Global consequences in an era of GM crops

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This is an edited version of the essay I completed last year as part of the Cambridge Pre-U qualification.

The relevance of this topic

The products of agriculture are currently humanity’s only source of sustenance and have been for over thousands of years. However, with the total human population estimated to hit 9 billion by 2040, the ever-increasing demands must be met with efficiency in food production. Genetically modified (GM) crops, those with altered genetic material that does not occur naturally, have been seen as a way to cope with these demands. This essay will investigate the extent to which replacing conventional crops with these crops will benefit us, by analysing several sources.

Why GM crops are so ground-breaking

MP Owen Paterson believes that GM crops must be adopted to cope with the 60% increase in agriculture needed over the next 40 years due to rising population. As he states, “We cannot expect to feed tomorrow’s population with yesterday’s agriculture. We have to use every tool at our disposal”. He is the former Secretary of State for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and was in charge of a £2.2bn budget during his time in charge [1]. Such a high position in government makes him well qualified to interpret such issues and so increases the reliability of this source. This position also demonstrates his expertise on the field, as he would have been tested rigorously before given the title.

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In his speech at the Rothamsted Research Institute in 2013, he makes the argument that GM crops are globally beneficial [2]. He presents many premises along with intermediate conclusions, such as effect on economy or science research, to tailor for the wide range of audiences present at the event. Providing evidence for his claims that the efficiency of GM crops are unrivalled, he reveals that he had personally met the Brazilian Agriculture Minister who said that “GM soya is 30 per cent more cost effective than conventional soya”. The minister also stressed that soya is a key protein source for their livestock – therefore GM crops don’t only benefit the economy but also the ability of farmers to feed their livestock. Being the Brazilian Minister, he has direct access to the evidence quoted and to the opinions of farmers in his country.

Another point that Paterson makes is that the worldwide adoption of GM wouldn’t occur if the benefits of GM crops didn’t outweigh the disadvantages. He mentions that, since 1996, there has been a “100-fold increase in the global use of GM” and that “farmers wouldn’t grow these crops if they didn’t benefit from doing so”. He does have evidence to support his claim even though, at first, he may be found guilty of using appeal to popularity – claiming that if it’s found predominantly, it must be correct or beneficial. For example, adoption rates for GM soya stand at 88 per cent in Brazil, 93 per cent in the US and 100 per cent in Argentina. As seen before, GM soya is 30% more cost effective and this is a more likely reason for adoption than farmers pressured by its popularity in other communities. These figures support the claim but are only regarding countries in North and South America. Perhaps adoption rates are far lower in the continent of Africa due to other reasons – a continent known to inhabit many Less Economically Developed Countries (LEDCs).

African farmers show us the natural alternative

On the other hand, Paterson does have critics that oppose his seemingly strong arguments. One such example is the article written by Million Belay and Ruth Nyambura in the Guardian, a major news outlet in the UK [3]. Belay is the co-ordinator of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa whereas Nyambura is the advocacy officer of the African Biodiversity Network (ABN). They believe that small-scale African farmers seem to reject GM crops themselves and quote that the African Civil Society have even started petitions asking governments to ban them [4]. Although their large and deep involvement in African projects makes them a trustworthy source for farmers’ opinions, the Civil Society only has 657 signatures on the latest petition – a relatively insignificant figure.

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The authors also believe that “farmers in Africa already have effective approaches towards seed and agriculture, which are far more environmentally and farmer-friendly than GM”. They do have reason to believe this, as shown by the personal projects they have worked on and their outcomes. For example, they “worked with communities [In Ethiopia] who were able to produce surplus food in times of drought by returning to their traditional varieties” – in this case study, using knowledge within the community had the same effect as using drought-tolerant GM crops. This is a point continuously made throughout the article, supported by premises i.e. existing potential within communities can deal with upcoming issues without the need for “scientific interference”.

