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Genetic modification—yes or no? London Science Museum stages global debate

CIMMYT E-News, vol 6 no. 1, January 2009


They draw fierce criticism from environmental groups, are hailed by some companies and scientists as a solution to global hunger, and chances are you’ve eaten them. Released commercially more than a decade ago, genetically modified (GM) crops and food products still cause controversy. In an attempt to set the record straight and generate productive discussion, the Science Museum in London recently hosted a debate on the pros and cons of GM technologies in the context of the global food price crisis. Rodomiro Ortiz, CIMMYT scientist and director of resource mobilization, took part with viewpoints from a science and development perspective.

Centers like CIMMYT and its partners in developing countries have achieved enormous success using conventional breeding methods to improve maize and wheat varieties. Farmers in developing countries grow seed derived from these efforts on nearly 100 million hectares worldwide, which has increased yields and helped lower the price of main staple crops.

Conventional crop breeding is essentially a fast-forward of evolution. Researchers cross-pollinate sexually compatible plants that possess desirable traits. They then select for specific plant and grain types and for characteristics such as high yield, disease resistance, or tolerance to stresses like drought in successive generations of their offspring. Though faster than natural selection, the process still takes many years.

Transgenic technologies have been touted as offering greater speed and precision—only specific genes are moved, rather than entire genomes as in sexual crosses. They also allow gene transfer from one species to another, which would be difficult or impossible in nature. But opponents fear possible negative environmental effects, such as displacement of native crop varieties or weed species acquiring genes that make them impossible to control. They also worry about potential health hazards from consuming GM foods, or just have a general fear of tampering with nature in this way. Finally, critics cite the fact that transgenic technologies for agriculture are almost exclusively controlled by large private companies—who have spent billions of dollars and years of research on GM products and expect to profit from the investment—and fear future dependence upon these large seed companies.

Super scary seeds?

To promote open discussion and public access to reliable information on the subject of GM crops and food products, in December 2008 the Science Museum in London launched “Future Food: An exhibition debating genetic modification.” The internet page for the exhibit carries statements from both sides of the argument, and invites visitors to post their own viewpoints. As part of the initiative, on 22 January 2009, the Museum hosted an online debate on GM pros and cons in the context of the global food price crisis. CIMMYT has contributed to the exhibit, and center scientist and director of resource mobilization, Rodomiro Ortiz, was invited to be one of three distinguished panelists leading the debate.

“A lot of opposition to genetically modified food is the fear of the unknown, the fear that something might go wrong,” Ortiz said. “I’m not saying we shouldn’t be concerned about potential risks, but we need to weigh and consider the risks and the benefits. And this is a decision society as a whole needs to discuss.” Some debate audience members expressed strong feelings against GM, along the lines cited by Ortiz. As one person put it: “GM is inherently dangerous because you are using a very crude and invasive technique on an exquisitely regulated system, which is the organism, which is proving everyday more and more complex.”

Other members of the debate panel were Bob Watson, chief scientific adviser for the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and Tim Lang, professor of food policy, City University, London. None felt that GM products are “inherently dangerous,” but all said that such products should be approved on a case-by-case basis and undergo rigorous health and standard testing before being approved.

Most people—even those staunchly opposed to GM crops—have probably eaten GM food products, with no apparent ill effects to date. “Since GM soybeans became dominant in the US farmers’ fields and the US has been exporting soybean-derived products for the past 10 years, I don’t know of anyone in the world who hasn’t eaten a product with GM materials in it,” said Ortiz, adding that many animals for human consumption are fed GM products as well.

A common argument against GM crops is that sufficient agricultural gains can be made using traditional breeding. The Museum’s online exhibit provides several examples of successful, conventionally bred crops, such as NERICA, a high-yielding improved rice variety developed by the Africa Rice Center—a member of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), which sponsored the debate and exhibit—for African farmers. Watson said: “Do we need GM? Not to solve the hunger problem of today. May we need GM in the future? Quite possibly.”

