In these next two Papers we will look at the most important facts about Genetic Agriculture; consider the independent scientific research and some empirical evidence from the growing use of GMO’s around the world.

It is a big ask, but as it is one of the most significant technologies of our time and as it can have enormous consequences for everybody involved and the global environment, it is time to produce some un-biased reports.

I will try to be careful with the use of language, not over-stating or under-stating anything, but most people ask me to say it how it is on any of these important subjects, so this will be forthright. It is the best I can do with the information I have available.

In reality there are now 3 forms of agriculture: Organic, Chemical and Genetically Modified.

The structure of this Paper:

We will not tangle with the scientific complexities of GM which would render it hard to read (and write) and more difficult to reach conclusions from. In this Paper we will consider each of the potential and claimed benefits of the technology and look at the realities after 20 years of development. The next Paper will cover the problems as there are too many issues to tackle in one Paper.

Each text section examines one benefit and ends with a straight conclusion about it.

The major questions about the benefits are:

  1. Does GM increase yields? Can it feed the growing world population when normal agriculture cannot?
  2. Does it improve the nutritional value of the crop?
  3. Are there any GM crops that confer other health benefits?
  4. Do the herbicidal resistant crops reduce the amount of herbicide applied?
  5. Do the pesticide resistant crops reduce the amount of pesticide?
  6. Do GM crops reduce the amount of energy used in agriculture?

Some Primary notes

Genetically Modified is shown as GM, GMO’s or Genetically Engineered.

GM plants tolerant of Roundup are called ‘Roundup Ready’ or designated RR.

The USDA = the United States Department of Agriculture.

FDA = the American Food and Drug Administration.

The Secretary of Agriculture in the US is currently Tom Vilsack.

Alfalfa is a legume or member of the pea family grown for animal feed.

Pathogen is an organism that causes disease.

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The Types of GM plants

There are just two traits genetically engineered into crops that account for the vast majority of all GM crops currently grown. One creates a herbicide tolerance in the plants by making them unaffected by glyphosate – the primary ingredient in Roundup. The other makes the plants insect resistant by adding a gene that kills bugs that eat it.

Glyphosate & the herbicide tolerant plants

What is glyphosate? It is the active chemical in the herbicide (weed killer) called Roundup, but there are other chemicals in ‘Roundup’ which help to carry the glyphosate into the target plants (surfactants). These can be highly toxic to both animals and humans but they also increase the toxicity of the glyphosate.

How does it work? Later we will find this important. It doesn’t kill the plants directly – it just severely restricts the plant’s ability to uptake nutrients – and nutrients are crucial for plant health, growth and life itself. The gene added simply keeps the plants’ defence systems working to stop the nutrient deficiency from killing it, but it doesn’t stop the crop plants absorbing the glyphosate so the nutrients are being tied up in those too.

The crops that kill pests

GM insect resistant crops have a toxic gene embedded in them from a soil bacterium (called Bacillus thuringiensis) and referred to as Bt. This causes every cell in the plant to contain the pesticide, or be the pesticide.

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The claimed benefits of GM crops

  1. Does GM increase yields? Can it feed the growing world population when normal agriculture cannot?

The biotech companies always claimed that GM cops will produce higher yields, and as they have had more than 20 years to produce such crops, it would be reasonable to assume yields are up and the farmers delighted – at least with their crops. It would be normal for the easiest problems to be solved first, so if yields will be increased they should be here.

As with everything biotech, the industry makes comparison confusing and always in favour of GM. To calculate the GM yield, the biotech companies take a selected basket of varieties of the crop to give the non-GM yield figure, which includes the lower yielding varieties giving an average yield for that crop – maybe. They normally ‘engineer’ the highest yielding variety, so are comparing the best variety modified with the crop average.

However even on this basis, nearly all GM crops underperform the non-GM crops simply measured by yield, seemingly with the sole exception of a maize which yields slightly higher – by weight – but that is not a fair comparison because of the above.

As so often with GM, when you research the so called ‘information’ you find the situation far from clear. Muddied would be a good description, which necessarily leads us to two questions ‘Why doesn’t the industry produce clear clean data?’ And ‘What is there to hide?’

Regardless of anything else, it is quite clear GM isn’t producing higher yielding crops. In fact it is generally producing lower yields.

