While environmentalists tout organic as the only hope for a sustainable farming future, the debate over GM foods shows no sign of slowing down. In the second feature of our Talking Heads series, just-food.com brings Professor Jonathan D G Jones, from the John Innes Centre, head to head with Emily Diamand, research officer for the Real Food Campaign at Friends of the Earth, to argue out their different viewpoints.

1) Are GM crops a solution to world hunger?

Professor Jonathan D G Jones response:
They are part of the solution. In the last century our population went from around 1.5 billion to around 6 billion. To keep pace with demand, there have been spectacular increases in crop yield. In the next 25 years our population will reach at least 8 billion, with most growth occurring in developing countries. Continuing yield increases are needed, especially if some land is reserved for wildlife. Plant breeding, while still important, is approaching a “yield” plateau for staples such as wheat, rice and maize. A major contribution of GM crops will be to reduce losses due to pests and disease, reducing the need for pesticides, which are expensive, and often a health hazard. Genetic solutions to drought and growth in acid soils are also in the pipeline. The “golden rice”, enhanced in vitamin A, will help alleviate vitamin deficiencies. Even herbicide resistance could be useful, since weeding is a major agricultural labour.

However, GM crops are no more a magic bullet than any other technology. Successful agricultural economies need stable, non-corrupt government, absence of war, and the infrastructure to bring seed to the farmer and get crops to market. To distribute improved seed, a viable seed industry is required, preferably involving the public sector. There are strong perceptions of injustice in the seed industry, with concerns about “biopiracy,” farmers’ rights to save seed, and the power of multinational agrochemical and seed companies. I think these concerns, though serious, are exaggerated, but it is essential for the public sector to play a major role in crop improvement.

Emily Diamand response:
G M crops are only a solution to world hunger if the starting point is a simplistic assessment of the problem. Many people in the world are suffering from malnutrition and hunger – but this is because they cannot afford to buy food, not because it is unavailable. Complex social, political and economic forces affect people’s access to land, money and resources. It is these, much more than the level of food production, which determine who gets to eat and who does not. For example, 36 million people go hungry every year in the United States, one of the richest countries in the world.

Most GM crops being grown at the moment are destined for markets in rich countries, such as animal feed. They will not help to feed the poor and hungry of the world. In addition, GM crops are mainly designed for chemical intensive agriculture while many farmers in developing countries are small scale, growing many different crops and they often cannot afford the seeds and chemicals needed. GM technology is not an appropriate solution for the needs of such people.

2) Are third world country representatives sufficiently involved in the debate about GM crops as a solution to hunger?

Professor Jonathan D G Jones response:
I know they are involved, having recently attended a conference on this issue with many such representatives. What was clear is that there are many different third world countries; India, Mexico and China are more developed than most countries in Africa. GM crops are a potential solution to certain problems in certain countries, but individual countries will make their own judgements about what is useful.

Emily Diamand response:
The debate about GM crops is happening in many developing countries – although this has not necessarily been reported in the western media. The debate about the need for GM crops mirrors that in developed countries and some of the biggest mass demonstrations against GM crops have been by Indian farmers. At the international level, American and European biotech companies (representing only their shareholders) are attempting to promote their GM crops by using the needs of the developing world. Friends of the Earth opposes GM crops – but is an international organisation with groups on every continent – in fact more than half come from developing countries. The consensus amongst all these groups is that GM crops are unproven, unnecessary and likely to harm the interests of farmers and consumers around the world.

3) Do we know enough about the environmental impact of biotechnology to approve plantings on a large scale?

Professor Jonathan D G Jones response:
The experience in the US provides no cause for alarm. Currently, around 50% of the soybeans, 40% of the maize and 50% of the cotton are GM crops. Their environmental impact has been very positive. Persistent herbicides have been replaced with glyphosate (Round up), which has no mammalian toxicity and is rapidly inactivated in soil. Applications of insecticides to cotton have fallen by many tons. The BT insect resistant maize is less damaged by corn earworm. Holes made by the earworm enable infection by fungi such as Aspergillus and Fusarium, so BT maize has reduced levels of mycotoxins such as fumonisin. Monarch butterfly populations have in fact risen.

