Genetically Modified Crops: Seeds of Hope or Deception?

After steadily declining for over a decade, global hunger is on the rise again, affecting 815 million people in 2016, or 11 per cent of the global population, according to a new edition of the annual United Nations report on world food security and nutrition released in September 2017. (Source: The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2017 ). Figures in the statistics are really shocking and shameful; in particular the high number of children suffering from the various forms of malnutrition (stunting, wasting and obesity) should not be overlooked. As world population continues to grow, wars and conflicts devastate several regions of our globe, as the results of global warming take effect, we cannot wait for solutions to mass hunger to simply pop out of nowhere.

There is a debilitating impact of flooding the market globally with low quality, cheap food, destroying local production and economies. In reality they are not so cheap if all the negative externalities of large-scale, industrial food production are taken into consideration. Studies show that the “hidden” costs of these negative environmental externalities (such as soil degradation, water pollution, biodiversity loss, plastic pollution, etc.) can be translated in figures. According to an analysis of the KPMG audit company, these environmental externalities take as much as 224% (!) of the profit of multinational food corporations. Internalizing these costs, along with those of the negative public health impacts of low quality food means that local food produced by smallholders (including organic food) is not only more sustainable but also competitive.

Paradoxically, hunger and malnutrition is prevalent in rural areas of those less developed countries where people’s livelihood is based on agriculture related activities. The situation is even more serious in those countries which are constrained to grow mainly cash crops which they sell to be able to import “cheap”, sometimes low quality food instead of satisfying their own needs by producing staple foods. In addition, with the exported cash crops they also “exporting” their clean water, and loss of productivity of their soil. This is further aggravated by the fact that poor smallholders are having limited access to inputs and credit regularly. Sometimes they get into debt and are forced to sell their land to large-scale investors, and their families go hungry. This may lead to mental and physical problems, which, combined with the lack of appropriate nutrition often leads to sickness. Their exasperation may even lead to suicide.

On the other hand, industrial agriculture is input-intensive: using synthetic fertilizers, pesticides (herbicides, fungicides, insecticides etc.) and heavy machines. This production method contributes to soil degradation, reduced fertility, and damages the environment. In addition, large-scale industrial agriculture is responsible for the deterioration of food quality. It is known for the last decades that, as a result of intensive chemical usage, the nutrient contents (vitamins, minerals, trace elements, and health protecting secondary plant metabolites) of plants produced intensively decreased with deteriorating soil productivity.

The introduction of GM (genetically modified) crops was offered as the solution for all the problems in agriculture and of food production. Farmers were promised that their introduction would decrease agrochemical usage and crops would become more nutritious and the higher yields would make it possible to feed the world. However, all the promises appear to be unfulfilled. Sadly, GM crops have proven to be co-responsible for further negative environmental impacts. Since the introduction of herbicide tolerant GM crops in the mid nineteen-nineties, herbicide use increased several-fold, and as a consequence, a large number of weeds have become resistant to the most commonly used herbicides, mainly to glyphosate. It appears that the answer to this problem by the biotech companies is to produce novel herbicide tolerant GM crops resistant to other, probably more dangerous compounds such as 2,4D, or to a “cocktail of herbicides”. The introduction of insect resistant GM crops has had very similar effects: apart from the first couple of years the pesticide pressure on the environment grew rather than decreased, the reason being that every cell of those GM plants produces their respective pesticide 24/7. Under these conditions several pests developed resistance faster to pesticides produced by GM plants than expected. In addition to the amount of insecticides synthetized by these GM crops, additional spraying with more pesticides is also required to protect these crops. It became evident after the introduction of GM crops that they cause more environmental damage than conventional agriculture. They require additional agrochemicals and GM crops themselves produce more pesticides than those grown by conventional agriculture.

