GM is needed to provide the crops that will enable us to survive the challenges ahead
Non-GM breeding methods are more effective at creating crops with useful traits
“The advantage of science is not in principle, for its own self – it’s because it does something useful and valuable, that people want. If it is not supporting those particular objectives, I think we should take a much more sceptical view of it.”
– Michael Meacher, UK environment minister 2001–200349
When people hear about “supercrops” such as flood-tolerant rice, drought-tolerant maize, salt-tolerant wheat, pest-resistant chickpeas, low-allergen peanuts, iron-rich beans, beta-carotene-enriched cassava, and heart-healthy soybeans, many automatically think of GM.
But all these improved crops were created without GM. They are the products of conventional (natural) breeding, in some cases helped by marker assisted selection, or MAS. MAS, sometimes called precision breeding, is a largely uncontroversial branch of biotechnology that can speed up conventional breeding by identifying genes linked to important traits. MAS does not involve inserting foreign genes into the DNA of a host plant and avoids the risks and uncertainties of genetic engineering. It is widely supported by environmentalists and organic farming bodies.
Conventional breeding and MAS have succeeded where GM has failed in developing crops with useful traits such as tolerance to extreme weather conditions and poor soils, disease resistance, and enhanced nutritional value. Such traits are known as complex traits because they involve many genes working together in a precisely regulated way. Only conventional breeding methods, sometimes helped by MAS, are able to produce crops with the desired complex traits. In contrast, GM technology can only manipulate one or a few genes at a time and is unable to confer precise and integrated control of expression of GM genes. Therefore it is incapable of producing crops with desired complex traits that rely on multiple genes working together.
Conventional breeding and MAS use the many existing varieties of crops to create a diverse, flexible, and resilient crop base. GM technology offers the opposite – a narrowing of crop diversity and an inflexible technology that requires years and millions of dollars in investment for each new trait.50,51
Non-GM breeding successes usually gain minimal media coverage, in contrast with the often speculative claims of potential GM “miracles”. Thanks to the huge public relations budgets of biotechnology companies, these claims are broadcast far and wide – but have little grounding in fact.
7.3.1. The GM successes that never were
Many crops developed through conventional breeding and marker-assisted selection (MAS) are wrongly claimed as GM successes. These fall into three broad categories:
Conventionally bred crop with GM tweak
“Biotech traits by themselves are absolutely useless unless they can be put into the very best germplasm.”
– Brian Whan, spokesman for Monsanto subsidiary InterGrain52
Typically, GM firms use conventional breeding, not GM, to develop crops with traits such as drought tolerance or disease resistance. They first obtain germplasm from the best varieties developed over years by farmers and breeders. Then they use conventional breeding and MAS to achieve the desired complex trait. Finally, once they have developed a successful variety using conventional breeding, they use GM to engineer in the company’s proprietary genes, so that they can patent and own the crop. This GM tweak, often a herbicide-tolerant or insecticidal gene, adds nothing to the agronomic performance of the crop.
This process was mentioned in a news broadcast about Monsanto’s 2010 buy-out of part of a Western Australia cereal breeding company, InterGrain. An InterGrain spokesman explained Monsanto’s interest in his company: “A really important concept is that biotech traits by themselves are absolutely useless unless they can be put into the very best germplasm.”52
An example of a GM product developed in this way is Monsanto’s VISTIVE® soybean, which has been described as the first GM product with benefits for consumers. These low linolenic acid soybeans were designed to produce oil that would reduce unhealthy trans fats in processed food made from the oil. They were created by conventional breeding. But Monsanto turned them into a GM crop by adding a GM trait – tolerance to its Roundup herbicide.53
Interestingly, Iowa State University developed some even lower linolenic acid soybean varieties than the VISTIVE and did not add any GM traits to them.54 Very little has been heard about them, compared with VISTIVE.
