Truth: Non-GM breeding methods are more effective at creating crops with useful traits

Myth at a glance

Conventional plant breeding continues to outperform GM in producing crops with useful traits such as tolerance to extreme weather conditions and poor soils, improved nutrient utilization, complex-trait disease resistance, and biofortification (enhanced nutritional value). Such traits are known as complex traits because they involve many genes working together in a precisely regulated way. They cannot be genetically engineered into crops.

The proof of this is the fact that the GMO lobby has been promising GM crops with desirable complex traits for 18 years – but today, almost all commercialized GMOs are engineered with one or both of just two simple traits: to tolerate herbicides or to contain an insecticide.

There are also GM virus-resistant papayas, but the virus resistance is a simple, not a complex trait, and a non-GM virus-resistant papaya is available.

Often, non-GM crops with complex desirable traits are wrongly claimed as GM successes. GM crops that do have such traits are generally conventional breeding successes with GM genes for herbicide tolerance or insect resistance added.

Conventional breeding has achieved its successes at a fraction of the cost of GM. In addition, GM is no quicker than conventional plant breeding and carries additional risks.

GM is not needed to enable us to feed the world and survive the challenges ahead. In fact the quality and efficacy of our food production system depends only partly on crop genetics. The other part of the equation is farming methods. What is needed are not just high-yielding, climate-ready, and disease-resistant crops, but productive, climate-ready, and disease-resistant agriculture.

Conventional breeding combined with agroecological farming methods can fulfil all our current and future food needs.

When people hear about “supercrops” such as flood-tolerant rice, drought-tolerant maize, salt-tolerant wheat, pest-resistant chickpeas, low-allergen peanuts, iron-rich beans, beta-carotene-enriched cassava, and heart-healthy soybeans, many automatically think of GM.

But all these improved crops have been created without GM. They are the products of conventional (natural) breeding, in some cases helped by marker assisted selection, or MAS. MAS, sometimes called precision breeding, is a largely uncontroversial branch of biotechnology that can speed up conventional breeding by identifying the presence of genes linked to the desired important traits in the new naturally bred plants. Thus MAS dramatically reduces the time taken to select the new crop variety. MAS does not involve inserting foreign genes into the DNA of a host plant and avoids the risks and uncertainties of genetic engineering. It is widely supported by environmentalists and organic farming bodies. Any concerns tend to focus on patent ownership of the seeds developed in this way.

Conventional breeding and MAS have succeeded where GM has failed in developing crops with useful traits such as tolerance to extreme weather conditions and poor soils, disease resistance, and enhanced nutritional value. Such properties are known as complex traits because they involve many genes working together in a precisely regulated way. Only conventional breeding methods, sometimes helped by MAS, are able to produce crops with the desired complex traits. In contrast, GM technology can only manipulate one or a few genes at a time and is unable to confer precise and integrated control of expression of GM genes. Therefore it is incapable of producing crops with desired complex traits, which rely on multiple genes working together.

In a few GM crops, such as GM virus-resistant papayas,1,2 resistance to a particular virus has been conferred by inserting a single gene from the virus (virus coat protein gene). This process is known as “coat protein-mediated protection” and is akin to a vaccination in animals or human.3 But the more valuable and broadly resilient complex-trait disease resistance cannot be genetically engineered into a plant.

Conventional breeding and MAS use the many existing varieties of crops to create a diverse, flexible, and resilient crop base. GM technology offers the opposite – a narrowing of crop diversity and an inflexible technology that requires years and millions of dollars of investment for each new trait.4,5

Non-GM breeding successes usually gain minimal media coverage, in contrast with the often speculative claims of potential GM “miracles”. Thanks to the huge public relations budgets of biotechnology companies, the GMO stories are broadcast far and wide – but have little grounding in fact.

While the GMO lobby has been promising GM crops with desirable traits such as tolerance to flood and drought, salty soils, or enhanced nutritional value for 18 years, it has failed to produce them. Today the vast majority of commercialized GMOs have one or both of just two traits: herbicide tolerance and pesticide expression.

Monsanto has released a drought-tolerant maize, but even the US Department of Agriculture admitted that it was no more effective than existing non-GM varieties.6 Truly drought-tolerant agriculture depends on agronomic methods more than genetics – for example, incorporating plenty of organic matter into the soil so that it absorbs and retains water.

