Responding to today's Royal Society report on global agriculture (1), GeneWatch UK warned that future research priorities in food and agriculture should not be set by a narrow clique of scientists who have failed to deliver on past promises.
GeneWatch welcomed the recognition in the report that key areas of research, such as soil science and farmland management, have been neglected, and that using genetic modification (GM) is a high risk strategy to seek to improve complex traits in plants, such as nitrogen-fixation and photosynthesis.
"The bottom line is that governments have made the wrong R&D investments, focusing research on unrealised biotech solutions, rather than on the needs of poorer farmers", said GeneWatch UK researcher Becky Price. "New investments must be wisely spent and not throw good money after bad".
The use of transgenics is often described as a powerful tool. However to date, the only widely used traits developed by genetic modification are herbicide tolerance and Bt insect resistance. This is not because of consumer rejection, but because more advanced traits such as nitrogen fixation, drought tolerance and increased yields are technically difficult to achieve.
"Policy makers should not be over reliant on unproven technologies", said Becky Price. "It is easy for researchers to make exaggerated promises about what they will deliver and for research strategies not tied to commercial or scientific interests to be wrongly sidelined".
No GM crops with increased yields exist and the market for GM is for soya and maize for animal feed and biofuels (2). Reports of the benefits of Bt Cotton to aid poorer farmers have often over simplified the situation and been misleading (3).
Independent assessment and research on GM crops is often hampered by scientists having restricted access to seeds or by biotech companies preventing publication of damaging research (4). The promised next-generation GM crops are likely to bring new dangers and challenges. For example, it is unclear whether crops with altered nutrient content will bring health benefits and it may be that they cause harm. Further, increasing single nutrients in staple crops can never replace a more broadly balanced diet containing a range of foods (5).
GeneWatch UK also warned that placing too much emphasis on technological solutions to feeding the world could lead to continued failure to tackle the social and economic causes of many of our current problems. For example, there are about 1 billion malnourished and starving people in the world today, while about 1 billion more are overweight - this is mainly a problem of inequality and poverty, not food production.
The decision to focus investment on agricultural R&D almost exclusively on GM crops has led to a lack of investment in other areas. Decisions have been driven by the fact that GM seeds can be patented, creating commercial monopolies, rather than by the best research priorities to meet human needs. In 2008, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) warned that:
In developing countries especially, instruments such as patents may drive up costs, restrict experimentation by the individual farmer or public researcher while also potentially undermining local practices that enhance food security and economic sustainability.
The IAASTD concluded that the main challenge is to increase the productivity of agriculture in a sustainable manner, which must address the needs of small-scale farms in diverse ecosystems, including increasing access to land and economic resources and empowering farmers to innovatively manage soils, water, biological resources, pests, disease vectors, genetic diversity, and conserve natural resources.
For further information contact:
1) Reaping the benefits: towards sustainable intensification of global agriculture . Royal Society, 20th October 2009. GeneWatch UK's submission is available on: http://www.genewatch.org/uploads/f03c6d66a9b354535738483c1c3d49e4/RoySoc_GW_fin.doc
2) The US company Monsanto is still the largest producer of GM seeds. It argues that production of grain for animal feed must increase by 50 million tonnes a year by 2017/18 to meet the expected increased demand for meat, and by 60 million tonnes a year to meet biofuels production targets (Edgerton MD (2009) Increasing crop productivity to meet global needs for food and fuel. Plant Physiology, 149, 7-13). The company is lobbying for continued and increased US Government subsidy for biofuel production. This is part of the problem not part of the solution.
3) Glover, D. (2009) Undying Promise: Agricultural Biotechnology's Pro-poor Narrative, Ten Years on. STEPS centre www.steps-centre.org
4) Waltz, E. (2009) Under wraps. Nature Biotechnology 27 (10) 880-882
For example, antioxidants (including the beta-carotene
engineered into GM 'Golden Rice') may be beneficial to some people but harmful
to others, and some may increase risk of cancer. See example: http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg19125631.500-the-antioxidant-myth-a-medical-fairy-tale.html
. The experimental GM 'purple tomato', claimed to reduce cancer risk, is
engineered to contain increased levels of anthocyanins, a poorly tested
6) IAASTD (International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development) was launched as an intergovernmental process, involving hundreds of experts from around the world, under the co-sponsorship of the FAO, GEF, UNDP, UNEP, UNESCO, the World Bank and WHO. Full report at: www.agassessment.org