Before I dive into my latest entry, I would like to use this chance to thank the British taxpayer for subsidizing the education of millions of people around the world via their greatest export product – the British Broadcasting Corporation. In fact, it was the BBC that inspired me to write this particular piece.
Some time ago I was listening to a BBC-podcast called ’the world history in 100 objects’. The episode centered around the significance of corn for the Central American culture. Apparently, before certain genetic mutations took place, corn was quite inedible for humans. It took countless further mutations (both random and deliberate) from countless of generations of Central American farmers to develop the plant into its current variety. However, when the journalist/narrator asks a Mexican restaurant owner what he considers the biggest threat to his native culinary culture he mentions genetically modified organisms or GMOs. “It is not our place to play god”.
Even with my limited knowledge on plant breeding I couldn’t understand this statement. The way I see it, humanity has been playing god by interfering with plant (and animal) genome for millennia. Moreover, the process has been done with much less precision than modern technologies would allow us to do. This logical inconsistency inspired me to look more deeply into the issue of food production, its history and its future.
It is certainly possible to feed the world of nine billion with technologies and practices of the past but this vision lacks real ambition. The way I see it, food production has to be further detached from land and resource use if we are to provide a nutrient and calorie rich diet for as many people as possible with as limited impact as possible. While not the only element in this equation, modern biotechnology will be instrumental in achieving this goal.
One of the first things I have noticed is that similar to other seemingly controversial issues, the debate on GMOs is often carried with convictions rather than facts and evidence. The situation is not helped by the rather vivid imagery used in the discussions – one of the most famous of them being the term ‘frankenfoods’.
In Mary Shelley’s novel, the scientist Victor Frankenstein ventures to the reign of God by creating artificial life and thus can be interpreted as trying to act like one. Similarly GMOs are often portrayed as ”frankenfoods” by their opponents – artificial monsters of the food world devised by mad scientists in their lairs of wicked genius. The irony is probably lost to many but Shelley wanted to highlight the irrational fears and ignorance of the mobs, rather than the dreadfulness of the monster itself.
Instead of fanciful rhetoric the obvious starting point for any meaningful discussion regarding GMOs is to see how they compare to ‘traditional’ products. In his book, Pandora’s picnic basket, Alan McHughen goes to painstaking depths in explaining how different methods of plant breeding differ from each other. They range from crossing to haploid breeding and mutation breeding (the seed are put under intense source of ionizing radiation). No matter what technique is used, the ultimate goal of any plant breeding method is to produce new genetic lineages that have some form of advantage over existing varieties. The difference between traditional methods and genetic engineering is the fact that with the former you will end up having hundreds or thousands of other (often unwanted or unnoticed) mutations that also take place in the process.
To my surprise I found out that often the far more intrusive techniques require no such regulatory oversight GMOs do. If I had no prior knowledge of the issue or the debate, this arbitrary treatment would seem quite absurd – not to mention hypocritical. Indeed, the dichotomy between genetic engineering and ”traditional” breeding methods would seem almost impossible. One of the most typical fears regarding GMOs is that the new variety has somehow super-enhanced abilities that will enable it to ‘conquer the wild’. Notwithstanding the likelihood of the event in the first place, I would ask what the difference is to plants that have for example bred into herbicide resistance by traditional methods?
Benefits to the environment?
While it might sound outrageous, the whole point of GMOs is to reduce the impact on the environment by increasing yield (less need for land) or reduced use of other inputs, such as pesticides or fertilizers. I admit that the motive might not be environmental but does it really matter if the impact is beneficial? According to a recent study (mentioned in the linked article) pesticide use has dropped 90 % in corn production since the adoption of the Bt corn in the US. There are even plans to ”upgrade” the level of photosynthesis of some of the most common staples, such as rice and wheat, that could potentially increase their yields by over 50%. However the challenges are more complex as these traits are governed by a set of genes rather than an individual one.
Moreover, one often hears the worry that climate change could impact food production. With plants that are more resistant to droughts, disease and pests these threats could be severely mitigated. In addition, there is mounting evidence that we have reached ‘peak farmland’. However, we haven’t nearly reached the peak in agricultural productivity. For example, while GMOs only partly explain the difference between yields in US and Africa, the fact remains that there seems to be a huge potential for African yield increase.
Overall, the underlying logic behind adopting GMOs is similar to the ones that have been driving human prosperity over the course of history. Productivity gains via the means of efficiency – less input for more outcome. The point is that we can choose not to choose these efficiency improving technologies but we have to be clear on the fact that such losses in productivity growth will have to be compensated somehow.