  1. Does it improve the nutritional value of the crop?

This is the most astonishing thing I discovered about GM as I had always assumed the food value would be the same or better. Roundup Ready RR crops carry a nutritional penalty because glyphosate works in that unexpected way. When a plant absorbs the glyphosate (Roundup) it doesn’t poison the plant – it simply starves it of its nutrients, and without the nutrients, pathogens in the soil that the plant would normally live with happily – kill it. This is easily shown as if the soil is sterile (contains no pathogens) glyphosate has no effect. But here is the rub.

The implanted gene may stop the pathogens killing it, but the glyphosate enters the crop plants just as it enters the weeds. And guess what?

It reduces their nutrient intake too, making the crop nutrient deficient. The 3 nutrients most affected are manganese, zinc and iron, but copper, nitrogen, magnesium and others are seriously reduced as well. But how seriously reduced are they? After a few years of growing they can be down 50% with 30% to 70% as the range. Farmers and agronomists spend a lot of time and money trying to get the soil balance right, but with GMRR crops that no longer works.

It is easy to forget the plants we saw around us 50 to 100 years ago had evolved over hundreds of millions of years (the first land plants appeared about 400m years ago) so are perfectly evolved to live in the world we inherited including all the soil pathogens, the balance of nutrients in the soils, the amount of available water etc. When WE mess that up we induce stress in the plants and a stressed plant cannot grow well and may die. At the microbial level lots of things are interacting, and changing the relationship between the elements around the plants changes the stress in the plant, and that must and does affect the yield.

Studying GM in depth has been a mile a minute experience and a steep learning curve. I have always taken photosynthesis for granted (the means by which plants convert the sunlight into the energy the plant needs for growth) but Manganese is crucial to the photosynthetic process. Reduce the manganese through introducing glyphosate and you reduce the ability of the plant to photosynthesise normally. Both Soy and Wheat have high demands for manganese. Reduce the photosynthesis and you reduce the growth and yield. But there is yet another factor of even bigger importance.

Plants with reduced levels of nutrients don’t work as well as they should, and some research has found that for a given volume of available water, the reduced nutrient plants produce much less growth (biomass) – in some cases just half. Put another way, these would need much more water to produce the same crop, and in a world running short of water (and we very much are), that would be a devastating outcome. It would also radically impact the yields during drought which the US has just suffered across most of its crop land.

Apart from item 3 below, RR crops are less nutritious per kilo of crop than non GM crops, and none confer a nutritional benefit.

It is also clear that in the case of RR modified plants, the yield will be lower than for non-GM plants due to the greater stress the plants live under due to lower nutrient uptake. Lower yield and lower nutritional value doesn’t sound good and is clearly a dis-benefit rather than a benefit. Any animal (including us) consuming GM crops could therefore benefit from taking additional nutrients. It seems bizarre that a non-natural solution to agriculture is yet another scientific solution!

  1. Are there any GM crops that do confer other health benefits?

An interesting topic, and as usual everything becomes confused. As we will see part 3, modern ‘normal’ plant breeding has surpassed what GM has possibly produced, and I say ‘possibly’ as biotech industry claims seem mostly to be overstated or false.

I don’t think there are any commercialised GM crops being grown that are claimed to help or solve any health problem, but there have been some attempts. Here are a couple of examples:

Vitamin A rich ‘Golden Rice’: This GM variety was announced with great aplomb in the year 2000, designed, we were told, to solve Vitamin A deficiency in the East. What they didn’t tell us was that people needed to eat about 1½ kilos of it every day, or about 20 times as much as they would normally eat. Not enough rice in the world and nobody’s stomach big enough. Needless to say it didn’t catch on. Another GM Golden Rice was produced in 2005 that had 20 times as much Vitamin A, but it grows so badly nobody will grow it.

The best and cheapest way to provide Vitamin A is through supplements. If the biotech companies had funded Vitamin A supplements rather than doing the research they would have saved a huge amount of money and helped the people they said they wanted to help! A win win.

‘Cancer fighting’ Purple Tomatoes: Another hyped GM launch we were told had many health benefits including a reduction in the probability of getting certain cancers. The gene added in the tomatoes produced an antioxidant (anthocyanin), but there is a debate in the medical profession about the impact of this antioxidant, which some argue may even have the opposite effect. Since this tomato was created, normal breeding has anyway produced a tomato with higher levels of antioxidant, rendering the GM crop obsolete. You haven’t seen it.

