GM will deliver climate-ready crops
Conventional breeding outstrips GM in delivering climate-ready crops
In December 2011 the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) deregulated Monsanto’s drought-tolerant maize variety MON87460.2 It was hailed as the first commercialised GM crop designed to resist stressful environmental conditions like drought. But the USDA, in its assessment of the crop, noted that many non-GM maize varieties on the market are at least as effective as Monsanto’s engineered maize variety in managing water use. “The reduced yield [trait] does not exceed the natural variation observed in regionally-adapted varieties of conventional corn,” USDA said, adding, “Equally comparable varieties produced through conventional breeding techniques are readily available in irrigated corn production regions.”3
This is to be expected, given that GM crops are developed by adding GM traits to the best existing conventionally bred varieties.
Meanwhile, conventional breeding, sometimes helped by marker assisted selection, has outstripped GM in producing numerous climate-ready crops. Examples include:
- Maize varieties that yield well in drought conditions,4 including some developed for farmers in Africa5,6,7
- Cassava that gives high yields in drought conditions and resists several diseases8
- Climate-adapted, high-yield sorghum varieties developed for farmers in Mali9
- Beans resistant to heat, drought, and disease10,11
- Pearl millet, sorghum, chickpea, pigeon pea and groundnut varieties that tolerate drought and high temperatures12
- Rice varieties bred to tolerate drought, flood, disease, and saline (salty) soils13
- Flood-tolerant rice varieties developed for Asia14,15
- Over 2,000 indigenous rice varieties that are adapted to environmental fluctuations, as well as varieties that resist pests and diseases, registered by Navdanya, a seed-keeping NGO based in India16
- Tomato varieties developed by Nepali farmers that tolerate extreme heat and resist disease.17
It should be borne in mind that only a part of the solution to climate change lies in plant genetics. Insofar as genetics is the solution, humanity will continue to rely on the same source that GM seed companies mine for their germplasm – the hundreds of thousands of locally adapted seed varieties developed and conserved over centuries by farmers worldwide. These varieties are our living germplasm bank.
The part of the solution that lies beyond plant genetics will be found in proven effective agroecological farm management techniques, such as building organic matter into the soil to conserve water, planting a diversity of crops, rotating crops, and choosing the right plant for the conditions.