Living in England, it is sometimes hard to remember that attempts to breed new crops using genetic engineering, now called genetic modification, have simply not worked.
There are two fundamental reasons for this failure. First, the technology introduces significant degrees of uncertainty and unpredictability into the new crop varieties developed, and these are then released into our poorly understood agricultural environment (particularly true of soils), from which they cannot be recalled. Uncertainty means risk of unintended consequences, and possible harm to the environment, wildlife or people.
The second fundamental problem is that GM crops are a clear and unequivocal continuation of a pattern of agricultural development which is rightly mistrusted by consumers. This started with the introduction of manufactured nitrogen fertiliser over 60 years ago, followed by the introduction of chemicals to kill weeds, kill insects and suppress fungal diseases in crops, and the use of antibiotics and other drugs to allow farm animals to be kept in increasingly unnatural conditions. GM crops fit perfectly into this type of agriculture, but what those developing GM crops (companies like Monsanto) never realised was that the system of farming they were fitting their crops into was already distrusted by the public, and was already running out of steam.
Since their introduction over 20 years ago, GM crops have remained restricted almost entirely to two main traits – they are either engineered to contain an insecticide (Bt) for all of the plant’s life, or they are engineered to be resistant to weedkiller (like Monsanto’s Roundup) which otherwise would kill the crop, and which is designed to kill all weeds in the field when it is sprayed. Not only did GM crops fit with a system of agriculture which was facing real difficulties, they actually managed to exacerbate the problems.
For example, a major problem for non-organic farming is that yields of key crops have been stable, or even falling slightly, for several years. Worse, they are only being maintained at that level by ever increasing inputs of climate damaging, manufactured fertilisers, increasingly scarce mined phosphates, and ever increasing quantities of expensive chemical sprays. GM crops have not increased yields, so the fundamental problem facing non-organic farming has been left untouched.
GM crops make a bad situation worse
Of course the hope was that being able to spray a crop with a weedkiller powerful enough to kill all plants (except the engineered crop), and growing plants with an insect killing chemical in every part of the plant, would dramatically decrease the need to spray crops with other chemicals. Initially, this did indeed happen. But soon, far quicker than anyone expected, weeds started to become resistant to Roundup, and within three years of their introduction in the 1990s, farmers growing crops resistant to Roundup were being sold mixes of several weed-killers by Monsanto to deal with these Roundup resistant weeds.
Insect resistance took longer to develop, indeed longer than expected by many. Initially, the main problem for these Bt crops was that they did succeed in killing the dominant pest, for example with GM Bt maize, the corn borer, but that then left an ecological niche which was filled by two other insect pests, neither of which were killed effectively by the Bt insecticide. More recently, in India, Bt cotton has proved ineffective against key pests it was meant to be resistant to, pink bollworm and whitefly, and GM cotton failures have led to a flight away from GM cotton in India, and it being banned in at least one West African country.
The result of all this has been a series of horror stories from North America and India. Farmers growing GM crops are having to spray their crops repeatedly with Roundup and with several other weed-killers, or even resort to hand weeding. BT crops need spraying with numerous insect killing sprays. In India, where GM cotton seeds were threatening to get a monopoly on the market, there is now a huge backlash against GM cotton, led by many state governments as well as farmer organisations. In North America, farmers are starting to move away from GM crops, in part because of the problems they have had with them, and in part because there is now a premium for non-GM products.
Market forces and honest labelling kill GM food
That is indicative of the second great failure of GM crops – not only have they turned out not to work on farms, but they have never succeeded in the market. In 1998, around 70% of processed food in most European countries contained GM soya, but that had happened in secret. This was exposed, and by the end of 1999, all GM food was gone. Countries with evangelical pro-GM leaders like the UK’s Tony Blair, and supermarkets which had previously been committed to this new technology, like Sainsbury's and Tesco, dropped GM products, and took them off their shelves, saying they would only bring them back again if their customers started to demand the chance to buy GM food. That has certainly not happened, nor of course will Brexit change the position at all.
The only significant consumer market in the world where GM food has taken hold is in the USA, but there it has long been known that the overwhelming majority of American citizens say they do not eat GM food (even though they do), and a large majority say they don't want to – the market has flourished in ignorance. That is now breaking down, with attempts in a series of state ballots to demand labelling of GM food, and hundreds of millions of dollars being spent by chemical companies and big food manufacturers to prevent this happening.
One successful ballot, in the small state of Vermont, came into force briefly, before being obliterated by Federal legislation known as the DARK (Deny Americans the Right to Know) Act. But Vermont’s initiative helped start to change the face of US food, with a number of large companies in the US, including Danone, Nestle and Del Monte announcing that rather than label their food as containing GM, they will start to get rid of GM ingredients altogether. So the only consumer market where large quantities of GM food is sold looks as if it starting to collapse, with food labelled non-GM already the fastest growing grocery category, with double-digit growth in organic food sales, and now with the move out of GM by numerous food companies.
In the EU, countries covering over half the farmed land have decided against GM crops, including those that care most about the future of their farming industries, like Germany, France and Scotland. So GM is on the run, but will Brexit save the GM bacon, and are there other, newer technologies capable of delivering on GM’s broken promises – questions for my next article.