The GM successes that never were

Many crops developed through conventional breeding, either alone or with assistance from marker assisted selection (MAS), are wrongly claimed as GM successes. These fall into three broad categories, as follows.

1. Conventionally bred crop with GM tweak

“Biotech traits by themselves are absolutely useless unless they can be put into the very best germplasm.”
– Brian Whan, spokesman for Monsanto subsidiary InterGrain7

Typically, GM firms use conventional breeding, not GM, to develop crops with traits such as higher intrinsic yields or drought tolerance. They first obtain germplasm from the best varieties developed over years by farmers and breeders. Then they use conventional breeding and MAS to achieve the desired combination of complex traits. Finally, once they have developed a successful variety using conventional breeding, they use GM to engineer in the company’s proprietary genes. This GM tweak, usually a herbicide-tolerant or insecticidal gene, adds nothing to the agronomic performance of the crop. But it does allow the company to patent and own the crop.

This process was mentioned in a news broadcast about Monsanto’s 2010 buy-out of part of a Western Australia cereal breeding company, InterGrain. An InterGrain spokesman explained Monsanto’s interest in his company: “A really important concept is that biotech traits by themselves are absolutely useless unless they can be put into the very best germplasm.”7

An example of a GM product developed in this way is Monsanto’s VISTIVE® soybean, which has been described as the first GM product with benefits for consumers. These low linolenic acid soybeans were designed to produce oil that would reduce unhealthy trans fats in processed food made from the oil. They were created by conventional breeding. But Monsanto turned them into a GM crop by adding a GM trait – tolerance to its Roundup herbicide.8

Interestingly, Iowa State University developed some even lower linolenic acid soybean varieties and did not add any GM traits to them.9 Very little has been heard about them, compared with VISTIVE.

Another product of this type is Syngenta’s Agrisure Artesian drought-tolerant maize. The crop was developed using non-GM breeding, but herbicide tolerant and insecticidal GM genes were subsequently added through genetic engineering.10

2. Conventionally bred crop without GM tweak – GM used as lab tool

In some cases, a crop is developed with the aid of GM as a laboratory research tool, but no GM genes are added. Nevertheless, such crops have been claimed to be GM successes. An example is flood-tolerant rice, which the UK government’s former chief scientist, Sir David King, wrongly claimed as a triumph of genetic engineering.11,12

In fact, the two best-known flood-tolerant rice varieties – one of which was almost certainly the one that King referred to – are not GM at all. One variety was developed by a research team led by GMO proponent Pamela Ronald.13 Ronald’s team developed the rice using MAS as part of a natural breeding programme.13,14 They used genetic engineering as a laboratory research tool first to identify the desired genes, and then to look for their presence in the plants obtained through natural cross-breeding. So the resulting rice is not genetically engineered but naturally bred.

Ronald does not appear to have tried to clear up the confusion around the non-GM status of this rice – quite the opposite, as she misleadingly referred to the MAS method of developing the rice as “sort of a hybrid between genetic engineering and conventional breeding”.15 While MAS can be used with both genetic engineering and conventional breeding, MAS is not a “hybrid” between the two. MAS uses molecular mapping methods to track genetic markers (specific regions of DNA) associated with certain traits of interest during the conventional breeding process. This enables the breeder to more quickly and precisely identify progeny that carry the traits of interest.

The website of University of California at Davis (UC Davis), where Ronald’s laboratory is based, also misleadingly implied that her rice was genetically engineered, saying, “Her laboratory has engineered rice for resistance to diseases and flooding, which are serious problems of rice crops in Asia and Africa.”16 It would be more accurate to say that her team had bred the rice.

Another flood-tolerant rice created with “Snorkel” genes has also been claimed as a genetic engineering success. But the rice, which adapts to flooding by growing longer stems that prevent the crop from drowning, was bred by conventional methods and is entirely non-GM.17

Laboratory-based genetic modification and modern gene mapping methods were used to study a deepwater rice variety and identify the genes responsible for its flood tolerance trait. Three gene regions were identified, including one where the two “Snorkel” genes are located.MAS was used to guide the conventional breeding process by which all three flood tolerance gene regions were successfully combined in a commercial rice variety.17

Only conventional breeding and MAS could be used to generate the resulting flood-tolerant rice line. This is because it is beyond the ability of current genetic modification methods to transfer the genes and control switches for the flood-tolerance trait in a way that enables them to work properly.

