Is there a place for genetically modified (GM) crops in a sustainable future?

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Is there a place for genetically modified (GM) crops in a sustainable future?

Author and journalist Mark Lynas and researcher and writer Claire Robinson discuss the question.

YES Mark

There are many problems for farming today. There are seven billion people in the world. And this number will grow to over nine billion in 2050. I’m sure you will agree that we cannot have just one system of ideas to find good and fair ways to make sure there is food for everyone. But I think that anti-GM protesters have decided that GM is bad and they don’t want to think about other possibilities.


I think GM foods are one of many different possibilities for farming. In some situations it can be very useful for reducing the use of toxic pesticides on crops. I’m sure you have heard of the wheat which resists insects. Researchers at Rothamsted are testing it now. And this has made green activists angry. The plan is to use fewer toxic sprays.

There are other research institutes with similar ideas to help the environment. These include Teagasc in Ireland and the Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich. They want to develop a GM potato which resists diseases. The green protesters are against this, too - but the new gene which is used comes from another potato. Perhaps they think it is better for farmers to spray their potato crops 15 or more times every season with toxic fungicides. And no, organic is not the answer: organic farmers use a toxic plant spray - copper sulphate. Or they simply watch the crop get ruined – as many did in Britain in the summer of 2012.

I hope we can agree that it is a good idea to support a certain kind of GM technology. I mean GM technology which is paid for with public money and is not there to make a profit and does not have a patent, giving a company the only right to use it and sell it, and which plans to use less toxic chemicals.

NO Claire

Feeding the world is a big problem but not because there isn’t enough food. We already grow enough for 10 billion people. Hunger is a result of poverty. That’s a political problem that GM crops can’t solve.


We cannot solve the problem of hunger by producing more food and GM crops don’t produce more food. They often produce less food than non-GM crops, according to US government information. Producing more food was never the reason for GM. Nearly all GM crops on the market are made to survive sprays or pesticides. GM crops which survive sprays increased herbicide use by 174 million kilograms in the US in the first 13 years.

At the start, the use of chemical sprays was a little less because of GM Bt pesticidal crops. But it did not last, as insects are now eating the crops planned to kill them. It’s not surprising: if you use chemicals to kill insects 24 hours day every day, they will soon survive them. Insects will quickly get used to Rothamsted’s GM wheat, which is designed to kill them. This was found in research on other GM plants with the same chemical. ‘GM technology which is paid for with public money and not there to make a profit and does not have a patent’ may seem a nice idea. But when money comes from public-private partnerships, the public money pays for the research and development (R&D), the product of the research is sold to the companies. Only patents make it attractive. Rothamsted’s John Pickett has said he hopes the GM wheat project will give opportunities for commercial development. That means the GM seed companies make money. Wheat which tolerates chemicals will be used because GM seed companies are agrochemical companies. Seeds which depend on chemicals are their business. Result: more chemicals, more herbicides.

Solutions lie in agro-ecology and traditional farming, which is better than GM, even in producing potatoes which resist disease!

YES Mark

If GM crops are so bad, why are millions of farmers in 29 countries (the majority in the developing world) using them across 160 million hectares of agricultural land?

Your arguments come from the old ideas of 15 years ago, when I was on your side. But the world has changed, and made me change my mind. There is clear evidence now that GM crops are good. A recent EU/Food and Agriculture Organization expert workshop was very clear about this (Lusser et al, 2012). For example, Bt cotton in India is now 90 per cent of the crop and uses insecticide a lot less and increases production.

For you, this all seems to be about big companies and patents. I hope you don’t use a mobile phone which is protected by a patent and made by a big company. In fact a system without patents is better for GM than many other modern technologies; and to be clear, Rothamsted has said that its wheat which resists insects (if it works) will remain patent-free.

