Contrary to what Angela Saini argues, there are few demonstrable benefits from genetic modification of crops, and huge potential risks, says Emma Hockridge of the Soil Association
The claims made by the pro-GM lobby with regard to the potential future benefits of these crops are in fact pipe dreams ('Yield of dreams', May/June 2009). The industry has been claiming all kinds of potential advantages for years without following through these promises.
The pro-GM industry are the ones "twisting facts", lulling us into believing that this unsafe and inherently risky technology will solve all our problems, when the facts do not bear this out. GM crops do not produce higher yields, use fewer pesticides, or do anything to assist people in developing countries.
In farmers' fields in India, GM cotton has not increased yields and has sometimes failed - with catastrophic consequences. But cotton is not a food crop, and its seeds are very expensive. There have been an an estimated 125,000 farmer suicides related to crippling debt, something that studies have shown is exacerbated by the expensive GM seeds.
There is no evidence to support claims that GM crops have made food cheaper. Most GM crops are produced for animal feed – or, in countries with no GM labelling laws – highly processed food, neither of which is affordable for poor farmers and communities.
The supposed "anti-cancer tomato" has been widely derided, for example by the NHS which said that these claims are not actually based on benefits seen in humans, but rather from a small-scale study of mice that were given an extract of genetically modified tomatoes, and that the small sample sizes used mean the results may have occurred by chance. Cancer Research UK also says that this study makes the assumption that the increased levels of antioxidants produced in the tomatoes are a good thing, which may well not be the case. The antioxidant is already found aplenty in cranberries, cherries, plums and even existing heritage varieties of purple tomatoes which have not taken huge amounts of research money to produce.
None of the GM crops on the market are modified for increased yield potential, as even the US Department of Agriculture admits. And research continues to focus on new pesticide-promoting varieties that tolerate application of one or more herbicides. The main factors influencing crop yield are weather, irrigation and fertilisers, soil quality and farmers' management skills.
The widespread adoption of Roundup Ready (glyphosate-tolerant) crops in the US has driven a more than 15-fold increase in the use of glyphosate on soybeans, maize and cotton. Increasing glyphosate use has driven an epidemic of glyphosate-resistant weeds, which in turn has led to rising use of other herbicides to control them, such as the 2,4-D (a component of Agent Orange).
The current industrial agricultural system (of which GM is a part) is wholly reliant on oil- and gas-intensive inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides. The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) report, with input from hundreds of scientists from all over the world, recognises that the challenges farming now faces are those of the increasing scarcity and price of oil and the need to cut greenhouse-gas emissions from farming (primarily nitrous oxide) by 80 per cent by 2050. As with energy production, the future of food production lies in systems which take nitrogen from the air to fertilise crops using energy from the Sun, as with organic farming, rather than burning up increasingly scarce oil and natural gas. Peer-reviewed scientific research continues to show that these sustainable farming systems will increase food production in developing counties, and will provide us with slightly more food than we currently produce.