Genetic modification: a good way forward or a bad way to fail?

What’s the problem with genetically modified (GM) crops? Or with GM livestock, GM bacteria, GM anything outside the lab? GM let loose in fields, in water, in the air?

As you know I’ve done GM in labs. To borrow a cliche from the gay world, some of my best friends do it. GM is the same thing as genetic engineering. Here’s how it’s done. But I’m not hurrying to make up my mind about GM outside the lab. It’s about people but it’s also about other organisms, about the food webs and ecosystems we rely on.

My fellow blogger Skeptical Raptor tells us that environmentalist Mark Lynas changed his mind about GM crops. Here’s what Mr Lynas said two days ago, in Farmers Weekly, about his change of opinion.

It bothers me that Mr Lynas writes only about the evidence that GM foods don’t harm people who eat them. Yes, that evidence is strong. But it’s not the whole story.

The evidence of genetic pollution is another matter. Yesterday I invited you to notice what Rakshit Agrawal at GreenSky says about pesticidal GM cotton in India. About pests evolving to outwit the genetic engineers. Here’s what SourceWatch says about herbicide-resistant GM crops in the USA. About weeds evolving to outwit the genetic engineers.

I’m reminded of the way bacteria evolve to outwit the people who make antibiotics. Antibiotic resistance is a huge and growing problem. It’s not the same as GM resistance, scientifically, but there’s a similarity. Organisms are very good at evolving. Whatever we throw at our little (or big) enemies, they usually overtake us.

If there were a simple answer about GM in my mind now, I’d tell it to you. What do you think?

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About argylesock

I wrote a PhD about veterinary parasitology so that's the starting point for this blog. But I'm now branching out into other areas of biology and into popular science writing. I'll write here about science that happens in landscapes, particularly farmland, and about science involving interspecific interactions. Datasets and statistics get my attention. Exactly where this blog will lead? That's a journey that I'm on and I hope you'll come with me.
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20 Responses to Genetic modification: a good way forward or a bad way to fail?

  1. The problem for me when reading up on GM topics is to find sources which avoid hyperbole in either direction, or research which is directly linked to one viewpoint or another. Objectivity may be harder to find in the GM discussion than many other topics.

    It is an emotive topic, and trying to strip away that layer in order to read what is underneath is often difficult, especially when reading media sources.
    The linking of the issues with the farmers directly to the GM crops is a good example, where it seems both the pro and anti GM camps have their own interpretation of the published data.
    Likewise with the resistance discussion, I can find papers supporting each view, and it seems to depend on the resistance. Roundup resistance is well documented, but in other cases, like the bt cotton, it seems that resistance is not such an issue.

    My stance is somewhere in the middle re GMO, most of what I disagree with is the corporate aspect of it, but I do agree that there are concerns regarding the environmental impacts which need to be further investigated, however, I think some sections of the media overplay GMO risks.

    • argylesock says:

      Thank you for your input. I’m taking my time to understand this issue. Rakshit Agrawal at GreenSky wrote about Bt cotton in India, in the post of his (?) that I reblogged here yesterday.

  2. Finn Holding says:

    I think the concept of GM has been hijacked by so many vested interests that it is almost impossible to be objective. From what I know about GM crops the issue of danger to the consumer has largely been overplayed by the environmental movement to score points, which is a shame as it discredits their genuine arguments. However, I think the green movement has a very valid point indeed about the danger to ecosystems of widespread use of GM crops and the associated chemicals.

    And that, I think, is the key issue. You may remember the introduction of ‘terminator genes’ some years ago which companies like Monsanto tried to foist on Indian farmers. The technology involved the use of infertile seeds and the associated agrochemicals, both of which, I believe were supplied by Monsanto and because the seeds were infertile the farmers had to buy new seed every year… from Monsanto. I also seem to remember they tied developing world farmers into contracts whereby they were not allowed to use fertile seed. The technology is unproven with regard to feeding people and conserving the environment but will generate colossal incomes for biotech companies. And due to the immense sums of money involved politicians have queued up to jump on the bandwagon to champion the cause

    So the whole GM story is one of sleazy capitalism and despite the claims of the biotech industry and the politicians I think it is likely to add little or nothing to longer term sustainability and feeding the burgeoning human poopulation.