Another product of this type is Syngenta’s Agrisure Artesian drought-tolerant maize. The crop was developed using non-GM breeding, but herbicide tolerant and insecticidal transgenes were subsequently added through genetic engineering.55
Conventionally bred crop without GM tweak – GM used as lab tool
In some cases, a crop is developed using GM as a lab research tool, but no GM genes are added. Nevertheless, such crops have been claimed to be GM successes. An example is flood-tolerant rice, which the UK government’s former chief scientist, Sir David King, has wrongly claimed as a triumph of genetic engineering.56,57
In fact, the two best-known flood-tolerant rice varieties – one of which was almost certainly the one that King referred to – are not GM at all. One variety was developed by a research team led by GM proponent Pamela Ronald.58 Ronald’s team developed the rice through marker assisted selection (MAS).58,59 They used genetic engineering as a laboratory research tool to identify the desired genes, but the resulting rice is not genetically engineered.60
However, the wording on the website of UC Davis, where Ronald’s laboratory is based, misleadingly implied that her rice was genetically engineered, saying, “Her laboratory has genetically engineered rice for resistance to diseases and flooding, which are serious problems of rice crops in Asia and Africa.”61
Another flood-tolerant rice created with “Snorkel” genes has also been claimed as a genetic engineering success. But the rice, which adapts to flooding by growing longer stems that prevent the crop from drowning, was bred by conventional methods and is entirely non-GM.
Laboratory-based genetic modification and modern gene mapping methods were used to study a deepwater rice variety and identify the genes responsible for its flood tolerance trait. Three gene regions were identified, including one where the two “Snorkel” genes are located. MAS was used to guide the conventional breeding process by which all three flood tolerance gene regions were successfully combined in a commercial rice variety.62
Only conventional breeding and MAS could be used to generate the resulting flood-tolerant rice line. This is because it is beyond the ability of current genetic modification methods to transfer the genes and control switches for the flood-tolerance trait in a way that enables them to work properly.
Crop that has nothing to do with GM
In one high-profile case, a crop that had nothing to do with GM at all was claimed as a GM success. In a BBC radio interview, the UK government’s former chief scientist, Sir David King, said that a big increase in grain yields in Africa was due to GM, when in fact it did not involve the use of GM technology.63 Instead, the yield increase was due to a “push-pull” management system, an agroecological method of companion planting that aims to divert pests away from crop plants.64 King later admitted to what he called an “honest mistake”.65
King produced this example when under pressure to provide compelling reasons why GM crops are needed. But far from showing why we need to embrace GM, it shows the exact opposite – that we need to stop being distracted by GM and put funding and support behind non-GM solutions to urgent problems.
7.3.2. Non-GM breeding successes show no need for GM
The following are just a few examples of conventionally bred crops with the types of traits that GM proponents claim can only be achieved through genetic engineering. Many are already commercially available and making a difference in farmers’ fields.
