution of Bt Cotton Adoption to India’s Cotton Yields Leap, International  Food Policy Research Institute Discussion Paper, 5 April 2012, Nevertheless popular narratives propagated by opponents of GM crops wrongly cast Bt cotton as the main cause of farmer suicide, a real and tragic phenomenon in India that long predates the introduction of Bt cotton. “The catastrophe narrative”, Rao and Herring note, “is widely distributed but devoid of evidence. Field studies of Bt cotton hybrids in India demonstrate variance in outcomes, but fail to support claims of technology failure”.

Genetic-modification technology is a tool that may offer farmers economic and environmental benefits. It is not a panacea, and its adoption has been far from perfect. For example, farmers in some parts of the US who indiscriminately embraced Monsanto’s ‘RoundUp Ready’ user-friendly soyabean cropping system, which is based on engineering into seeds resistance to a herbicide called glyphosate, are now facing significant problems with the emergence of glyphosate-resistant weeds. The issue is more accurately framed as a crop-management problem rather than the end of civilisation as we know it – it does not represent a death knell for the technology. A range of solutions is available, including growing cover crops and employing crop rotation. It does, however, represent a very significant loss of credibility for Monsanto among advocates of GM crops (obviously it never had any among its opponents). The biotechnology firm had played down concerns about the emergence of resistance before the introduction of the RoundUp Ready system, which it has licensed to over 200 other seed companies.

Although there appears to be no slowdown in the adoption of genetic-modification technology, some plant-breeders regard its contribution to agriculture as overstated. Thus far, only simple traits, based on a single gene, have been incorporated into GM crop varieties. Complex traits, such as drought-resistance or salt-tolerance, which could benefit farmers working in arid regions, for example, are not easily defined at a genetic level and cannot be readily transferred into crop varieties. Some scientists place more faith in alternative approaches, chief among them being marker-assisted selection (MAS), which does not result in the development of genetically-engineered  crops. Although MAS is decades old, advances in plant genomics have boosted its utility and have allowed plant breeders to pinpoint desirable genetic traits with increasing levels of precision. Others are focussed on fundamental questions about plant biology, such as unpicking the molecular mechanisms underpinning heterosis, or hybrid vigour, a poorly-understood phenomenon that plant breeders have nevertheless exploited for a century. Tweaking this could result in new varieties with enhanced performance. Rewiring the photosynthetic machinery of major crop plants, such as rice, is another long-term project.

The evolution of genetic-modification technology in agriculture is now nearing a significant juncture. Patents covering the first generation of GM crops will expire shortly, and Monsanto’s RoundUp Ready system will become a public-domain technology after 2014. Open-source innovation concepts, which have already reshaped software development, are slowly beginning to infiltrate the world of biotechnological innovation as well. Cambia, an Australian not-for-profit social enterprise founded by plant biologist Richard Jefferson, has played an influential role in setting the agenda, although the extent to which these ideas will kick-start a major open-source movement in crop development remains unclear.

Ireland is insulated from many of the climatic, ecological and economic problems that threaten to undermine agriculture elsewhere. We’re not facing the hard choices that many other countries are grappling with. But any serious consideration of how agriculture will unfold in the coming decades must surely look beyond the “half a rood of rock” that we occupy—and acknowledge that there is no single solution, agricultural or otherwise, to the deeply complex problem of ensuring food security for all in the coming decades.