    Did you see the news report this week that 30-50% of the food produced globally is wasted? That’s 2000,000,000 tons of food per annum. Reducing or eliminating that waste is the way to ensure no one goes hungry. Not GM. Oh dear, I think I’m on my soap box again. Sorry 🙂

    • argylesock says:

      I didn’t see that particular news report but yes, that level of wastage is familiar. I’ve written here about it several times.
      Thanks for pointing out how difficult it is to reach an objective opinion about GM. I’m feeling quite overwhelmed by the shouty arguments from both sides. It might be a more complicated issue than Good/Bad, I think. Important aspects like the terminator seeds you mention need to be considered. I’m particularly glad to have e-met Rakshit Agrawal at GreenSky because he (?) has an Indian perspective, but I don’t want to dump the whole question onto one blogger.

      • Finn Holding says:

        Hello Sam, I think you’re spot on with the black/white good/bad thing. GM is scientifically very complicated and I think it’s a very perilous path to follow if all the risks aren’t properly understood. My fear is that insufficient resources have been, or will be, deployed to adequately answer the questions due to the cost implications. But I think properly researched GM can help as part of a wider strategy. But there are much bigger and more important issues that need addressing first – like food waste, climate change etc. etc.

    • amaize says:

      Actually, Finn, the “terminator” technology was never released. Ironically, that technology would have insured that GMO plants would be incapable of “contaminating” the food supply. Sure, Monsanto is a big company that engages in sleezy practices. So are the companies that make your computer, or your paper (who pollute on a monumental scale), or your pencil. My concern is that taking an anti-GMO position has become an essentially religious act of faith. Forget GMOs, many of the biggest gains in yield have come from hybridization. In that case, farmers buy the hybrid seed because they are better than the non-hybrids that farmers can produce by saving their own seeds. The Green Revolution, whatever its problems, saved billions of lives. So did modern medicine, clean water, and improved infrastructure. Frankly, I think organizations like Greenpeace have become dangerously out of touch because they, like their counterparts on the right, have become unhinged from scientific consensus. Both sides embrace science until science suggests that they are wrong. When that happens, they simply ignore reality.

  3. We can help reduce world hunger by not wasting so much food.

  4. I’m perfectly OK with GM. I view it as an expedited version of natural hybrids. We already have a lot of history of GM without a problem.

    • argylesock says:

      Fair enough. I’m not convinced, though. Superweeds and superpests have already started to evolve.

      • amaize says:

        argylesock, I think those are very real concerns, but please be aware that these are, by no means, “super weeds” or “super pests” They are simply species that have become resistant to the pesticides or herbicides that have been (over) applied when certain GM crops are planted. It’s a problem because it can make the use of those herbicides and pesticides less efficacious for all farmers, even those that do not use the GM plants. However, they would generally have no effect on organic farmers, since they don’t use pesticides or herbicides (well, actually they do, but not the same ones as conventional farmers). Actually, with the exception of Bt, which is used by organic farmers, since it is naturally occurring, and therefore presumed safe (although so is the Radon in your basement). My point is that there is nothing intrinsically “super” about these pests; they are the result for strong selection for a particular trait. In the absence of that selection, that trait would not survive for very long.

  5. GM definitely comes up with a great promise of “fine tuning” the problems in crops and bringing up perfect solutions. But a very important point in applicable and acceptable research is that if something from Lab has to come out into field for human consumption, it has to be 100% perfect and nothing less than that. Yields are improving and that’s totally fine, but for allergies or superweeds, we ourselves become responsible. In natural vegetation, we have no idea of how many varieties actually exist which have all these properties we are looking for. It’s very interestingly mentioned in this TED video: http://www.ted.com/talks/cary_fowler_one_seed_at_a_time_protecting_the_future_of_food.html. I was amazed when I saw how many varieties of seeds exist on our planet. And these seeds might have the properties to be fruitful in the coming climatic changes. We realize the importance of GM crops and their vision is really good. But they should come to the field over a long period of testing and zero error literally. It’s food we are talking about. Essentially everything in our ecosystem starts from here. Messing too much can be risky. I myself am a computer engineer and therefore not the right one to comment on this, but still as a consumer I think GM crops aren’t quite ready yet.

  6. Pingback: Scarecrow GM scares me | Science on the Land

  7. Pingback: Golden Rice: a golden ticket to health, or fool’s gold? | Science on the Land

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