I am worried that you think that the amount of food we produce is not the problem. The amount of food we produce is very important to make sure everyone has enough food, especially for poor farmers. Why take away modern technology from poor farmers? Norman Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize for saving billions from starvation with his Green Revolution, He said that the people who say no to GM might make the problems of hunger and famine come more quickly. Be warned.

NO Claire

GM crops are only grown on around three per cent of farmland by 2.8 per cent of farmers. GM is only used for a few crops: soy, maize, canola and cotton. Most of these are used for feeding animals and for biofuels and fibre. That’s after 30 years of GM technology and billions of dollars for research.

But traditional farming is better than GM at producing crops which produce more food, resist diseases, and survive drought or lack of water (‘GMO Myths & Truths’, 2012). And the UN says natural, agro-ecological farming has increased food production by 80 per cent in poor countries. But GM technology is failing.

In the US, insects are eating GM insecticidal maize, and superweeds which resist chemicals are killing GM crops. In Argentina, GM soy producers have been convicted of polluting a neighbourhood with chemicals. This resulted in many birth defects and cancers.

The good things you say about Bt cotton in India have been rejected by a Parliamentary Committee. The Committee looked at studies talked to farmers and then published a negative report on the crop. They asked for an end to testing GM crops. Studies which are positive about Bt cotton have been criticized because they use information from industry which is not reliable.

Some farmers have used GM seeds in some countries because they had no choice. GM seed companies have stopped selling non-GM seeds which make less profit in North and South America and India.

Criticism of GM crops isn’t just from ideas but from serious facts.

YES Mark

Are you like someone who thinks climate change is not a fact? Is there no scientific evidence which can change your mind about GM? I don’t think so. Are there no situations in which GM is useful for crops? Do you know how ‘traditional farmers’ have used very confused and uncertain techniques on plants to make the kinds of food you eat every day?

It is true that most uses of GM so far have been for the big basic crops. But that can change. Rothamsted and others are working on an oilseed that might replace the fish caught in the wild as food for fish farming. That could help make more variety in sea creatures. You said nothing about this but there is a lot of strong evidence that Bt crops have really reduced the use of chemicals to kill insects. Crops that can survive without rainwater are coming soon.


GM crops – good or bad for the future? Thierry Roge/Reuters

Is it a good idea to stop all of these things and is it a good idea for farmers only to grow crops you would like? Anti-GM protesters want to stop technology at a level that they feel comfortable with. They imagine a past time when everything was simple and organic and nice. It is a bad conservative idea which would have a terrible effect on the environment and people’s lives, especially in poor countries. I hope you will change your mind.

NO Claire

Opinions against GM in food began with scientists, not people worried about the environment. They came later. Scientific discussions continue about how safe and how good GM is.

That’s why I joined genetic engineers to write the report, ‘GMO Myths and Truths’, which summarizes scientific and other evidence on the dangers and limitations of GM. It shows evidence of the growing use of chemicals to kill insects with GM crops and problems with Bt crops – which are chemicals themselves. So people and animals who eat them are eating a chemical which kills insects.

It explains that GM is an imprecise and old technique that is different from traditional farming and has special risks. The US Food and Drug Administration’s own scientists warned about this. This was when the US government first allowed GM companies to put GM into our food when it wasn’t fully tested.

Production of more food, resistance to diseases and to lack of water are complicated things. They are much easier to achieve with traditional farming than with GM. Safe, modern food technology includes GM used for research. But the final crop is not GM (as with the well-publicized flood-tolerant rice). If GM crops weren’t so easy to patent, GM would die.

Mark Lynas is an environmental writer and journalist, and author of many books, including Six Degrees (2007) and The God Species (2011). He is former climate change advisor to the president of the Maldives and a visiting researcher at Oxford University’s School of Geography and the Environment.

Claire Robinson is research director at Earth Open Source and an editor at GM Watch. She is a co-author of the report ‘GMO Myths and Truths: An evidence-based examination of the claims made for the safety and efficacy of GM crops.

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