What is a GMO?
In the past, scientists ‘introduced’ or transferred the DNA from one species to another. Now they use so-called ‘editing’ techniques to change the host DNA. This is called genetic engineering, as opposed to 'modification'. It enables scientists to change desired traits or features in an organism. This can enhance a crop’s resistance to disease, for instance, or make it resilient to weedkiller/herbicide.
This artificial manipulation of DNA would never happen in nature. It replaces the traditional method of selective breeding, a common and completely safe practice used by growers.
Genetic engineering is a contentious issue. We look at its use in plants in particular. At how and why large chemical agribusinesses, such as Bayer (Monsanto) and Syngenta, create the crops that feed us and our animals.
It's complicated ....
The issues and the science are complex. But as you read, we urge you to follow the links. As organic growers, the more we understand the subject the greater strength we have in order to influence safety regulations.
Here is an outline of the new genetic engineering techniques, and the need for regulation.
Here we discuss three main concerns:
Is genetic engineering compatible with organic principles?
In short, no. This is for a number of reasons:
- GM crops are produced by agrichemical business for their own corporate ownership. The seed is patented, which means the farmer does not have ownership, nor can s/he save their seed for future harvests. This leads to a reduction in diversity of seed, and a worrying decrease in genetic diversity and therefore food security.
- Over 90% of GM crops are designed to be pesticide resistant. This leads to a massive increase in herbicides such as glyphosate and dicamba, which destroy wildlife and can potentially harm humans.
- GM crops are designed for monoculture farming, which is not compatible with organic/regenerative farming. Monoculture leads to significant reduction in biodiversity, soil fertility, human and animal nutrition and health, and overall ecosystem damage.
- There have been well documented cases of contamination from GM crops with wild and organic varieties. This means we lose the purity of our organic produce, and could lead to a worrying unintended invasion of GM species.
- There is also concern that as governments support the GM business, this detracts from the important support they should be givng to regenerative, nature-friendly farming.
Why is genetic engineering important?
It is rapidly changing a traditional process of crop generation. Work done in the lab can replace years of careful breeding selection. This may be a good thing. Here in the UK, for instance, genetic manipulation could create a species of ash tree that is resistant to the deadly Chalara fraxinea blight. See Ash dieback.
However, the consequences of changing the genes of an individual cell are still unknown. DNA is not like Lego – if you break or replace one sequence, it has a knock on effect elsewhere in the organism. Called ‘Pleiotropy’, this effect is hard to predict, and can lead to unforeseen outcomes in the plant's make-up or genetic structure.
It is these unforeseen consequences that require caution and regulation when producing genetically engineered crops. Here are some examples.
Unfortunately, regulators often rely on short term ‘safety’ testing carried out by commercial funders and proponents of genetic engineering. There is very little long term independent analysis of the effects from either animals or ourselves eating GM crops (see Health Concerns).
Agribusinesses that fund genetic engineering claim it is the only way to feed the growing world population. But this could be based on false analysis. In 2013, a comparison of crop yields in the US (which are largely genetically engineered) with those grown in Europe (where GE is banned), showed that although both showed an increase, it was the non-engineered crops in Europe that actually performed better.
Worldwide, we have consistent crop surpluses. Which leads analysts to say it is politics, waste and war that cause hunger in the world - not insufficient food production.
To sum up .....
Advocates argue that
- Genetic engineering continues an age-old process of selective breeding, but with modern expert lab techniques.
- That the increased output from genetically engineered crops is the only way to feed an expanding population,
- and it will help farmers make better use of the land.
Critics say that
- There is insufficient knowledge of the consequences of gene manipulation. Tampering with DNA creates unforeseen and unpredictable outcomes.
- It leads to increased use of toxic pesticides and herbicides, and thus loss of biodiversity.
- Genetic engineering doesn’t always work, can take longer and is more expensive than traditional selective plant breeding.
- There is a real risk of contamination from genetically engineered crops. Once they are planted, there is no way to contain them, and this compromises non-GM crops, especially those grown organically.
- Persuading farmers to use genetically engineered seeds, and monopolizing their cultivation techniques, leads to monocrop agriculture which causes serious losses in biodiversity and damages our natural ecosystems.