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‘Nature’ takes a hard look at the ‘messy middle ground’ — the ‘difficult adolescence’ — of GM crops

Nature special issue on GMOs

Cover of a special issue of ‘Nature’ on GMOs, 2 May 2013.

The leading British science journal Nature has published a special issue on GM crops: Promise and reality  (2 May 2013). This hub of updated science-based information on GM crops includes feature news stories, commentaries, a podcast and more.

‘Foreign genes were successfully introduced into plants for the first time 30 years ago . . . .  Ever since, genetically modified (GM) crops have promised to deliver a second green revolution: a wealth of enhanced foods, fuels and fibres that would feed the starving, deliver profits to farmers and promote a greener environment. In many ways, that revolution has arrived. Crops engineered to carry useful traits now grow on 170 million hectares in at least 28 countries . . . .

‘But to many, GM crops have been a failure. The market is dominated by just a few insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant crops. The environmental benefits are disputed, and activists question the safety of GM foods. Politicized and polarized, the war of words that surrounds GM crops ignores the complex truths.

‘In this special issue, Nature explores the messy middle ground. . . .

The battles are by no means over, but the hope is that science and reasoned debate can inform the future of these technologies.

An editorial in this special issue, Fields of gold, argues that GM research needs to happen outside of the industry (in the non-profit sector) so that developments are driven by objectives other than profit:

‘There is reason to stand up for the continued use and develop­ment of GM crops. Genetic modification is a nascent technology for which development has moved very quickly to commercialization. That has forced most research into the for-profit sector.

Without broader research programmes outside the seed industry, developments will continue to be profit-driven, limiting the chance for many of the advances that were promised 30 years ago—such as feeding the planet’s burgeoning population sustainably, reducing the environmental footprint of farming and delivering products that amaze and delight.

Transgenic technologies are by no means the only way to achieve these aims, but the speed and precision that they offer over traditional breeding techniques made them indispensable 30 years ago. They still are today.

In another article, Transgenics: A new breed, Daniel Cressey argues that:

The next wave of genetically modified crops is making its way to market—and might just ease concerns over ‘Frankenfoods’.

‘When the first genetically modified (GM) organisms were being developed for the farm, says Anastasia Bodnar, “we were promised rocket jet packs”—futuristic, ultra-nutritious crops that would bring exotic produce to the supermarket and help to feed a hungry world.

‘Yet so far, she says, the technology has bestowed most of its benefits on agribusiness—almost always through crops modified to withstand weed-killing chemicals or resist insect pests. This has allowed farmers to increase yields and spray less pesticide than they might have otherwise.

‘At best, such advances have been almost invisible to ordinary consumers, says Bodnar, a biotechnologist with Biology Fortified, a non-profit GM-organism advocacy organization in Middleton, Wisconsin. And at worst, they have helped to fuel the rage of opponents of genetic modification, who say that transgenic crops have concentrated power and profits in the hands of a few large corporations, and are a prime example of scientists meddling in nature, heedless of the dangers . . . .

‘But that could soon change, thanks to a whole new generation of GM crops now making their way from laboratory to market. Some of these crops will tackle new problems, from apples that stave off discolouration to “Golden Rice” and bright-orange bananas fortified with nutrients to improve the diets of people in the poorest countries.’

In another article of this special issue, Biotechnology: Africa and Asia need a rational debate on GM crops, ‘Christopher Whitty, chief scientific adviser at the UK Department for International Development, and his colleagues argue that the negative attitudes towards GM crops in the developed world undermine the technology’s potential in the developing one.’

The authors state that policymakers in developing countries should resist being swayed by the politicized debate around GM food and crops in Europe, a continent where food insecurity and malnutrition are not widely present. They also argue that developments in GM crop research will be key to addressing the challenge of feeding rising populations in the face of climate change.

In a Nature News Feature in this issue, Case studies: A hard look at GM crops, Natasha Gilbert reports on how the evidence is holding up on the ‘goods’ and ‘bads’ of  GM crops.

‘In the pitched debate over genetically modified (GM) foods and crops, it can be hard to see where scientific evidence ends and dogma and speculation begin. In the nearly 20 years since they were first commercialized, GM crop technologies have seen dramatic uptake. Advocates say that they have increased agricultural production by more than US$98 billion and saved an estimated 473 million kilograms of pesticides from being sprayed. But critics question their environmental, social and economic impacts. . . .

‘Here, Nature takes a look at three pressing questions: are GM crops fuelling the rise of herbicide-resistant ‘superweeds’? Are they driving farmers in India to suicide? And are the foreign transgenes in GM crops spreading into other plants? These controversial case studies show how blame shifts, myths are spread and cultural insensitivities can inflame debate. . . .

