GM crops to feed the world: PR or reality?

Dr Helen Wallace

27 May 2011

In 2009-10 Dr Helen Wallace served on the steering group of a Government sponsored ‘public dialogue’ on GM, which was led by the Food Standards Agency. She resigned from the process in May 2010 when it became clear that the 'dialogue' was intended as a PR exercise to present GM as an inevitable solution rather than an open question worthy of genuine public debate. Here she examines the claim that GM is necessary to feed the world, and argues it is a claim based on PR rather han any sense of reality.

 In 2007, a major new public relations push began to convince European consumers to eat genetically modified (GM) crops by claiming they will be essential to feed the world. The argument that population growth and climate change will combine to create a “perfect storm” of threats to the global food supply was combined with claims that GM crops increase yields and will in future allow crops to survive in drought and saline conditions and make more efficient use of inputs, including nitrogen. Ministers told the Guardian that they were reluctant to publicly back the PR effort, but that GM would definitely come back to the UK. The GM industry claimed that concerns about climate change would reduce the chance of a public backlash and cited BASF’s field trials in Cambridge and Yorkshire of a blight-resistant potato as the first step towards a commercial GM crop in the UK.1

Monsanto’s attempts to position GM crops as a “pro-poor” technology are not new.2,3 However, the public relations strategy that began in the UK, and more broadly in Europe, in 2007 was not led by spokespeople from the six major agricultural biotech companies (Monsanto, Dow, DuPont, BASF, Syngenta and Bayer) but by supposedly independent scientists. They included representatives of the small circle of influential research institutions (including the UK’s John Innes Centre) involved in setting up the EU’s Framework 7 (FP7) research technology platform “Plants for the Future”, jointly with the biotech industry association EuropaBio and the European Plant Science Organisation (EPSO).4 These researchers are not entirely disinterested observers: the agricultural biotech industry has claimed that it requires an investment of more than 45 billion Euros in R&D under the Plants for the Future programme over the next ten years, of which an estimated 7.5 billion Euros ($10 billion) would be public money – equivalent to the total global value of the existing industry.5 Other researchers involved in promoting GM crops have founded biotech companies or hold key patents that they hope to be able to commercialise via licensing agreements with the major companies.6

Misleading claims

By 2008, media reports favourable to GM crops had begun to outnumber those that were critical of the technology. However, most of these reports rested on speculative or misleading claims. For example, former Chief Scientist Professor Sir David King told the BBC Today Programme in 2007 that crop trials around Lake Victoria in Kenya had shown how useful GM farming could be in feeding the Third World. In fact, this “push-pull” project uses agro-ecological farming methods, not GM crops.7

As part of the public relations push to convince the public to support GM, frequent reference has been made to drought-tolerant, salt-tolerant and nitrogen-fixing GM crops. Salt-tolerant and nitrogen-fixing crops were first promised by the US Office of Technology Assessment in its 1981 report on genetic engineering of micro-organisms, plants and animals.8 Thirty years and billions of dollars later, no such crops exist. In 2010, the experts involved in the UK Foresight ‘Global Food and Farming Futures’ project listed predicted development timescales of a further 5 to 10 years for GM drought-tolerance, 10 to 20 years for salt-tolerance and increased nitrogen use efficiency, and more than 20 years for nitrogen fixation.9 More sceptical scientists have questioned whether such complex traits can really be engineered into a seed, even over these long timescales: multiple genes and gene-environment interactions are involved and engineering even multiple genetic changes into a plant is unlikely to deliver on such promises.10,11,12,13 Conventional breeding has been much more successful in improving yields in high salinity environments, at much lower cost.14