3. Crop that has nothing to do with GM

In one high-profile case, a crop that had nothing to do with GM at all was claimed as a GM success. In a BBC radio interview, the UK government’s former chief scientist, Sir David King, said that a big increase in grain yields in Africa was due to GM, when in fact it did not involve the use of GM technology.18 Instead, the yield increase was due to a “push-pull” management system, an agroecological method of companion planting that diverts pests away from crop plants.19 King later admitted to what he called an “honest mistake”.20

King produced this example when under pressure to provide compelling reasons why GM crops are needed. But far from showing why we need to embrace GM, it shows the exact opposite – that we need to stop being distracted by GM and put funding and support behind proven effective non-GM solutions to urgent problems.

Non-GM breeding successes show no need for GM

“The advantage of science is not in principle, for its own self – it’s because it does something useful and valuable, that people want. If it is not supporting those particular objectives, I think we should take a much more sceptical view of it.”
– Michael Meacher, former UK environment minister21

“A surge of media reports and rhetorical claims depicted genetically modified (GM) crops as a solution to the ‘global food crisis’ manifested in the sudden spike in world food prices during 2007–08. Broad claims were made about the potential of GM technologies to tackle the crisis, even though the useful crops and traits typically invoked had yet to be developed, and despite the fact that real progress had in fact been made by using conventional breeding. The case vividly illustrates the instrumental use of food-crisis rhetoric to promote GM crops.”
– Glenn Davis Stone, professor of anthropology and environmental studies, Washington University, St Louis; and Dominic Glover, then postdoctoral fellow in technology and agrarian development, Wageningen University, The Netherlands22

The following are just a few examples of conventionally bred crops with the types of traits that GMO proponents claim can only be achieved through genetic engineering. Many are already commercially available and making a difference in farmers’ fields.

Drought-tolerant and climate-ready

See Myth 5.12 for a list of non-GM breeding successes with enhanced drought-tolerant and climate-ready traits.

Salt-tolerant

  • Rice varieties that tolerate saline soils and other problems23
  • Durum wheat that yields 25% more in saline soils than a commonly used variety24,25
  • Indigenous crop varieties from India that tolerate saline soils, stored by the Indian seed-keeping NGO, Navdanya. Navdanya reported that it gave some of these seeds to farmers in the wake of the 2004 tsunami, enabling them to continue farming in salt-saturated soils in spite of scientists’ warnings that they would have to abandon the land temporarily.26

High-yield, pest-resistant, and disease-resistant

  • High-yield, multi-disease-resistant beans for farmers in Central and East Africa27
  • High-yield, disease-resistant cassava for Africa28
  • Australian high-yield maize varieties targeted at non-GM Asian markets29
  • Maize that resists the Striga parasitic weed pest and tolerates drought and low soil nitrogen, for African farmers30
  • Maize that resists the grain borer pest31
  • “Green Super-Rice” bred for high yield and disease resistance23
  • High-yield soybeans that resist the cyst nematode pest32
  • Aphid-resistant soybeans33,34,35,36
  • High-yield tomato with sweeter fruit37
  • High-yield, pest-resistant chickpeas38
  • Sweet potato that is resistant to nematodes, insect pests and Fusarium wilt, a fungal disease39
  • High-yield, high-nutrition, and pest-resistant “superwheat”40
  • Habanero peppers with resistance to root-knot nematodes41
  • Potatoes that resist late blight and other diseases42,43,44,45,46,47,48
  • Potato that resists root-knot nematodes49
  • Papayas that resist ringspot virus.50 There is also a GM virus-resistant papaya,1 which is claimed by GMO proponents to have saved Hawaii’s papaya industry.51 However, this claim is questionable. Though the GM papaya has dominated Hawaiian papaya production since the late 1990s, Hawaii’s Department of Agriculture reportedly said that the annual yield of papayas in 2009 was lower than when the ringspot virus was at its peak.52 An article in the Hawaiian press said that GM has not saved Hawaii’s papaya industry, which has been in decline since 2002. The article cites as a possible reason for the decline the market rejection that has plagued GM papayas from the beginning.53