Nyambura also refers to a video documenting a project led by the Institute for Culture and Ecology in the Kenyan community of Kamburu [5]. Before the project, the community relied upon single cash crops like tea and GM maize. This led to a significantly reduced diversity of grown crops along with dangerous uncertainty in market prices – they sold these cash crops to purchase food. The project, however, aimed to increase diversity and sustainability by using existing knowledge within the community. For example, growing a variety of fruits and edible crops to sustain themselves without purchasing foods. Rather than using crops engineered to have larger yields, they used compost manure (from cattle) as an effective fertiliser. Nyambura is the advocacy officer for ABN which produced the video and has direct access to the evidence used – witnessing, first hand, the farmers’ experiences. They had also worked with 100 households over 2 years completing similar projects. As a result, their work is reputable and allows them to draw conclusions from the effects they had on communities.

Influence of big corporations

Belay and Nyambura also present evidence for the large number of lawsuits made against farmers who are suspected of seed saving. This is the act of saving and replanting seed acquired from subsequent harvest – something illegal if the seeds contain patented technology [6]. They refer to a credible report made by the Centre for Food Safety (CFS) in 2005 which details Monsanto’s lawsuits against US farmers – Monsanto being a large multinational company that uses biotechnology to make GM seeds [7]. Monsanto was awarded a total estimated maximum of $160m in out-of-court settlements. These settlements are suspected to occur because small-scale farmers cannot afford to hire lawyers to deal with the case. This, they say, is a dangerous disadvantage of GM crops and leads to “monopolistic seed suppliers” – especially as 80% of African farmers are known to save seed. The CFS are a non-profit environmental advocacy organisation, so have a positive vested interest in the case. They don’t stand to lose nearly as much as Monsanto, a billion-dollar company [8].

The role of scientific evidence in the debate

Although the Civil Society referred to by Belay and Nyambura makes further scientific claims that GM crops are harmful, Paterson quotes evidence that is much more solid and reputable. He says that, over the past 25 years, “the EU has funded more than 50 projects on GM safety […] at a cost of around £260 million”. Summary reports produced by the European Commission state that there “was no scientific evidence associating GMOs with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety than conventional plants and organisms”. As the former head of DEFRA, he had direct access to this evidence and to the current research on GM being currently done throughout the country – especially at the location of the speech, Rothamsted Research. In contrast, the Civil Society points to a study done by the University of Caen on rats who had been fed GM food. The rats showed liver and kidney damage but, upon further research, I found that the research was inconclusive and “further investigations are needed because of metabolic modifications” [9].

Overall, the speech given by Paterson presents his pro-GM views clearly – pointing out advantages in terms of scientifically-proved safety, financial benefits and efficiency of yields. Looking deeper, however, Paterson may have been predisposed to be biased towards mentioning positive scientific research – as the speech was at an institute currently conducting research on GM crops. On the other hand, Belay and Nyambura present evidence from the point of view of small-scale farmers. They believe GM crops can easily be replaced via African farmers using traditional knowledge and that there are dangerous hazards in the form of lawsuits from large companies. However, the first argument fails to counter the actual benefits of GM crops and is purely a workaround – it may prove very useful to countries in Europe who lack traditional knowledge. When the arguments of both sides can be directly juxtaposed, such as if they are scientifically verified safe, Paterson’s sources are much more credible and relevant.

Looking forward

In conclusion, GM crops currently seem a better option for farmers worldwide due to their wealth of universal benefits. However, the extent of their future benefits will be determined on whether scientific studies continue to prove GM foods as largely safe and whether companies become more lenient in terms of lawsuits. At first, my opinions were largely in favour of GM crops but, upon further research into the existing capabilities of African farmers and monopolistic company behaviour, my views have become more balanced. Only 1 crop has been approved for cultivation in the EU in the last 14 years and this shows the divergent views across Europe on the issue – something that Paterson himself acknowledges. The debate is one that calls for further research, quantitatively and qualitatively, amongst worldwide farmers – to reaffirm that the benefits really are universal.

Click here to see all the sources referred to throughout.

Thanks for reading!

About the author

Medical student at University College London (1st Year). Passionate about science, design and photography.

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