I’ll admit—I’ve never quite understood the obsession surrounding genetically modified (GM) crops. To environmentalist opponents, GM foods are simply evil, an understudied, possibly harmful tool used by big agribusiness to control global seed markets and crush local farmers. They argue that GM foods have never delivered on their supposed promise, that money spent on GM crops would be better funneled to organic farming and that consumers should be protected with warning labels on any products that contain genetically modified ingredients. To supporters, GM crops are a key part of the effort to sustainably provide food to meet a global population that is growing by the billions. But more than that, supporters see the knee-jerk GM opposition of many environmentalists as fundamentally anti-science, no different than the deniers on the other side of the political spectrum who question the basics of man-made climate change.
For both sides, GM foods seem to act as a symbol: you’re pro-agribusiness or anti-science. But science is exactly what we need more of when it comes to GM foods, which is why I was happy to see the venerable journal Nature devote a special series of articles to the GM food controversy. You can download most of them for free here, and they’re well worth reading. The upshot: while GM crops haven’t yet realized their initial promise and have been dominated by agribusiness, there is reason to continue to use and develop them to help meet the enormous challenge of sustainably feeding a growing planet.
That doesn’t mean GM crops are perfect, or a one sizes fits all solution to global agriculture woes. Nature points out that most of the benefit of GM technology so far has indeed gone to big agribusiness, much of it in the form of herbicide-resistant crops like Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybeans or cotton. Of course, just because something benefits Monsanto doesn’t automatically make it wrong—though clearly not everyone would believe that—and advocates say that GM crops have increased agriculture production by nearly $100 billion and prevented nearly 500 million kg of pesticides from being sprayed since the technology was first commercialized nearly two decades ago. GM cotton in China has helped farmers increased yields by nearly 6% since 1997 and reduced the use of insecticides by around 80%.
But hasn’t the use of GM crops increased herbicide-resistant weeds—the so-called “superweeds”? Yes—but it’s not just genetic modification. Before GM crops like Roundup Ready, farmers would often use multiple herbicides to keep weeds in line, which would slow the pace of resistance. (Weeds, like bacteria and antibiotics, inevitably develop resistance to herbicides over time—otherwise they wouldn’t be very good weeds.) Once they started using crops that were genetically modified to handle a specific herbicide—glyphosate, in this case—farmers overwhelmingly began to rely on that herbicide, and weeds like the Palmer amaranth caught up fast. Still, Nature points out that weed species are becoming resistant to herbicides that aren’t covered by GM crops, like atrazine. An—industry-funded, admittedly—study by the consulting firm PG Economics found that the introduction of herbicide-tolerant cotton saved 15.5 million kg of herbicide between 1996 and 2011—a 6.2% reduction from what would have been used on conventional cotton. The problems seems to be less the GM crop itself than the way it was deployed—no rotation of crop types and no varying chemicals to head off resistance.
That should really be the lesson of the GM debate. GM foods are a useful tool—and as scientists develop next-generation GM crops, like the long awaited vitamin A-infused Golden Rice, they have the potential to become even more useful. The problems we face in feeding ourselves are very real—out of the 7 billion people on this planet, 1 billion are chronically hungry and an additional 1 billion people are malnourished because their diets lack vital micronutrients like iron, zinc and vitamin A. We’re likely to add another 2 billion or so people over the next 40 years—driving demand for food up a predicted 40% by 2030. And here’s the real challenge: we need to grow that additional food without using up much more land, because we’re already near the 15% of the Earth’s surface that can sustainably be used for farming.
So anything that can increase farming efficiency—the amount of crops we can produce per acre of land—will be extremely useful. GM crops can and almost certainly will be part of that suite of tools, but so will traditional plant breeding, improved soil and crop management—and perhaps most important of all, better storage and transport infrastructure, especially in the developing world. (It doesn’t do much good for farmers in places like sub-Saharan Africa to produce more food if they can’t get it to hungry consumers.) I’d like to see more non-industry research done on GM crops—not just because we’d worry less about bias, but also because the Monsantos and Pioneers of the world shouldn’t be the only entities working to harness genetic modification. I’d like to see GM research on less commercial crops, like maize, cassava and cowpea. I don’t think it’s vital to label GM ingredients in food, but I also wouldn’t be against it—and industry would be smart to go along with labeling, just as a way of defusing fears about the technology.
Most of all, though, I wish a tenth of the energy that’s spent endlessly debating GM crops was focused on those more pressing challenges for global agriculture. There are much bigger battles to fight.