Herbicide-resistant GM crops
‘On balance, herbicide-resistant GM crops are less damaging to the environment than conventional crops grown at industrial scale. A study by PG Economics, a consulting firm in Dorchester, UK, found that the introduction of herbicide-tolerant cotton saved 15.5 million kilograms of herbicide between 1996 and 2011, a 6.1% reduction from what would have been used on conventional cotton. And GM crop technology delivered an 8.9% improvement to the environmental impact quotient—a measure that considers factors such as pesticide toxicity to wildlife—says Graham Brookes, co-director of PG Economics and a co-author of the industry-funded study, which many scientists consider to be among the field’s most extensive and authoritative assessments of environmental impacts.

‘The question is how much longer those benefits will last. . . .

‘To offer farmers new weed-control strategies, Monsanto and other biotechnology companies, such as Dow AgroSciences, based in Indianapolis, Indiana, are developing new herbicide-resistant crops that work with different chemicals, which they expect to commercialize within a few years. . . .’

Bt cotton in India
Regarding claims that introduction in India of Bt cotton, which contains a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis to ward off certain insects, have led to an increase in farmer suicides, an ‘oft-repeated story of corporate exploitation since Monsanto began selling GM seed in India in 2002’,  scientists have found that ‘there has been essentially no change in the suicide rate for farmers since the introduction of Bt cotton.

That was shown by researchers at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington DC, who scoured government data, academic articles and media reports about Bt cotton and suicide in India. Their findings, published in 2008 (ref. 4) and updated in 2011 (ref. 5), show that the total number of suicides per year in the Indian population rose from just under 100,000 in 1997 to more than 120,000 in 2007. But the number of suicides among farmers hovered at around 20,000 per year over the same period.’

ILRI's Purvi Mehta-Bhatt #2 in India

ILRI head of South Asia Purvi Mehta-Bhatt (photo credit: ILRI).

One of the authors of that study is Purvi Mehta-Bhatt, who now heads the South Asia program of work of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). Mehta-Bhatt says that India’s adoption of Bt cotton has helped move the country from being a net importer of cotton to being a net exporter, and that household incomes have increased some 20–25 per cent as a result.

We’ve been talking about this in India for a very long time now. We’ve been hearing about the dangers of releasing GM crops. What we fail to hear much about are the dangers to India of not releasing such crops. India now has other genetically modified crops in the offing, many being generated by the public sector. India needs to make decisions on the way forward, and needs to make its decisions based on evidence, not on emotions.—Purvi Mehta-Bhatt

The Nature article goes on to report the following. ‘[S]ince its rocky beginnings, Bt cotton has benefited farmers, says Matin Qaim, an agricultural economist at Georg August University in Göttingen, Germany, who has been studying the social and financial impacts of Bt cotton in India for the past 10 years. In a study of 533 cotton-farming households in central and southern India, Qaim found that yields grew by 24% per acre between 2002 and 2008, owing to reduced losses from pest attacks. Farmers’ profits rose by an average of 50% over the same period, owing mainly to yield gains . . . . Given the profits, Qaim says, it is not surprising that more than 90% of the cotton now grown in India is transgenic. . . .’

Transgenes in Mexican maize
‘The scientific community remains split on whether transgenes have infiltrated maize populations in Mexico, even as the country grapples with whether to approve commercialization of Bt maize. . . . “It seems inevitable that there will be a movement of transgenes into local maize crops,” says [Allison] Snow. “There is some proof that it is happening, but it is very difficult to say how common it is or what are the consequences. . . . Snow says that there is no evidence so far for negative effects. And she expects that if the transgenes now in use drift to other plants, they will have neutral or beneficial effects on plant growth. . . .


Tidy stories, in favour of or against GM crops, will always miss the bigger picture, which is nuanced, equivocal and undeniably messy. Transgenic crops will not solve all the agricultural challenges facing the developing or developed world, says [Matin] Qaim: “It is not a silver bullet.” But vilification is not appropriate either. The truth is somewhere in the middle.’

Read the IFPRI research study
Bt Cotton and Farmer Suicides in India: Reviewing the Evidence, by Guillaume P Gruère, Purvi Mehta-Bhatt and Debdatta Sengupta, IFPRI Discussion Paper 00808, October 2008, Washington DC: International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

Read more on this topic in the ILRI News Blog
New advances in the battle against a major disease threat to cattle and people in Africa, 1 May 2013.

And more on this topic from the ILRI Clippings Blog
GMOs good for Africa–Calestous Juma, Kenyan biotechnology expert and Harvard professor, 25 Apr 2013.
Kenya testing ground for GMOs, 15 Jan 2010.

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