Genetically engineered crops: discord in the public square
by Stan Hirst
In his recent book I’m right and you’re an idiot author James Hoggan describes the ‘public square’ as a literal and symbolic place where people meet to discuss important community matters and governance, and to participate in democracy. He notes that the modern public square, especially in relation to environmental concerns, has become toxic and polluted. Participants in public dialogue are typically strongly divided over issues based on background, belief, social situation and a host of other factors, and true dialogue and consensus-building suffer accordingly.
The long-standing dispute over genetically engineered (GE) food crops (=genetically modified (GM) or the commonly used acronym GMO’s [genetically modified organisms]) is an excellent example of such polarization leading to discord in the public square.
On one side of the GE stand-off are the biotech multinationals Monsanto, Syngenta, DowDuPont and others who have monopolized the GE seed industry in North America and in many other parts of the globe. Their signature GE crops (also termed ‘biotech’ crops) are now grown on more than 180 million hectares globally. Over 40% of these are in the US, the remaining 60% are spread among 23 countries. Biotech multinationals are hugely profitable (e.g. Monsanto had gross revenues of $15 billion in 2015, with profits of $8 million), but these gains have come after decades of expensive genetic research and massive investments in biotechnology.
The application of GE crops is growing rapidly. More than 80% of soybeans, 75% of cotton, 29% of maize and 23% of canola cultivated globally are now GE. Seven other food crops – apples, sugar beet, papaya, potato, squash and eggplant – currently have varying proportions of GE modified plants in their annual harvests. Four GE crops are widely grown in Canada (canola, corn, soy and sugar beet. We also import small amounts of GE papaya, GE squash, GE cottonseed oil and some milk products made with the use of recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone.
What attracts farmers to GE crops over conventional varieties? The most commonly quoted reasons for US farmers who grow such crops are economic and environmental benefits – lower production costs, fewer pest problems, reduced use of pesticides, and better yields. One of several economic assessments puts the global farm income gain from GE crops from 1996 through 2014 at $150 billion.
The opposing factions in this public square comprise hundreds, possibly thousands, of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), various international organizations and groups, and many private and public groups and individuals. Their concerns are multifaceted and have been summarized by the FAO (Table 1).
- genes potentially being passed on to other members of the same species or even to other species;
- genes potentially mutating with harmful effects;
- potential destabilization and mutations in receptor plants;
- “sleeper” genes potentially “switched on” and/or active genes “silent”;
- potential interactions with wild and native populations;
- potential impacts on birds, insects and soil biota and other non-target species.
- potential transfer of allergenic genes;
- potential mixing of GE products in the food chain;
- potential transfer of antibiotic resistance.
- loss of access to plant material;
- biotechnology products and processes potentially preventing access to public-sector research;
- “terminator” technologies preventing farmers saving seeds for future seasons;
- imposition of huge financial risks and burdens on peasant and family farmers in third world countries planting and harvesting GE crops.
- corporate secrecy surrounding gene and crop research;
- control and censorship of data and technical publications on GE.
Corporations typically counter the allegations by defending their legal right to protect their proprietary [and very expensive] biotechnical assets gained over many years as a result of extensive research and testing and associated high expenditures. They emphasize that their GE products are approved for sale and use by local, state, federal and international authorities, and that they comply with all laws, regulations and requirements levelled at their research, testing and marketing of GE products. Both assertions are verifiably true.
There is a third set of players in this GE public square. These are groups, organizations, commissions, panels and the like which are established on the basis of academic or judicial credentials, have no vested interest in the commercial benefits or costs of GE foods, and are thus able to express unbiased observations and opinions.
One such group, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) appointed a Committee on Genetically Engineered Crops in 2014 with the objectives of examining the evidence regarding potential negative effects and benefits of currently commercialised genetically engineered (GE) crops and the potential benefits and negative effects of future GE crops. The Committee comprised 20 highly qualified scientists from universities and research organisations in the U.S. and abroad, plus seven professional support staff. The Committee heard presentations from 80 people with expertise and experience with GE crops, and read more than 700 comments and documents submitted by individuals and organisations. The Committee’s draft report was reviewed by 25 specialists from academia and government, both in the U.S. and abroad, and was published in final form in 2016. Their summary findings are shown in Table 2.
Agronomic and environmental effects of GE crops
- Inconclusive evidence to connect GE crops and their associated technologies with adverse agronomic or environmental problems.
