Are GM crops out of date?

Selective breeding has given us many crop varieties over the years. Now, there’s a quicker way to do selective breeding. It’s called marker assisted breeding (MAB, marker assisted selection, MAS). It might mean that GM crops are old news.

The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) explains how MAB works. It’s quicker than genetic modification (GM, genetic engineering, GE) and it doesn’t involve bringing in genes from other species. You identify desirable genes then select embryos which carry those genes. You don’t have to wait through the crop’s whole lifecycle before you’ve created a new variety, ready to test in a field.

The limitation of MAB may also be its strength. You can select only from the genes which the plant already has. So you can’t introduce a gene for insecticide, herbicide resistance, antifreeze or Vitamin A. But that means you’re not introducing genes with unknown consequences. It also means that the new variety could become farmers’ property once they’d purchased seeds, allowing them to use their skills and knowledge to breed selectively, adapting the variety to suit local conditions.

MAB could be used for bioprospecting. It could be used to explore the potential of neglected (orphan) crops, even wild plants which haven’t yet been domesticated.

I find this quite exciting. It could mean that GM crops are old news already. But the GM politics continue.

Yesterday Owen Paterson, head of our UK Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) reminded us of his opinion about GM crops. He thinks that we in Europe should embrace GM. You can watch his speech here.

Nick McDermott and Sean Poulter at the Daily Mail say that Mr Paterson’s claims are ‘bold’ and ‘extraordinary’. Yes, that article is in the Daily Mail which isn’t exactly known for left-wing opinions. Mr Paterson’s a true-blue Tory so if any of the mainstream papers had praised his speech on GM, I’d have expected that paper to be the Daily Mail. Do take a look at what the Mail journalists actually wrote.

Meanwhile the Guardian is where I’d expect to see criticism of Mr Paterson’s speech. Indeed, John Vidal at the Guardian says that ‘Owen Paterson’s cheerleading for GM crops to tackle hunger rings hollow’. You might want to read that article too. We don’t often see the Guardian and the Mail agreeing with one another but today, that’s what we see.

I like the final two paragraphs of the Guardian article. ‘In the 15 years since Monsanto commercialised the crops, conventional plant breeding has massively advanced and, thanks to developments in genetic sequencing and “marker assisted breeding”, scientists can now combine genetics with conventional breeding, and avoid all the regulatory and political baggage of genetic engineering. In addition, there is much greater understanding that GM is not going to increase yields that much, and that the problem of hunger will not be solved by a few giant companies imposing a discredited technology on vulnerable populations.

‘Conventional advances, which are within the reach of developing country scientists, hold much greater promise for developing countries than handing over food production to US, or European, corporate control. Paterson’s crude cheerleading of GM crops for the poor and hungry looks rather as if he is acting for the very few rather than for the many.’

I’ll give the last word to Mr Paterson. DEFRA quotes him, its boss, saying that businesses should come to the UK if they want to research and develop GM technologies.

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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18 Responses to Are GM crops out of date?

  1. EqFe says:

    And one should think that this would be used for purposes other than to make a plant more resistant to roundup.

  2. Daniel Digby says:

    Thanks for showing us an alternative.

    • argylesock says:

      You’re welcome. In fact I stumbled on it when reading John Vidal’s article in the Guardian (link in my blog post) and that led me to restructure my post. I’d seen Mr Paterson on the telly news last night, felt demoralised and was ready to put on a brave face. He’s a senior politician who knows how to talk the talk. But I don’t agree with him on several topics, including GM crops.

      When my searching for news reports led me to Mr Vidal’s article, there was MAB which I’d never heard of! So I looked it up on ISAAA’s site. I’ve done most of the genetic mapping techniques mentioned by ISAAA and as you might know (are you a lab scientist?) they’re routine techniques. I’ve never done the embryo-selecting part of MAB but it looks like something a competent technician could do. After that, a competent farmer 🙂

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