Once again, genetically modified crops are in the news for all the wrong reasons. In Western Australia’s Supreme Court, organic farmer Steve Marsh is suing his neighbour and fellow farmer Michael Baxter for allegedly ruining his crop by contaminating it with GM canola.
Marsh lost his organic certification as a result, and members of the green movement have rallied to his cause. But the case is just the latest episode in a saga that has left scientists like myself bemused at the strength with which the public has been swept up by the anti-GM movement.
We thought we were generating a useful and benign technology, but instead find ourselves portrayed as purveyors of doom and disaster. Where did it all go wrong?
When I entered the field of plant pathology 30 years ago, techniques for genetic manipulation of plants had just been established, and it was clear that plants have genes that protect against disease. It seemed a simple matter to find those genes and express them in crop plants.
It wasn’t quite that simple, but by about 2000 the genetic basis of disease resistance was well understood and techniques to express genes in most crop plants had been established. So why aren’t we now enjoying the benefit of GM disease-resistant plants?
The biggest problem is that public anxiety about genetic modification has stymied progress.
A long history of regulation
Genetic modification is, I believe, unique in the history of science in that its original developers were the first to exercise caution and suggest a moratorium, at the famous Asilomar Conference in 1975. This led to a set of regulations under which we all work still today.
After a few years, the scientists realised that working with genetically modified versions of organisms such as cancer viruses was no more dangerous – and often much less dangerous – than working with the unaltered version. Nonetheless, the regulations have never been relaxed, with the result that today, the regulatory hurdles of GM crop production add tens of millions of dollars to the costs of the research.
Researching the risks
The risks of GM crops have been talked about for 25 years and not a single shred of reliable evidence of significant harm to environment or human health has been found.
I took part in a large European Union project in the 1990s to assess the risks of genes from GM crops spreading through the environment. Dozens of researchers worked for five years to identify issues of concern. They found almost nothing – the conferences were easily the most boring I have ever attended.
A couple of well-publicised cases – the first in the late 1990s, when Arpad Pusztai fed GM potatoes to rats, and more recently when Gilles-Eric Seralini made his now retracted claim that GM maize was carcinogenic – have purported to show a health risk associated with GM food. Both studies have since been discredited.
Organic crops do not receive anything like to same attention. A US Centres for Disease Control project found that people who eat organic food are eight times more likely to get infected by E. coli. In Germany, 53 people died and many more permanently disabled from eating organic bean sprouts in 2011. Imagine if GM crops were blamed for even one case of the ‘flu.
Controlling our food?
Another accusation levelled at GM crops is that big companies are “controlling our food”, forcing farmers to buy seeds each year from a monopoly supplier. People too easily forget that farmers have a choice of many types of seed. The huge expansion of the area sown to GM suggests that farmers are increasingly happy to use them. Crops from which seeds can’t be resown (for biological and legal reasons), such as maize and canola hybrids, have been around for nearly 100 years.
Organic farmers argue that coexistence is impossible because they receive a premium for their product and that GM contamination destroys their organic status. But this situation arises from the total rejection by the organic movement of all things GM over the past two decades.
Organic certification depends on a set of arbitrary rules; if the rules permitted a small mixture, there would be no case to answer. The organic movement’s total rejection of GM is irrational, especially as GM has reduced pesticide use. Why are they more worried about mixture from a GM crop treated with glyphosate than a conventional crop treated with a less benign herbicide such as triazine?
Call for coexistence
All three cropping systems (conventional, GM and organic) could coexist. This is best illustrated by the case of papaya ring spot virus in Hawaii, where a sustained epidemic of the virus had severely reduced papaya yields.
Since 1995, a GM virus-resistant cultivar has been grown very successfully. Before then, an organic crop would have been unthinkable because the virus was rife. But now, because the virus levels are so low, it is possible to grow organic papaya in among the GM crop.
The anti-GM movement should be more open to considering examples of positive co-existence such as this.
I don’t see this as a question of ignorance or ideology. Instead, I would suggest that it may be a clash with their commercial and employment interests. The anti-GM movement is spearheaded by a handful of national and multinational organisations, some with very large staffs and budgets. As a result the movement is sustained with the help of subscriptions from anxious members of the public.
Unlike scientists, who are trained to listen to arguments and accept the best evidence, the anti-GM multinationals would evidently prefer to spread anxiety rather than listen and work collaboratively with us.
The way forward
How can we resolve this impasse and move on? If handled correctly, GM crops hold great promise to help maximise the production of safe crops with minimal use of scarce resources. There is a case for their use on grounds of better water efficiency, lower greenhouse emissions, and reduced pesticide use.
Here are some more questions for anti-GM campaigners to consider.
Do they oppose the use of pharmaceuticals developed using GM technology, such as insulin and growth hormones? How would they feel about the resurgence of diabetes and dwarfism that would await if we stopped using them?
Would they want to see people die or go blind through vitamin A deficiency, rather than eat Golden Rice? These are troubling questions for many people. But they need to be answered if we are to consider properly how we want science to be harnessed for progress.