Let’s talk about GM

Few issues are more divisive within the environmental world than the genetic modification of organisms (GM). For some, they are a threat to the natural world and to people’s livelihoods; to others, they are the key to a secure and equal future. This article will tackle both sides of the argument, focusing on genetic modification for food production.

What are genetically modified organisms (GMOs)?

Generally, GMOs are defined as organisms that have had their genome modified by humans via genetic engineering techniques. Broadly, GMOs can be split into two categories: cisgenic organisms, which involves the transferral of genetic material between members of the same species; or transgenic organisms, which introduces genetic material from different species. The latter are often more controversial.

Why has the GM agricultural industry grown?

Genetic modification can bestow a multitude of useful traits on a target organism. In crops, this can include: greater nutrient and water uptake efficiency, greater resistance to pests or biocides, or greater tolerance to adverse weather conditions. These effects lead to greater yields, and therefore a greater amount of produce can be grown on the same amount of land. The increased efficiency of GM produce means that it is more profitable, and therefore often economically tempting for farmers and agricultural companies.

Why has GM been so controversial?

The most publicised argument against GM is the idea that it is going against nature; some describe it as ‘playing God’. This challenge can be extended to include the possibility of unpredictable outcomes of GM. Some fear there may be adverse effects on human health, although the majority of scientific studies investigating this claim find no evidence for it. Another concern is the effects on the environment, for instance by outcompeting native species, or even by transgenes entering other organisms’ genomes leading to so-called ‘superweeds’. Many scientists are sceptical of the validity of these claims, but that does not mean they should not be treated seriously. Some also fear that monocultures could facilitate the spread of disease, decimating large swathes of crops at one time. This is technically an issue of large-scale agriculture rather than GM per se, but since GM crops are generally more accessible to larger producers, and therefore grown on grander scales, it is one worth considering, and has a good amount of scientific evidence and past experience backing up its validity.

Is GM that different from conventional techniques?

GM can radically alter the traits of an organism – this is undeniable. Amongst the anti-GM lobby, many cite this as cause for alarm. However, it is worth noting that humans have been radically altering organisms for thousands of years, via selective breeding. The contrast between the crops we grow today and their wild ancestors is striking (see the picture of teosinte (right), maize’s wild ancestor). The process of selective breeding involves crossing organisms with desirable traits, in the hope that their offspring will inherit these traits, or even enhanced versions of them, and repeating this process through many generations. This is still carried out today, albeit generally with more of a scientific understanding than historical agriculturalists. Often, the end result – enhancement of desirable traits – is very similar to that of GM (especially for cisgenic organisms), but is much slower, as it involves the breeding of many generations of the organism in question, and can often lead to undesirable side-effects itself due to its ‘messy’ nature: for instance, if an allele (a variant of a gene) for better grain production is found near an allele for disease susceptibility on the organism’s genome, it is likely they will by inherited together and be difficult to separate via selective breeding.

Not just about profits

GM is thought to have the potential to significantly improve quality of life, especially for some of the poorest people on the planet. Golden Rice is a prime example of this. According to UNICEF, 1.15 million children are predicted to die of Vitamin A deficiency every year, with many more affected by debilitating symptoms such as blindness. In the late 1990s, rice – the staple food of many of those affected by Vitamin A deficiency – was engineered to produce a precursor of Vitamin A in the grain. This gives it a yellow colour, hence ‘Golden Rice’. Bureaucratic issues and concerns over side-effects on health and culture (largely since debunked) in the succeeding two decades have prevented Golden Rice realising the potential its inventors had envisioned, but it retains the capacity to alter millions of lives for the better.

Could GM foods have positive environmental benefits?

At the moment, the majority of the crops we eat are administered with large amounts of chemical fertilisers and biocides. This is known to severely adversely affect the environment, and there is tentative evidence that it may affect human health too. The technology exists to genetically modify crops to take up nutrients and water more efficiently, so reducing the amounts of these resources that have to be applied, and reducing effects of wastage, such as leached nutrients polluting waterways. It is also possible to genetically modify crops to have innate resistance to particular pests or diseases, so negating the need for pesticides, but this must be treated cautiously: pathogens are notorious for their ability to rapidly evolve to overcome resistance, so there is the potential for inadvertently providing the selective environment for ‘super-pathogens’ to evolve. Crops can also be engineered to have increased tolerance of extreme environmental conditions, such as cold, drought, or high winds – likely especially pertinent in a climate change future. However, there exists the danger (although largely theoretical) that these modifications could lead to GM crops outcompeting wild plants. Since modifications are made to increase yields rather than reproductive capacity, and since this has not been observed in conventionally bred crops, this is perhaps unlikely, but should nonetheless be borne in mind.

GM Monopolies

Perhaps the most worrying consequence of GM is how it falls under ‘intellectual property’, allowing crop varieties to be effectively owned and controlled by a particular organisation. Since it is the largest companies that can afford the hefty investments that developing a new GM crop needs, this could allow them to rapidly develop crops that outperform those of any competitors. This could lead to a market monopoly, and to a dependence of developing countries on industrialised nations. This has occurred already in several parts of the world: for instance, Monsanto’s seed patent on a strain of GM cotton has led it to control over 95% of India’s cotton market, leading to rising prices and pushing many farmers into poverty.

Looking Forward

The global population is predicted to exceed 9 billion by 2050. Without large reforms to our food system, it is unlikely we will be able to effectively feed such a number. The advent of widespread GM is one such potential reform, although there are many other viable avenues (such as precision agriculture, or modifying consumer demand); most academics agree that a combination of many such reforms is necessary. What part GM will play in the new ‘food revolution’ is currently unclear, and controversies persist. Perhaps it could benefit both people and the natural world alike; but then again, perhaps it could lead to unforeseen environmental problems, or lend excessive power to multinational companies. What is clear is that it is unlikely to go away – so the field is definitely worth keeping an eye on.