Promoting GM approaches to these complex traits has more to do with business models than with the reality of farming. Both DuPont and Syngenta have recently announced the successful development of new conventionally bred drought-tolerant maize varieties.15 However, Syngenta has already stated that it will only market its new seed with two existing GM traits (herbicide tolerance and pesticide resistance) also included in the seed, thus allowing it to claim patent protection and market the crop with its own-brand herbicide.16 Conventionally bred varieties of blight-resistant potatoes are also available17 and there are plenty of other non-GM successes, including drought-tolerant non-GM maize which has performed well in studies in Africa.18 Research into crop rotation, intercropping and other low-input methods also has potential to substantially benefit smallholder farmers in Africa and elsewhere.19,20,21,22
Commercially grown GM crops are still restricted to the two main traits of herbicide tolerance and insect resistance (Bt crops) in four main staple crops: soy, maize, oil seed rape and cotton. Many ‘stacked traits’ are in the pipeline: combining insect resistance with tolerance to multiple herbicides. Downsides for farmers growing these crops include the spread of herbicide-resistant weeds in North and South America. 23,24,25 Poor farmers adopting similar systems would be at risk of being locked into a “poverty trap” where seed price hikes and the need for increasing amounts of chemicals could drive them into bankruptcy. Insect resistant crops are also unsustainable: bollworms resistant to Bt cotton (already a problem in the USA26) were reported last year in India.27 In China, initial economic benefits in terms of savings in insecticide use with Bt crops were lost as secondary pests emerged, requiring additional insecticide use.28

For non-GM farmers key issues are cross-contamination and liability.29 The costs of segregating GM crops fall on conventional and organic farmers, rather than on those choosing to grow or import GM crops, and thus limit choice for non-GM growers by damaging their markets.30,31,32,33,34 There have been many GM contamination incidents around the world.35 For example, in 2009 Canada’s entire $320-million flax seed industry was threatened when it was found to be contaminated with an experimental GM variety called Triffid.36 In the US, the Public Patent Foundation recently filed a lawsuit on behalf of sixty family farmers, seed businesses and organic agricultural organisations concerned that their non-GM seeds and crops could be contaminated through cross-pollination, and that Monsanto would subsequently file suit for patent infringement.37 The prevention of seed saving by patenting and licensing agreements is another major issue for poorer farmers.38

The argument that GM crops are needed to feed the world misrepresents hunger as being essentially an issue of insufficient agricultural production, rather than of poverty and unequal distribution of resources.39 An estimated 40% of US GM maize production now goes into biofuels and perhaps as much as 90% of remaining GM production (i.e. not including cotton and biofuels) to animal feed (although reliable figures are difficult to come by).The diversion of potential food-growing land to produce industrial-scale biofuels and animal feed is part of the problem, not the solution, to global hunger.40 Based on grain consumption figures calculated by the Food and Agriculture Policy Research Institute (FAPRI),41 Monsanto argues that production of grain for animal feed must increase by 50 million tonnes a year by 2017/18 to meet the expected increased demand for meat, and by 60 million tonnes a year to meet biofuels production targets, requiring more investment in intensive agriculture, including GM crops.42 At the same time as claiming GM crops are needed to help feed the world, Monsanto and other companies have been actively lobbying for government subsidies for industrial-scale biofuels.43 

Repeated claims about higher yields from existing GM crops are also highly misleading. Overall, studies do not find statistically significant increases in yield for most GM crops, with decreases in yields some studies, in particular for Bt soya.44 Bt maize and cotton have shown yield increases in some situations (when there is a severe pest outbreak) but not others.45 The methodology used in yield studies has been disputed by some researchers, because it fails to capture the dynamic nature of agricultural systems, the degree of ecosystem disruption, and the institutional conditions governing the use of pest control inputs.46 Yields from more recent GM products, including Monsanto’s ‘Round Up Ready 2’ soybeans and its ‘Smartstax’ maize have reportedly been disappointing.47,48,49

Government PR

As part of the push to bring GM crops back into Britain, the former Government sponsored a public dialogue, led by the Food Standards Agency. By the time I resigned from the Steering Group for this process in May 2010, it had become clear that it was intended to present GM as an inevitable part of the solution to feeding a growing population, rather than open up this question for genuine public debate.50 Ipsos Mori was shortlisted to run this dialogue: the polling company declared it had been working with a “multi-national Agro-chemical and seed company” and its advertising agency since 2009 “to develop concepts which link agribusiness with important global issues (such as climate change, water scarcity, deforestation etc) and position the company as a positive force”. Following a second resignation, by the Steering group’s deputy chair, the process was abandoned by the new Coalition Government: its policy is yet to be decided.