- Some GE crops containing Bt toxin increased yields when insect pest pressure was high, but there was little evidence that GE crops resulted in rapid yearly increases in on-farm crop yields compared to the period before GE introduction. Use of Bt crops is associated with a decrease in insecticide applications but the evidence is equivocal for herbicide resistant crops.
- Evolution of resistance to Bt toxins in GE crops by insect pests was associated with the overuse of a single herbicide.
[There is no evidence of cause-and-effect relationships between GE crops and environmental problems, but the complex nature of assessing long-term environmental changes makes it difficult to reach definitive conclusions. Declines in monarch butterfly populations was a case in point. Detailed studies of monarch dynamics failed to demonstrate adverse effects related to increased glyphosate use with GE crops, but there was no consensus among researchers that the effects of glyphosate on milkweed has not caused decreased monarch populations.]
Human health effects of GE crops
Research with animals and on chemical composition of GE foods reveal no differences that implicate a higher risk to human health from GE foods than from non-GE counterparts. Time-series epidemiological data do not show any disease or chronic conditions in populations that correlate with consumption of GE foods. The committee could not find persuasive evidence of adverse health effects directly attributable to consumption of GE foods.
There is some evidence that GE insect-resistant crops have benefited human health by reducing insecticide poisonings and decreasing exposure to fumonisins.
Social and economic effects of GE crops
Existing GE crops have generally been useful to large-scale farmers of cotton, soybean, maize and canola. Benefits to smaller-scale farmers have varied widely across time and space, and are connected to the institutional context in which the crops have been deployed. Small-scale farmers were more likely to be successful with GE crops when they also had access to credit, extension services and markets, and to government assistance in ensuring accessible seed prices.
So, how are we to explain the huge discrepancies between what GE food opponents say about the issue and what emerges from a (hopefully) cool and rational appraisal of the data and the facts? Three items stand out from a long look at Table 1 above (possibly more if one keeps looking).
The words ‘potential‘ and ‘potentially‘ appear many times in the list of environmental and public health issues. Translation = it appears in the text books but nobody has been able to prove it in real life. That is not all that remarkable for something as intricate and complicated as a gene and the way it expresses itself in nature. The NAS found no conclusive evidence of a linkage between a GE food and a human health issue, but the general public seems a long way from understanding that.
I’ve heard the view from Elders that researchers are prevented from examining the GE-health issue because they’re denied access to the modified genes which are ‘owned’ and ‘protected’ by the multinational biotech companies. The companies do indeed hold patents to their modified plant genes, but a researcher interested in searching for a link between a GE food or substance and human health doesn’t need the gene, they just need the genetically modified food, and that’s available from the supermarket. Another Elder asserted that there is no money available for such research. Possibly true, but I note that Canada is hardly short of money for other public health research, e.g. we spend $400 million per year on geriatric drug research.
Multinational biotech companies have become notorious for their corporate behaviour, including secrecy, use of patent laws to protect their seeds and products, no reluctance to use legal strong-arm methods against opposing groups, and inept public relations (all well summarized by Lessley Anderson) The name ‘Monsanto‘ has become a label for negativity, and that does (but should not) obscure the true facts surrounding genetic modification of crops and public health specifics.
One seldom hears the same negative tones about GE crops from farmers (who actually plant and harvest them) as from environmental activists and the general public who generally get their information from the internet and the popular press. When farmers focus on the negative issues of GE crops it involves the extra costs involved and the fact that they have no propriety rights to any seed harvested from GE crops planted on their lands. The latter issue has been a huge stumbling block for GE crop deployment in Asia and Africa.
In his book James Hoggan summarizes a number of key learnings on public discourse, dissonance and advocacy gleaned from many specialists in the field of communications, sociology and public affairs. He stresses the need to break out of the advocacy trap and to steer well away from self-justification. All the points in the book have some bearing on the understanding of the discord surrounding GE crops and foods.
On the basis of what I’ve read about the whole subject of GE crops as well as what the hopefully objective experts in the form of the U.S. Academy of Sciences have to say on the issues, I suggest there is one missing item of cardinal importance in improving the quality of discourse – public understanding.
Genetics is a technically difficult subject to understand from the public perspective, and becomes even more convoluted when moving to the technicalities (and language) of genetic modification. Throw in more technical issues in the form of ecological explanations of things like chemical weed control, lots of economic arguments around who wins and who loses when GE crops enter the competitive market-place, and lots of mistrust around who is responsible for approvals and vetting of GE crops, and the dissonance pot boils merrily away. I doubt there is a stronger case to be made for seeking common ground between proponents, opponents and the public than in this subject.