We reap as we sow

Genetic modification is the latest step in humanity's attempt to control our environment, argues one scientist, and it's a step we must take.

Conrad Lichtenstein

Topics Science & Tech

At the National Federation of Women’s Institutes’ annual meeting on 9 June, 88 per cent backed the resolution: ‘In the light of growing evidence that the current generation of GM crops are beneficial for neither people nor planet, this meeting strongly opposes the growing of GM crops in the UK and calls on HM Government to prohibit their cultivation.’ This article is adapted from a speech given against the motion.

The eighteenth century is known as the age of Enlightenment: liberal democracies were established, science fed technological progress, the arts and literature flourished. Britain played a major role in helping to bring about the new modern world. Given this, the current widespread suspicion of genetic modification (GM) in the UK is both disturbing and mystifying.

It is disturbing, because I believe that the current antipathy to GM crops reflects an inversion of the enlightenment proposition: that human reason will triumph over superstition, ignorance and fear. It is mystifying, because we have no reason to reject the approaches that have served the modern world so well. We in the developed world enjoy prosperity and health as never before – and it is still human reason, science and technology that will continue to solve our problems, not pre-modern romanticism.

Human reason was, of course, not invented in the eighteenth century. Reason is the engine of human cultural evolution, which makes us human and separates us from the beasts. Humans have developed greater choice over how they live their lives, rather than being at the whim of the chance of nature. This has meant the choice to develop agriculture and with it civilised society instead of the chance of hunting and gathering with no control over food supply. And in a technological society, the triumph of choice over chance is even greater.

So how have superstition, ignorance and fear come to triumph over human reason in the GM debate?

The superstition is not new. It began in 1859 when Charles Darwin provided a mechanism for the ‘origin of species by means of natural selection’. Darwin violated the early Christian notion of the ‘great chain of being’, where species are immutable and created by God in a hierarchy – with humans near the top, somewhere between apes and angels.

The current superstition is a reincarnation of this belief – there is a sense that species are immutable, and that we are ‘playing God’ by moving genes between them. I countered this superstition with a serendipitous discovery from my own research. When I engineered GM plants that resist virus infection, I found that nature had done my experiment 25million years earlier: the very genes I had introduced into the plant I had chosen to study were already there. It turned out that these natural GM genes are present in hundreds of copies in four living plant species.

There is substantial ignorance about the nature of GM. One common misconception is that GM is a new type of crop product. But GM is not a product – it is a process. Each new crop variety needs to be carefully evaluated on a case-by-case basis, rather than making a blanket dismissal of the GM process, since there is nothing intrinsically dangerous about this GM process. GM is simply a new tool for plant breeding.

In developing his theory of natural selection, Darwin drew his first examples from the selective breeding of plants and animals in agriculture that had developed domesticated species from wild ancestors. For example, wolves were bred into dogs, and wild grasses were bred into wheat, rye, oats and barley. Darwin called this artificial selection, where artificial simply means by human action – by the exercise of human choice rather than by biological chance.

When a deeper understanding of the genetic basis of variation ensued in the twentieth century with the new science of genetics, selective breeding became a science rather than an art. Breeders still relied upon random mutation for the generation of variation to select from – but they sought to increase variation by stimulating random mutation, which involves subjecting plant seeds to gamma-irradiation from a radioactive source, and then selecting the few desirable mutations from the many damaged ones that ensue. Many of our crop varieties are products of such mutation breeding.

By contrast, GM is artificial variation: it allows us to choose which genes we want in a new crop variety, rather than having to rely on the chance of random mutations in nature or by mutation breeding. GM is a more precise tool for plant breeding.

Anti-GM activists have claimed that GM transgenes are unstable and will escape and contaminate the environment; that GM causes cancer; and that GM transgenes can enter our cells or our gut bacteria. But there is no evidence that GM transgenes cause cancer, or that they are particularly unstable or liable to escape. All cultivated crops can cross with wild relatives; there is no particular risk with GM crops. GM transgenes are no more likely to enter bacterial cells or human cells than any other DNA we eat in our food – and if they do, they don’t tend to survive.

It is also often claimed that only large multinational companies desire GM. But many people in the developing world are trying to develop and take advantage of these technologies. When I published my work on engineering GM plants that resist virus infection, a group of scientists in Pakistan invited me to collaborate with them to solve the problem of a serious endemic viral pathogen that was causing them to suffer 30 per cent yield losses in their cotton crop. Cotton and the associated textile industry bring 60 per cent of foreign exchange earnings to Pakistan, and so this loss to viral pathogens represents an annual loss of about US$500million. Using public sector funding, the scientists have recently demonstrated in field trials that GM cotton is resistant to vial infection.

So where is the evidence that the current generation of GM crops are beneficial for neither people nor planet? Modern agriculture can certainly damage the environment: over the past 50 years, the need to increase food production has resulted in the loss of one-fifth of the world’s topsoil, one-fifth of its agricultural land and one-third of its forests. One solution is to develop new technologies to make agriculture more efficient. Greater efficiency means less agricultural land is required, and so more land can be left wild.

Current varieties of GM crops include those that are insect-resistant and those that are herbicide tolerant. Both require lower inputs, such as spraying, and so are particularly suited to small-scale farmers in the developing world.

Modern agriculture involves the use of powerful toxic pesticides – including copper, often used by organic farmers – which enter the groundwater and can damage the environment and human water supply. Spraying pesticides requires expensive equipment and protective clothing, and can also damage the health of farmers who have to spray them. Insect-resistant GM technology here offers a biological solution that organic farmers should embrace: the Bt crop varieties, for example, express a natural insecticide that organic farmers have sprayed on their crops for many decades. Rather than using inefficient spraying, the plant is armed against its specific insect pests – for example, in maize, the corn-borer, which leads to infestation by fungal pathogens that produce mycotoxins.

Meanwhile, GM crops designed for herbicide resistance can be sprayed with a safe biodegradable herbicide. Less spraying is required, again reducing equipment and labour inputs. Another benefit is that agricultural land doesn’t require such extensive tilling, which reduces soil erosion and allows more humus to accumulate in the soil.

This is just the beginning. The future holds promise for new GM crop varieties with increased tolerance of drought, heat and cold; with improved disease resistance or nutritional value; or as production systems for pharmaceutical compounds (such as edible vaccines for the developing world) and renewable industrial compounds (such as biodegradable plastics). That’s why GM technology is of benefit to both people and the planet.

Conrad Lichtenstein is the chair of molecular biology at Queen Mary, University of London, and has over 25 years of research experience in the field of molecular biology.

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