Other CIMMYT scientists speak

When asked about the issue, Marianne Bänziger, director of CIMMYT’s Global Maize Program, said GM exploration may be a long-term project, but that it has to begin now. “Given the tremendous challenges posed on world food production—increased demands for food, feed, industrial uses, and biofuel; climate change; increasing water, land, and fertilizer costs—we need to apply all the tools we have to keep improving the productivity and stability of world food production,” she said. “Even though the greatest productivity increases still come from conventional breeding, it would be a very short-term perspective to rely on those tools alone. We need to think about what will feed and sustain our planet in the 2020s and beyond and take responsibility for meeting those challenges.”

As a leader in partnerships to improve the livelihoods and food security of small-scale farmers in difficult cropping environments worldwide, part of CIMMYT’s role is connecting farmers to technologies—like GM crop varieties—that otherwise might not be available to them. “It is very important for public institutions to conduct research in this area,” said CIMMYT wheat physiologist Carolina Saint Pierre. “It helps to prevent this technology from becoming a private sector monopoly, with a few transgenic crops ruling the global market. In addition, public research may contribute to increased public acceptance of transgenic crops.”

Among other things, Saint Pierre has contributed to exploratory research by the center on drought tolerant wheat, using dehydration responsive element binding protein (DREB) genes from mouse-ear cress (Arabidopsis thaliana), in collaboration with the Japan International Research Centre for Agricultural Sciences (JIRCAS).

CIMMYT is also a partner in the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project, a public-private partnership led by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) to develop drought tolerant maize varieties for Africa. The project combines the efforts of various national agricultural research systems in Africa, CIMMYT, and Monsanto, and employs conventional breeding assisted by DNA markers, and GM technologies. Monsanto is providing patented genetic materials as well as advanced breeding tools which are vital to the project, yet will receive no royalty payments from the drought tolerant maize seeds developed through the project, which will be tested and eventually distributed to African seed companies through AATF and made available to smallholder farmers. The work complements a major initiative—Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa—of CIMMYT and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) that uses conventional breeding.

“Genetically modified products need to be a matter of choice. People want to be aware of what they are eating,” said Rodomiro Ortiz, who represented CIMMYT in the debate.

According to Ortiz, CIMMYT work on GM crops is about keeping the center’s options open. “We have a new tool,” he said. “It’s not a panacea, it doesn’t provide all solutions, but CGIAR centers remain committed to whatever new opportunities are offered by biological sciences, which we will try to use to produce international public goods.”

Ortiz says the question is not if GM crops should exist—he pointed out during the debate that 114 million hectares globally were planted with transgenic crops in 2007—but rather how they should be used and under what regulations.

“I don’t want to give GM or any technology or any approach a blank check,” Lang said. “For me and for people like me, a critical issue is ownership and control… I would only be happy with any GM if it was under public ownership and where it was in a circumstance of enormous public infrastructural investment and social control.” CIMMYT varieties are free from intellectual property restrictions and developed and distributed for the benefit of humanity.

According to Watson, complex food security and development issues must be addressed holistically. “The key question is: ‘What is the goal?’ It has to be the elimination of hunger, poverty, and child malnutrition,” he said. “So what’s the challenge? We need to double food production, we need to make sure it is environmentally and socially sustainable, it needs to be nutritious and affordable… So is this a challenge of technology alone? No, absolutely not. It is a combination of technology, policies, and practices in a social context.”

Weighing risks and benefits

The debate panel expressed diverse views on GM crops, but all seemed to agree that GM crops are neither the absolute solution to global hunger, nor do they represent a significant threat to human or environmental health. See CIMMYT’s official position on GM technologies.

The Future Foods exhibit runs through May 2009 and will include two more public debates, one on sustainable seafood and another on agriculture and climate change.

For more information: Rodomiro Ortiz, director, resource mobilization (r.ortiz@cgiar.org)