In general, consumers remain sceptical about eating GM foods. In treating people as “irrational” and “anti-science”, the advocates of GM crops often ignore the underlying reasons behind much of this unease. The Public Acceptance of Agricultural Biotechnologies in Europe project (PABE)51, conducted using focus groups back in 1998/99 found that people’s views were largely shaped by institutional behaviour, not by public relations exercises. Key questions revealed by the study were:

  • Why do we need GMOs?
  • Who will benefit from their use?
  • Who decided that they should be developed and how?
  • Why are we not given an effective choice about whether or not to buy these products?
  • Have the potential long-term and irreversible consequences been evaluated, and by whom?
  • Do regulatory authorities have sufficient powers to effectively regulate large companies who wish to develop these products?
  • Can controls imposed by regulatory authorities be applied effectively?
  • Who will be accountable in cases of unforeseen harm?

Many of these questions still remain unanswered.

Much emphasis has also been placed on the idea that a new generation of GM crops will provide benefits for rich consumers in the form of improved nutrition and the means to tackle “hidden hunger”, such as deficiencies in vitamin A and iron in poorer countries. However, nutrient-enhanced crops are costly to develop and a poor way to deliver these claimed benefits compared to diversifying diets.52 Even supposedly beneficial nutrients such as vitamins and minerals can be harmful to some people (people who are not nutrient deficient) and safe upper levels of most nutrients are poorly defined.53 For example, beta carotene (the main ingredient in GM Golden Rice) increases cancer risk in high doses in smokers and asbestos workers.54 Plants genetically-modified to increase the uptake of iron and zinc can also exacerbate soil depletion and concentrate harmful toxic metals from contaminated soils.55 In addition, such approaches can act as a distraction from the underlying causes of unhealthy diets. For example, Monsanto and Solae are collaborating on a project to produce GM soybeans high in omega-3 fatty acids. This is an ineffective technical fix to a problem which is caused by Monsanto’s core business in the first place: grain-fed meat is much less healthy than pasture-fed meat or game in its fatty acid content.56,57 The ratio of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids has increased substantially in modern compared to traditional diets, partly due to increased use of sunflower and other oils; and partly due to intensive farming of cattle fed on grains.58

Top down decision making

The Foresight report on Food and Farming Futures59 promotes GM technology as only one “tool in the box” to tackle global hunger and recognises that major issues such as land and water use and food waste also need to be considered. However, it still neglects the downsides of GM crops and makes a blanket global statement about restricting the expansion of agriculture onto new land, without considering highly variable local circumstances and the politics and economics of how decisions will be made about land use in practice on the ground. In endorsing the Royal Society’s concept of “sustainable intensification”60 it adopts a utilitarian approach in which scientific institutions (such as the Royal Society itself) are capable of weighing up and making decisions about what is best for farmers and consumers, and then somehow promoting these solutions worldwide. This contrasts with a rights-based approach to considering the ethical implications of sustainable intensification and more ‘bottom-up’ approaches to decision-making.61,62,63

Within Europe, a shift to more local decision-making could help strengthen and expand local food systems and organic agriculture, provided policy-makers are aware of the importance of the sector.64 Internationally, much will depend on whether international development support is used to back big multinational companies or to support bottom-up approaches driven by smallholder farmers on the ground. Seventy per cent of the world’s poor people, including the poorest of the poor, and seventy five per cent of the world’s malnourished live in rural areas, where most of them are involved in agriculture. They often live in complex, diverse and risk-prone settings, with inherent seasonal instability.65 In such circumstances, farmers may prefer local farmer varieties for sowing and especially for eating, avoiding GM varieties.66

Monsanto has just begun another push to sell more seeds in developing countries, backed by the money and muscle of both the US Government and the Gates Foundation.67,68,69,70 At the same time, the benefits of agro-ecological agricultural systems in the battle against hunger are being increasingly acknowledged.71 It matters more than ever whether the claims made for GM crops are PR or reality. The livelihoods of illions of small-scale subsistence farmers are at stake.

Dr Helen Wallace is the Director of GeneWatch UK a not-for-profit group that monitors developments in genetic technologies from a public interest, human rights, environmental protection and animal welfare perspective. You can contact the author with comments by email:

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End notes


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