Drought-tolerant and climate-ready
- Maize varieties that yield well in drought conditions,66 including some developed for farmers in Africa67,68,69
- Cassava that gives high yields in drought conditions and resists several diseases10
- Climate-adapted, high-yield sorghum varieties developed for farmers in Mali70
- Beans resistant to heat, drought, and disease71,72
- Pearl millet, sorghum, chickpea, pigeon pea and groundnut varieties that tolerate drought and high temperatures73
- Rice varieties bred to tolerate drought, flood, disease, and saline (salty) soils74
- Flood-tolerant rice varieties developed for Asia75,76
- 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 India77
- Tomato varieties developed by Nepali farmers that tolerate extreme heat and resist disease.78
- Rice varieties that tolerate saline soils and other problems74
- Durum wheat that yields 25% more in saline soils than a commonly used variety79,80
- Indigenous crop varieties from India that tolerate saline soils, stored by the Indian seed-keeping NGO, Navdanya. Navdanya reported that it gave some of these seeds to farmers in the wake of the 2004 tsunami, enabling them to continue farming in salt-saturated soils in spite of scientists’ warnings that they would have to abandon the land temporarily.81
- High-yield, pest-resistant, and disease-resistant
- High-yield, multi-disease-resistant beans for farmers in Central and East Africa82
- High-yield, disease-resistant cassava for Africa83
- Australian high-yield maize varieties targeted at non-GM Asian markets84
- Maize that resists the Striga parasitic weed pest and tolerates drought, for African farmers69
- Maize that resists the grain borer pest85
- “Green Super-Rice” bred for high yield and disease resistance74
- High-yield soybeans that resist the cyst nematode pest86
- Aphid-resistant soybeans87
- High-yield tomato with sweeter fruit88
- High-yield, pest-resistant chickpeas89
- Sweet potato that is highly resistant to nematodes and moderately resistant to insect pests and Fusarium wilt, a fungal disease90
- High-yield, high-nutrition, and pest-resistant “superwheat”91
- Habanero peppers with resistance to root-knot nematodes.92
- Potatoes that resist late blight and other diseases93,94,95,96
- Potatoes that resist golden nematode and common scab – and appeal to food manufacturers due to good chipping and storage qualities97
- Potato that resists root-knot nematodes98
- Papayas that resist ringspot virus99 – in spite of numerous claims from the GM lobby that only GM was able to produce a resistant papaya. Interestingly, there even seems to be doubt about the frequent claim that the GM virus-resistant papaya saved Hawaii’s papaya industry. The GM papaya has dominated Hawaiian papaya production since the late 1990s, but Hawaii’s Department of Agriculture reportedly said that the annual yield of papayas in 2009 was lower than when the ringspot virus was at its peak.100 An article in the Hawaii press said that GM has not saved Hawaii’s papaya industry, which has been in decline since 2002. The article cites as a possible reason the market rejection that has plagued GM papayas from the beginning.101
Nutritionally fortified and health-promoting
- Soybeans containing high levels of oleic acid, reducing the need for hydrogenation, a process that leads to the formation of unhealthy trans fats102
- Beta-carotene-enriched orange maize, aimed at poor people suffering from vitamin A deficiency103,104
- Millet rich in iron, wheat abundant in zinc, and beta-carotene-enriched cassava105
- Iron-fortified maize, which has been shown in a study to decrease anaemia in children106,107
- Purple potatoes containing high levels of the cancer-fighting antioxidants, anthocyanins108,109
- A tomato containing high levels of the antioxidant, lycopene, which has been found in studies to have the potential to combat heart attacks, stroke, and cancer.110
- Low-allergy peanuts.111 In a separate development, a process has been discovered to render ordinary peanuts allergen-free.112
7.3.3. Conventional breeding is quicker and cheaper than GM
“The overall cost to bring a new biotech trait to the market between 2008 and 2012 is on average $136 m[illion].”
– Phillips McDougall, “The cost and time involved in the discovery, development and authorisation of a new plant biotechnology derived trait: A consultancy study for Crop Life International”113
“Genetic engineering might be worth the extra cost if classical breeding were unable to impart such desirable traits as drought-, flood- and pest-resistance, and fertilizer efficiency. But in case after case, classical breeding is delivering the goods.”
– Margaret Mellon and Doug Gurian-Sherman51
An industry consultancy study put the cost of developing a GM trait at $136 million.113 Even Monsanto has admitted that non-GM plant breeding is quicker and “significantly cheaper” than GM. Monsanto said it takes ten years to develop a GM seed, in contrast with a conventionally bred variety, which takes only 5–8 years.114 The plant breeder Major M. Goodman of North Carolina State University said the cost of developing a GM trait was fifty times as much as the cost of developing an equivalent conventionally bred plant variety. Goodman called the cost of GM breeding a “formidable barrier” to its expansion.50
Time and cost are vital considerations for the Global South, where the need for crop varieties adapted to local conditions is urgent, yet farmers cannot afford expensive seeds and inputs.