In spite of considerable public and political concern, not to mention vigorous campaigning, the GM industry has proved adept at deflecting criticism, steadfastly continuing to plough its own furrow. However, Ben Cooper writes, going forward the agricultural biotech sector may have to answer searching questions about what it has so far failed to deliver.

The recent decision by the California Assembly Health Committee to require labelling of genetically modified salmon if and when it goes on the market underlines that GM, even in the US where consumption of GM foods is much more widespread than in Europe, the use of the technology remains an issue of great public and political concern.

A fierce debate over purported food safety risks and environmental hazards posed by GM continues to rage in the EU where a far more rigorous regulatory structure is also currently a matter of debate.

The significant growth of GM in the US and certain other countries, such as Brazil and Argentina, and its acceptance and more gradual establishment in the EU, is indicative both of a lack of strong evidence supporting campaigners’ concerns and the significant campaigning and lobbying abilities of the powerful biotech industry.

However, as those debates continue, the biotech industry may well now face scrutiny not only for its alleged effects on the environment, but for its effectiveness in tackling some of the problems it claims it can address.

At the outset, GM was seen as a means of rendering crops resistant to non-selective herbicides thereby reducing the amount of spraying a farmer had to do. Notwithstanding concerns over whether this has led to the evolution of so-called super-weeds, the GM industry can lay claim to some success in this area.

Indeed, according to the European GM advocacy organisation, Europabio, more than 70% of GM crops grown commercially today are those aimed at providing improved traits for herbicide tolerance. Pest resistance is the other key category. These were not only the first challenges the GM industry set out to meet, they are also regarded as having been the most straightforward, the low-hanging fruit.

They also, campaigners suggest, have offered the most financial benefit to the agro-science companies that have developed them.

However, the global circumstances in which the biotech sector finds itself have changed substantially over the past 20 years. A key element in the argument in favour of GM is that it, along with other innovations, could make an extremely important contribution to meeting the global food security challenge the world now faces.

As such, it is an important plank in the approach to agricultural development that has become known as ‘sustainable intensification’, presented as a counter approach to ‘agro-ecological’ solutions which include organic farming.

The biotech industry therefore no longer simply has to defend itself from criticism, which has often failed to garner the sort of evidential and scientific support that the industry can present in its favour, but also present a case for being part of a proactive and sustainable solution.

While there are undoubted sustainability benefits to herbicide tolerant and pest resistant crops, for example the reduction in spraying which in turn lowers carbon emissions from farms, attention will now turn to some of the other problems the biotech industry has claimed GM can address.

Among these is stress resistance, for example resistance to drought, salinity and high temperatures. By the industry’s own admission it has so far been less successful at meeting these challenges.

Other goals with high sustainability credentials would be the alteration of the composition of crops to render them more healthy, reducing those elements in foods that are known to have adverse health effects, and engineering crops to produce substances such as biodegradable ‘bioplastics’. Research work is of course being undertaken in these areas but looking at the volumes, this has clearly not been the industry’s overriding priority.

Helen Wallace, director of campaign group GeneWatch UK, believes ‘the tide is turning’ and the GM industry will have to start answering questions about what it can really deliver in terms of sustainable solutions.

‘Policymakers are starting to ask the really important question which is where has all that money gone and what has it actually delivered,” Wallace tells just-food, ‘because we’re still seeing that, despite all the claims that GM will feed the world, the only crops that are on the market on any significant scale are the herbicide-tolerant and pest-resistant crops.’

In the context of the sustainable intensification versus agro-ecology debate a recent UN report is extremely pertinent.

The report, Agro-ecology and the right to food, suggested that small-scale farmers can double food production within 10 years in critical regions by using ecological methods.

Based on what is described as an ‘extensive review’ of the recent scientific literature, the study calls for a fundamental shift towards agro-ecology as a way to boost food production and improve the situation of the poorest populations of the world.

“To feed 9 billion people in 2050, we urgently need to adopt the most efficient farming techniques available,” says Olivier De Schutter, UN special rapporteur on the right to food and author of the report. “Today’s scientific evidence demonstrates that agro-ecological methods outperform the use of chemical fertilizers in boosting food production where the hungry live, especially in unfavourable environments.”

The report cites agro-ecological projects in Indonesia, Vietnam and Bangladesh which recorded up to 92% reduction in insecticide use for rice.

One of the critical factors that proponents of the agro-ecological approach aim to stress is that it should not be identified too narrowly with organic farming.

‘I think that it’s a mistake to see it purely in terms of GM versus organic,’ says Wallace, adding that when decisions had been taken to invest substantially in GM, investment in other scientific research related to areas such as farmland management and crop rotation was scaled down. ‘If you look at the reports produced in the context of feeding the world now there is actually an increasing recognition that you need to use a wide variety of tools,’ Wallace adds.

In the debates over food safety and environmental impact the GM industry appears in many ways so far to have won its arguments. But as the search for sustainable solutions to the global food security challenge intensifies it may have to answer quite different questions.