A large proportion of the world’s farmers are disillusioned with GM crops and therefore object to their production. Questions are raised lately in connection to their effects on human health. By causing more environmental damage than conventional agriculture, there is mounting evidence of the harmful human health impacts of GM crops and the chemicals used with them. For example, gut diseases have increased steadily in the USA, and now several American doctors advise their patients to avoid GM food if they suffer from gastrointestinal problems, autoimmune diseases or cancer. As a result, there is a fast increasing demand by consumers for GM-free food.

Here below is a short reaction to some of the comments made by Justin Fox in his article in the CFS blog on 14/03/2017.

- The basic problem in Europe is that the authorisation of any GM crops is not really in the hands of the individual countries. Up until now not a single GM event was authorised by agreement of the majority of the Member States in the European Union. All authorised GM crops and food reached the European Union market based on the decision of the European Commission, (partly based on the opinion of EFSA), since the Member States could not come to an agreement. To say that “the European Union has already decided to devolve decision making authority over such matters to each member state” , is not fully in line with the reality. To interpret “the fact that GM crops are on sale in some of these nations is testament to their quality” is misrepresenting or not knowing the facts, the European directives and regulations.

- Bt crops have failed in India, and also in Bangladesh, although the authorities there have been more willing to place their trust in the financial advantages coming with testing of other GM crops.

- ”Late blight” resistant potatoes were created by traditional breeding methods years back; there is no need to produce them by genetic modification.

- The statement that “plans are also in place for modified variants of cotton to be commissioned for the textiles industry, as improved yields are not just for agriculture alone” is also misleading. GM cotton varieties have also failed in India and in America, since more and more pests are becoming resistant to the different toxin varieties. Failures of the GM cotton varieties might be behind the bankruptcy and sometimes suicide of farmers, destroying their families.

- Yields with GM cotton, or with other GM plants have never been higher, with respect to conventional varieties. In addition, new pests and diseases replace the existing ones, since nature does not like “leaving places empty”.

- “Plants tailored to the world’s harshest environmental would also do wonders”, it might be true, although they exist only in the laboratory.

- It is true that 1.2 billion people lack the availability of clean water for drinking, washing and farming, and this has been a contributing element to numerous conflicts” but it is clear that this problem is much more complex and cannot be solved by GM crops. Water scarcity is exacerbating tensions but it is not the only cause for conflicts. Those cannot be solved by GM technology either.

- It is true, that “since time immemorial competition for vital resources such as food and water has been ongoing”. It is also true that “always the weak and those who cannot help themselves no matter how hard they work that get left behind” . What is not true, is that “for the first time an opportunity exists to ensure that no-one is left to struggle alone, and it is GM technology” . After having realized that the first generation of GM crops has failed spectacularly, the hope of the biotech industry is pinned on new GMO technologies. They try to convince the rest of the world that they are safe. However, the promises with those are the same, so are the problems.

There is now a growing consensus among scientists and international organisations, that GMs are not a solution to beat hunger and malnutrition. Sustainable agriculture and biodiversity are. Organic agriculture is truly sustainable; it produces crops and food without contaminating the environment and the food chain with synthetic chemicals. The nutritional quality of organically produced food is higher; it is free of hormones and antibiotics, in addition to the harmful synthetic agrochemicals. It also brings a better income to farmers and can be produced on a small scale. This is the only sensible way forward.

The answer to the changing climate is to produce several crop varieties, sustainably and with a great diversity within species. Nature provided us with great richness to be used to feed us under most circumstances.

The only advice one can give is to read up on different topics and views before pronouncing judgement and showing pernicious bias.

This article was written by Prof. habil. Zsuzsanna Bardocz, PhD, DSc. She is a retired professor of Human Nutrition involved with the GMO safety assessment, food safety and food security.

All opinions expressed are scientifically based and belong to the author.

27/02/2018 0:00


Manipulador Alimentos 25-06-18 17:00
One way or another, we must find a way to grow sustainably. If genetically modified food allows us to do so, then let's welcome it.