THE European Parliament approved in June a proposal from the Green Party to withdraw support from the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, a consortium of mainly food and agribusinesses.
The consortium seeks to improve African agriculture using a model that includes genetically modified (GM) crops. On social media, where such arguments are now played out, the comments were dramatic: “How to starve Africa — ask the European Green Party”; “European Parliament just voted to deny GM crops to Africans.” The real situation, of course, is more complex.
The proposal seems to have been a reaction to two classic red rags for many people in the Green movement: the involvement of large-scale capitalism in agriculture, and the use of GM crops. Furthermore, this model does not conform to the Greens’ vision of sustainable agricultural development, led by small-scale farmers.
In supporting the Greens, the EU Parliament had not really “voted to deny GM crops to Africans”; but support had been withdrawn from a significant method of delivering such crops to Africa, which caused angry reactions from members of the New Alliance, and from many plant scientists.
FOR plant scientists like me, GM crops are not an entity in their
own right, although they are usually presented in that way outside scientific communities. They are simply crops that have up to four genes inserted to confer desirable traits, such as drought- or disease-resistance.
This contrasts with “traditional” breeding methods, and with the widely used mutagenesis breeding, in which radiation or mutagenic chemicals are used to induce changes in DNA.
Plant GM was “invented” in 1983 by scientists in Belgium (quickly followed by others in the United States), who used a naturally occurring gene-transfer mechanism to deliver specific genes to plants. The first commercial products appeared in the mid-1990s, but, by the end of the decade, public attitudes in the UK and mainland Europe became much more negative.
This happened after concerted campaigns by some NGOs and by the European Green Party. The campaigners raised fears about the environmental and food safety of these crops, causing consumers to reject products that they had previously eaten happily, such as paste from non-softening tomatoes.
Those of us in the plant-science community who debated with campaigners quickly discovered two other factors in their opposition. One was a rejection, which appeared to be ideological, of GM techniques themselves; the other was a fierce objection to the involvement of large-scale capitalism — and to the behaviour of one company in particular, Monsanto — in the commercialisation of GM crops.
Whatever the basis for the opposition, however, the campaigning was successful. The EU, including the UK up until now, has been very slow in adopting GM crops for commercial growth.
Christian groups differed in their reactions. Christian Ecology Link opposed GM crops, while the Evangelical Alliance gave a cautious welcome. My own view, as a Christian who worked on plant DNA and genes for many years, is that GM techniques represent a welcome addition to plant breeders’ toolkits, with the potential, if wisely used, to benefit humankind.
THE intellectual property rights of Monsanto and others over particular gene constructs have expired, but even when they were extant, traits such as insect-resistance were used in poorer countries by way of partnership arrangements with governments or charities.
Thus, although the initial take-up of GM crops was in richer nations, as well as emerging ones such as Brazil, Russia, India, and China, they are now grown in 28 different countries, several of which are classed as less developed, including some in Africa.
In 2015, the total area devoted to such crops worldwide amounted to about 180 million hectares (a 100-fold increase since 1996). More than half of this represents small farms in less developed countries.
In the EU, the only country using GM crops on any significant scale is Spain, which has about 110,000 hectares of insect-resistant maize (grown for animal feed).
Globally, the main crops involved are herbicide-tolerant soybean (which is 83 per cent of the world’s soybean crop), and insect-resistant cotton (75 per cent of the world’s cotton crop). In India, 90 per cent of the cotton crop comes from GM insect-resistant plants.
“Big business” is certainly still involved, but around the world, in both developed and less developed countries, at least 125 GM crop varieties (that is, the majority of them) are now being developed by universities, foundations, charities, public institutions, or local companies.
IN RESPECT of safety, all the main science academies in the world (for example, the Royal Society in the UK) have declared crops bred by GM methods to be completely safe for the environment, and for human health.
We need to note two things about this. First, as with all breeding methods, it is the trait that is actually important. It would be quite possible to use any breeding technique to produce crops with harmful traits.
Second, declarations on safety have done very little to reduce the ideological opposition expressed by some Green groups, as I know from recent discussions.
The debate continues.
John Bryant is Professor Emeritus of Cell and Molecular Biology at the University of Exeter. He is a former chairman of Christians in Science, and a former president of the Society for Experimental Biology.