However, in the UK we must be particularly careful. Whereas in the US around 40% of the land is cultivated, in the UK it is closer to 90%. There is concern that intensive agriculture has led to declines in some farmyard bird populations, so there is little enthusiasm for further intensification.

Prior to large scale planting in the UK, the current series of field trials must be carried out. The purpose of these trials is to assess the environmental impact of changes in agricultural practice associated with herbicide tolerant crops. Early indications suggest the impact will be negligible or beneficial. For example, herbicide tolerant sugar beet enables much more weed cover during the fallow winter period prior to planting, which is beneficial for birds.

Emily Diamand response:
Clearly not. Research into the environmental impact of GM crops trails behind their development. Research into issues such as gene flow to other plants, horizontal gene transfer to micro-organisms, effects of insect resistant crops on non-target organisms and the biodiversity impacts of herbicide tolerant crops is far from complete. New types of GM crops are constantly being developed – such as crops containing industrial products – and their environmental impacts have yet to be addressed.

These issues have not been properly addressed by the biotech companies. For example, in an information dossier submitted to the EU by Aventis for a GM maize, just one page out of 85 was given over to its environmental impact. The environment and wildlife have already suffered greatly from agricultural technologies such as pesticides – it is only sensible to be cautious.

4) Do you have concerns about the speed with which the biotech industry has moved forward, in relation to the growth of the body of knowledge on the subject?

Professor Jonathan D G Jones response:
I do not. I have been making GM plants for 18 years. The first GM crops (slower ripening tomatoes) went on sale in the US over 12 years ago. The goals of the first set of GM products have been clear for 15 years; BT cotton and corn, and Round up tolerant soybean. GM plant products have received vastly more testing than any new other new plant variety. Despite extensive anxiety about potential risks, no plausible mechanism has been proposed by which GM plants could cause environmental or human damage. The more serious issues have to do with control of intellectual property rights in plant genes and control of the seed industry by multinational seed companies.

Emily Diamand response:
Yes. Genetic modification involves the random introduction of novel genes into the genetic structure of an organism. But research is showing that there is far more to genetics than just genes. Genes interact, sometimes they work in groups, changes can occur between the genes and the surrounding cell – it is an incredibly complicated and sophisticated system. The creation of GM organisms, when we know so little about the basic science, is a cause for concern.

5) In light of the consumer scepticism on GM – have GM crops got a future?

Professor Jonathan D G Jones response:
Yes; the only question is when. GM crops already have a present, in the US. So far, GM traits appear to have benefited farmers (with input traits, such as easier weed and pest control) more than consumers (with output traits). Current consumer benefits include lower levels of mycotoxins in maize products, though this has been poorly promoted. Future GM products will emphasise output traits. For example within ten years (and hopefully much sooner), cooking oils will be available with substantially enhanced vitamin E, a health promoting antioxidant. These will need to be clearly labelled and marketed from seed to supermarket shelf.

Emily Diamand response:
Proponents of GM crops frequently fail to appreciate why consumers are opposed to GM crops. It is often claimed that they don’t understand, or are manipulated by scare-mongering pressure groups. If only they were ‘properly informed’ about GM crops they would come around. But consumers have been inundated with information about GM crops – from both sides – and have made decisions on this basis. Ironically, research from Lancaster University found that when impartial information was provided about GM foods, people became more concerned, not less. Consumer scepticism about GM crops is likely to be around for a long time to come and the European market will be very small.

About the participants:

Professor Jonathan D G Jones is a senior scientist at the Sainsbury Laboratory. Based in the John Innes Centre, the laboratory is renowned worldwide in the field of molecular plant pathology and genetics. Professor Jones is currently working on a project addressing “Molecular and genetic approaches to plant resistance gene function”.

Emily Diamand has degrees in environmental science and sustainable agriculture and has worked extensively on the issue of GM crops since 1997. She recently produced a report entitled “The Great Food Gamble: An assessment of GM food safety”.

To view related research reports, please follow the links below:-

World Market For GM-Food Testing

Handbook on the Labelling of Genetically Modified Foods, Ingredients and Additives

South American Crop Protection and Seed Markets to 2010: Opportunities, risks, and strategies in a continent undergoing dynamic farming change