GM “solution” to pest problem that’s already solved

Genetics, whether engineered or natural, are only part of the solution to pest problems. Sometimes they are just a distraction from existing agronomic solutions. For example, in 2012 Rothamsted Research in the UK began an open field trial of wheat genetically engineered to produce a chemical that repels aphids. The chemical is present in natural form in some plants. Rothamsted presented the project, which swallowed £1.28 million of public funds,54 as an environmentally friendly chemical-free way to control aphids.55

However, this was yet another GM “solution” to a problem that had already been solved by agroecological methods. Previously published long-term research, which included substantial input from Rothamsted Research, has shown that aphid populations in cereal crops can be successfully kept below the level at which they cause economic damage to the crop by planting strips of certain flowers around fields. These flowers attract native predators and parasites, such as parasitic wasps, ladybirds, lacewings, and hoverflies, which control the aphids.56,57

It is even questionable as to whether aphids in wheat are a real problem requiring new solutions. British farmer Peter Lundgren has pointed out that the trial was on spring wheat, for which aphid damage is negligible. For winter wheat, there are other existing non-GM solutions, ranging from chemical insecticides to agroecological methods,58 such as those described above.

Nutritionally fortified and health-promoting

  • Soybeans containing high levels of oleic acid, reducing the need for hydrogenation, a process that leads to the formation of unhealthy trans fats59
  • Beta-carotene-enriched orange maize, aimed at people suffering from vitamin A deficiency60,61
  • Millet rich in iron, wheat abundant in zinc, and beta-carotene-enriched cassava62
  • Purple potatoes containing high levels of the cancer-fighting antioxidants, anthocyanins63,64
  • A tomato containing high levels of the antioxidant, lycopene, which has been found in studies to have the potential to combat heart attacks, stroke, and cancer65
  • A purple tomato containing high levels of anthocyanins and vitamin C66 (this story attracted only a fraction of the publicity gained by the John Innes Centre’s GM purple “cancer-fighting” tomato67,68,69)
  • Low-allergy peanuts70 (in a separate development, a process has been discovered to render ordinary peanuts allergen-free71)

Nutritionally fortifying foods does not necessarily involve crop breeding. Adding nutrients is a popular and successful method to improve the nutritional quality of food. For example, an iron-fortified maize has been shown in a study to decrease anaemia in children.72,73

Consumer appeal

A GM non-browning apple has gained a less than enthusiastic reception, notably from the apple industry, which fears it could damage markets.74,75 Meanwhile, a non-GM version is already available.76

Conventional breeding outstrips GM in delivering desirable traits

The GMO lobby uses promises of drought-resistant, salt-resistant, and biofortified crops to sell GM technology to politicians, the food industry, and the public. But these promises are empty. There are no commercialized GMOs that outperform non-GM crops in expressing these desirable traits. After 18 years of failed promises, virtually all commercialized GMOs have one or both of just two traits: herbicide tolerance and the production of a pesticide.77

GM is no quicker than conventional breeding – but it is more expensive

“The assertion that GM is quicker than breeding is common, but false. The average time required to develop a non-vegetatively engineered crop is about the same as developing one produced through breeding.”
– Doug Gurian-Sherman, biotechnology specialist at the Union of Concerned Scientists78

“The overall cost to bring a new biotech trait to the market between 2008 and 2012 is on average $136 million.”
– Phillips McDougall, “The cost and time involved in the discovery, development and authorization of a new plant biotechnology derived trait: A consultancy study for Crop Life International”79

“Genetic engineering might be worth the extra cost if classical breeding were unable to impart such desirable traits as drought-, flood- and pest-resistance, and fertilizer efficiency. But in case after case, classical breeding is delivering the goods.”
– Margaret Mellon and Doug Gurian-Sherman, Union of Concerned Scientists5

The plant breeder Major M. Goodman of North Carolina State University says that GM is no quicker than conventional breeding; on the contrary, GM involves additional steps. He concludes that on average, and provided there are no complications, there is a 10–15-year lag time between the discovery of a new, potentially useful transgene and seed sales to farmers – about the same as the time needed to breed a new variety of a sexually propagated non-GM crop.4,80 The Bt insecticidal trait engineered into GM crops took 16 years to reach the market – and that figure did not include toxicity testing.4