I am not aware of nor can I find any other GM crop which is even claimed to confer a health benefit.

Here is the reality: We have evolved to be fit and healthy living in the environment we evolved in. You only have to spend time with some of the world’s tribal peoples to recognise what healthy living is, and it doesn’t involve chemicals or manufactured foods. Our health is compromised when we scientifically alter the environment we live in; the food we eat, the water we drink or the air we breathe. We don’t need additives and supplements if we live properly and eat across the range of good natural foods. We don’t need GM plants modified to improve our health, as this is effectively saying we need a scientifically produced food to counteract the scientific environment we are forced to live in.

So far, after 20 years of GM research and development, there are no viable health focussed crops being grown.

  1. Do GM RR crops reduce the amount of herbicide applied?

This is an easy one. The use of herbicides (weed killers) particularly Roundup has increased very significantly, and as time goes by the amount being used is increasing still further. This is an example of why short term research on GM must not be used. It might have been possible in year one to use a little less herbicide, but that would have been improper research and led to incorrect conclusions.

It is a bit odd to ever have imagined less herbicide would be used. I mean, if the crops tolerate Roundup, the farmers will happily spray it to control the weeds which they cannot do if it would kill the crop. But it is so much worse for at least three reasons:

  1. With GMRR crops the farmers are able to spray the crop at any time, so they do. Why is that surprising? It is what Monsanto wanted.
  2. The famers have found another reason to spray their fields with Glyphosate when they grow RR crops. Just before harvest they often spray the fields again to remove all the unwanted growth, making it easier and cheaper to harvest the crop. It even has a name – ‘Burn down’. Now if Monsanto meant the agricultural system to use less Roundup they could push to stop this – but a sale is a sale and 10% of all Monsanto’s income comes from Roundup. It is not Monsanto’s way to encourage people not to buy their products. They are not trying to improve the environment but to increase sales and profits.
  3. For reasons that will become extremely obvious later (I am simply trying to consider the positives first so prefer to leave the explanation till later), ever stronger concentrations of the herbicide are being used and some are becoming extremely strong. Just a doubling of the concentration doubles the amount used.

No, there is not a reduction but a significant increase in the herbicide being used! More not less chemicals in the environment.

  1. Do GM pesticide resistant crops reduce the amount of pesticide around?

I confess to being slightly devious with the wording of this question though not a fraction as devious as the biotech industry, and there is a sound reason.

We have seen that every cell of these crops actually becomes a herbicide which is obvious when we think about it as no matter which part the insect or animal bites – they will be taking in the pesticide.

You may wonder what that means for anything that eats the plant but that is in the next Paper.

There is some reduction in the application of pesticides simply because the plants have become pesticides, massively outweighed by the additional application of the herbicides, but each and every GM pest resistant plant is itself a pesticide factory. There is therefore a vast increase in the amount of ‘pesticide’ in the environment, though much of it is in the plants themselves. This wouldn’t matter much IF the pesiticidal plant left nothing behind and nothing ate the plants. But they are ‘crops’, nearly all grown to be eaten either directly by us or by animals which we then eat, so it does matter.

The answer then is slightly less pesticide is applied (though not greatly less) but there is much more of it in the environment.

  1. Do GM crops reduce the amount of energy used in agriculture?

It was an early biotech argument that GM agriculture would use less energy, but that assumed all the other claims would turn out to be the reality. If less chemical is applied then less energy is used applying them but as we now know – more applications are occurring with even more coming. GM agriculture is therefore more energy intensive rather than less.

For the moment we can at least say the energy used has not decreased.

Summary for Part 2

I had always assumed there would be a number of benefits from GM crops, but knew there were dis-benefits. I therefore thought the decision would depend on the balance between these two, though it wasn’t personally difficult to conclude right from the start that the risks with GM were huge. This was because the release of GM organisms into the natural environment would have unknown consequences which could be terrible.

While the Biotech industry led us at the start to believe there were numerous benefits with GM, the reality is that any there may have been have vaporised, and with each new development that situation isn’t changing.

We clearly have to wait to discover what dis-benefits there are and how large those are, but it is looking like a one way debate.

Mike