The introduction of GM crops and foods represents an unprecedented development in the history of agriculture. Never before has the nature of the food supply and the manner in which crops are grown been so fundamentally altered in such a short period of time. This change will affect the lives of all people on earth for many years to come.

Advances in agriculture are to be welcomed if they can contribute to a more sustainable, secure and fair production system and help solve the problem of world hunger and malnutrition. GM crops and foods have been consistently promoted as a way to produce higher yields with less inputs, reduce pesticide use, make farming easier and more profitable, produce more nutritious foods, and meet the challenges of climate change.

But the evidence that has emerged since their introduction in 1996 paints a very different picture. Scientific research and real-world farming experience shows that GM crops have not delivered on the promises above. They have not increased yields or sustainably reduced toxic chemical inputs. They have presented farmers with the new challenges of controlling herbicide-resistant superweeds and Bt toxin-resistant super-pests. GM crops are no less dependent on artificial fertilizers than any other chemically grown crop. They are not as safe to eat as conventionally bred crop varieties. They provide no solution to the major challenges of our time: climate change, the energy crisis, and world hunger.

Why has GM failed to deliver on its promises?

The GM approach treats genes as isolated units of information with predictable outcomes. But this approach is flawed. Gene organization within the DNA of any organism is not random and gene function is a complex, interconnected, and coordinated network, consisting of layer upon layer of molecular systems.

GM is based on an outdated understanding of genetics and is destined to fail. It is beyond the ability of GM to deliver anything but the simplest of properties such as single-gene herbicide tolerance. GM is simply not up to the task of delivering safe, productive, and resilient food production systems.

Our modern understanding of genetics tells us that we need to take a holistic “systems biology” approach in crop development that preserves gene organization and regulation, rather than disrupting it, as GM does. The way to safely and effectively generate crops with complex desirable properties such as higher yield, drought tolerance, and disease resistance is through natural breeding, augmented where useful by marker assisted selection.

Given the fundamental technical and conceptual flaws of the GM approach to crop and food development, we should not be surprised to find that it has failed to deliver on any of its promises and has delivered foods that are not safe to eat.

Why do farmers plant GM crops?

The GMO lobby’s trump card in responding to these arguments is to ask: If GMOs are as unimpressive and problematic as we suggest, why do so many farmers in so many countries plant them?

The simple answer is that while some farmers do plant GM crops, the vast majority do not. Non-GM farming is by far the dominant model. Industry figures from 2013 show that 18 million farmers grow GM crops in 27 countries worldwide: that’s less than 1% of the farming population. Around 92% of all GMOs are grown in just six countries, and these countries mainly grow just four GM crops: soy, maize, oilseed rape (canola) and cotton. Eighty-eight percent of arable land across the globe remains GM-free.1

What is more, in 2014, industry figures revealed that GM crop planting had fallen in industrialized countries for the first time since the technology was commercialized in 1996. Clive James, head of the industry group ISAAA, admitted that the industry now sees the developing world as the target for GMO industry expansion.2

As the evidence and case studies presented in this report make clear, it is irresponsible to use farmers in the developing world as guinea pigs for experimental GM crops that the majority of people do not want to eat.

Time to move on

For two decades, GM proponents have dominated the political and media discussion on food and agriculture. Many of our agricultural research institutes and universities accept GMO industry funding and obligingly pursue a narrow GM-focused agenda, at the expense of proven effective agroecological solutions that focus on improving soil quality and maintaining crop diversity and health.  Pro-GMO propaganda has even made its way into school and college curricula.

Yet the public, the vast majority of whom do not want to eat GM foods, is unconvinced. It has become common for pro-GMO lobbyists to try to shut down resistance to GM food and agriculture by saying that the debate is over, that science has shown that GMOs are safe and beneficial, and that it is time to move on and accept them.

We agree with only one aspect of this argument. It is indeed time to move on, but in the opposite direction to the one promoted by the GMO proponents. The scientific evidence presented in this report shows that the hypothetical benefits of GM crops and foods are not worth the known risks.

It is time to face up to what the evidence tells us about GMOs and stop pretending that GMOs can do anything that non-GM agriculture and good farming can’t do far better, at a fraction of the cost, and without the restrictions attached to patent ownership. In fact, patents represent the single area in which GM crops and foods outstrip non-GM. If it ever becomes as easy to patent a non-GM crop as it is to patent a GM crop, it is likely that GM crops and foods will be consigned to the dustbin of history. Agricultural genetic engineering is not a smart or useful enough technology to succeed on its own merits. It is of interest to multinational companies and their government allies as a route to patent ownership of the food and feed supplies.

Once this fact has become clear to citizens and policy-makers, we hope they will throw resources and funding behind the safe, sustainable, and equitable agriculture that the world needs.

References

  1. Friends of the Earth. Who benefits from GM crops? An industry built on myths. Amsterdam, The Netherlands; 2014. Available at: http://www.foeeurope.org/sites/default/files/publications/foei_who_benefits_from_gm_crops_2014.pdf.
  2. Kaskey J. Modified crop plantings fall in industrialized nations. Bloomberg. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-02-13/modified-crop-plantings-fall-in-industrialiez-nations.html. Published February 13, 2014.