Dr Doug Gurian-Sherman of the Union of Concerned Scientists commented: “The assertion that GM is quicker than breeding is common, but false. The average time required to develop a non-vegetatively engineered crop is about the same as developing one produced through breeding.” He said that false claims about the speed of GM stem from “the notion that once a gene is found, it is simply a matter of putting it into a plant and running a few tests to see if it works properly.”78

Gurian-Sherman explained, “In fact, years of backcrossing are needed to get rid of possible harmful mutations and epigenetic changes introduced through the tissue culture process used with GM. And backcrossing is also needed to transfer the trait into multiple elite crop varieties of many crops (for example, grains). Sometimes the original genetic construct turns out to cause problems. This happened for example with GM flood-tolerant rice, which showed breeding to be faster and more effective than GM. New regulatory sequences are found to be needed, or there are position effects that cause problems from the particular site of insertion in the plant genome.”78

In addition, Gurian-Sherman said, years of field testing are needed to determine how well the trait responds in various and variable environments, regardless of whether the trait is developed through GM or breeding.78

Gurian-Sherman added, “When we look at actual examples, it has taken 10 to 15 years to develop a GM trait. And it is important to note that this is not an issue of delay due to regulatory requirements, as GM proponents are fond of asserting, but inherent in the limitations of the process.”78

This timeline might be reduced in the case of plants that are vegetatively propagated, like apples and potatoes, since the crossing and backcrossing carried out with sexually propagated plants does not happen. Instead the genetic engineers insert the transgene and do some field testing to see that the transgenes function as hoped.

However, this shorter process also carries greater risks. Because there is no backcrossing or breeding of any kind, the GM apples or potatoes will always carry all of the changes that occurred during the engineering process, namely insertion-site mutations and effects and tissue culture-induced mutations and epigenetic changes. The GM varieties are put out into the field still carrying any GM-induced unintended changes.

Other than checking that the apple trees and the potatoes look normal and grow acceptably during a few years of field testing under highly managed conditions, the developer company does not look for any other types of changes, such as unexpected toxic or allergenic qualities.

As for the cost of GM versus non-GM plant breeding, an industry consultancy study put the cost of developing a GM trait and bringing it to market at $136 million. Out of that figure, only $35 million is spent on regulatory costs, the rest being taken up by basic research and development.79 Even Monsanto admits that non-GM plant breeding is “significantly cheaper” than GM.81

The plant breeder Major M. Goodman of North Carolina State University said the cost of developing a single-gene GM trait was fifty times as much as the cost of developing an equivalent conventionally bred plant variety. Goodman called the cost of GM breeding a “formidable barrier” to its expansion.4

Time and cost are vital considerations for the Global South, where the need for crop varieties adapted to local conditions is urgent, yet farmers cannot afford expensive seeds and inputs.

Conclusion

Conventional plant breeding continues to outperform GM in producing crops with useful traits, such as tolerance to extreme weather conditions and poor soils, complex-trait disease resistance, and enhanced nutritional value. Such properties are called complex traits because they involve many genes working together in a precisely regulated way. They cannot be genetically engineered into crops.

Often, non-GM crops with these desirable traits are wrongly claimed as GM successes. GM crops that do have such traits are generally conventional breeding successes with GM genes for herbicide tolerance or insect resistance added.

Conventional breeding has achieved its successes at a fraction of the cost of GM. In addition, GM is no quicker than conventional plant breeding and carries additional risks.

For 18 years the GMO lobby has been promising GM crops with desirable traits in order to sell GM technology to politicians, the food industry, and the public. But today, almost all commercialized GMOs have been modified with just two simple traits: to resist herbicides or produce their own pesticides.

GM is not needed to enable us to feed the world and survive the challenges ahead. In fact the quality and efficacy of our food production system depends only partly on crop genetics. The other part of the equation is farming methods. What is needed are not just high-yielding, climate-ready, and disease-resistant crops, but productive, climate-ready, and disease-resistant agriculture.

Conventional breeding combined with agroecological farming methods can fulfil all our current and future food needs.

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