Some thoughts on GM crops

I recently read a very thought-provoking blog written by @farmingGeorge on the contentious subject of GM crops which can be found here:

In these times of imminent dramatic changes to our farming industry having these discussions is really important and so often the views and thoughts of farmers are drowned by the noise from environmental lobby groups so I always appreciate those making the effort to contribute in this way. The whole topic of GM crops I find particularly interesting and I felt the need to respond to George’s blog with some counter-views but also some points of agreement. I was myself one of the 755 farmers who voted by a majority of 77% in favour of using GM technology on my farm given the opportunity. Right now 28 countries around the world are growing GM crops on over 179.7 million hectares (> 10% of the world’s arable land). The EU imports >34 million tonnes of GM soya beans every year and this is only 1 of around 70 GMO products authorised for import; our food supply is already underpinned by GM produce. EU farmers are however banned from growing these very same crops as those undercutting our markets via these imports. This situation is both untenable and entirely unreasonable and drives an argument for compensatory agricultural support to level out the playing field.

When it comes to talking about GM crops I should point out the obvious; I am not a plant biologist and I am not a dietician. I may be a farmer (and fully qualified as such) but my views on these other topics are those of a layman with no academic back-up and should be treated as such. GM is a hugely complicated subject and try as I might I’m only able to scratch the surface of the knowledge base. Sweeping statements about GM crops are inadvisable from either side of the debate because the issues relating to them are so multidimensional.

An initial frustration is the whole abuse of the GM label as an umbrella term for all the emerging breeding technologies. GM technology has been around for around 37 years. In that time many new plant breeding techniques have been developed which are unrecognisable to the pioneering technology which caused so much controversy and it is an ever expanding field. For example Crispr plant breeding is comparable to using a surgical scalpel to edit the genome compared to the sledgehammer approach of earlier techniques. As such, changes are much more targeted, focused and better understood. Unintended consequences are much less likely because changes to the genome are less dramatic and often single-site. There are also exciting developments in many other plant breeding fields such as plant ‘grafting’ techniques which, because they were first pioneered thousands of years ago, sit much more comfortably in the label of traditional breeding and yet could be transformational. Another key advantage of these modern technologies is the speed at which traits can be created and released commercially. You can find some more details on the wide range of NBTs here:

I recently attended a local variety trial run by Agrii where a crop breeder gave a physical demonstration of how traditional breeding is undertook. I was stunned that the timescale from creation to release of a new variety cultivar is about 8-10 years and therefore how inefficient the whole process is. The result is that positive traits attached to new varieties being released right now are those attributes plant breeders thought to be important about 10 years ago. In a time of rampant climate change, accelerated pest and disease surges and unexpected agrochemical toolkit losses we need a much faster breeder response time than 8 years to tackle these new issues of the day; Gene Editing fast-tracks this process and can significantly boost productivity as demonstrated by this link:

I will not refer to GM crops for the rest of this article but instead NBT to reflect this wide spectrum of different fields.

George suggests a narrow range of priority focus for NBTs of either disease and pest resistance or drought tolerance but there are many other lines of enquiry being followed up. A good example is attempts to improve shelf life. Food waste is very topical right now and rightly so; in the UK alone a shocking 1.9 million tonnes of food is wasted every year. If fruit and vegetables can be developed which keep fresher for longer this has got to be a positive especially if less plastic packaging can also be used. The very first GM product release was of course famously the ‘flavr savr tomato’ which was in pursuit of this goal. Another subject I watch with interest are attempts to make crops more nitrogen efficient (or even able to fix their own nitrogen in the same way as legumes do). There is an urgent need to reduce the amount of inorganic fertilisers being used because of the undisputed environmental damage they cause once they leave the farm and I need not dwell on this further; if there are ways plant breeding can assist in significantly reducing fertiliser inputs the benefits are obvious for the farmer, consumer and the environment.

George is critical of science being touted as the ultimate decision-maker but I see no alternative being proposed. I would personally always trust scientific consensus above the views of politicians, religious leaders or the public even if Science sometimes gives us inconvenient truths. Multiple studies pooled together and analysed by meta-analyses can give conclusive results even if this requires statistical tools; there’s nothing wrong with that if the results are sound.

George is quite correct that we have a range of sizable agronomic issues at the moment to grapple with but this is not surprising. Natural selection and evolution means that all organisms are unconsciously always fighting back against our farming methods to try to get the upper hand. Whether you are talking about antibiotics, agrochemicals or GMOs  all have an unavoidable shelf-life. Even if we use them responsibly (and often regrettably we haven’t e.g. strobilurin fungicides) eventually all these tools will fail when pitted against an unending evolutionary arms race.  Like it or not nature does unconsciously fight back against our ordered attempts to produce food because we are trying to support a human population way above what Planet Earth intends. All we can do is keep developing new tools to try to be one step ahead or accept the defeat consequence of a human population crash.

But I digress; I accept there have been negative consequences from our ways of farming in the past and yes we must continue to make space for nature and seek to farm in more harmonious, sustainable ways;  I doubt few would dispute this. However I would disagree with George’s notion that we have caused “the complete desertification of the British countryside”; for example farmers have planted or restored around 30,000 km of hedgerows in the UK and are focusing more and more on environmental improvements given the legitimate concerns about biodiversity. I genuinely believe farming has been turned a corner in recent years and will continue to step up to new expectations.

George suggests as farmers we are now producing “nutritionally empty calories”. I struggle with this concept and his extrapolation to explain rising levels of obesity. I would point to the following link which examines the studies done comparing the nutrition of organic and conventional produce and finds no meaningful differences between the two and therefore counters this assertion:

As said before I am not a nutritionist but my own theory to explain rising levels of obesity would be they’re more about the move to more sedentary lifestyles and workplaces (our stomachs are basically now too big for our calorific outgoings and so we can’t help over-eat) combined with poor, sugar-saturated diets. I accept that healthy, micro-nutrient rich soils are probably more likely to give nutritionally rich foods but basically if we see micro-nutrient deficiency symptoms in our crops we treat them and sort them out or the yields gets hammered. As an aside I read recently (via AHDB) that atmospheric rises in CO2 levels (about 21ppm / decade) is increasing  plant growth rates by about 5% every 10 years. Perhaps plants are therefore growing unnaturally much faster than they should be and perhaps this might genuinely adversely affect nutritional quality as well as increase stress and disease but difficult to prove.

There’s much I applaud about George’s vision for farming. Yes we can and should plant more trees. Yes I’d love to have a greater list of potential crops we might be able to grow ( and I would hope NBTs would enable many more crops to be tailored to suit our shifting climate) and yes, I agree, a return to more mixed farming methods has clear potential benefits for ecology and the wider environment. Finally a big yes too that we should all be using IPM principles to work with nature rather than always seeing things as a pitted battle. However would NBTs lead to even less people working on farms as George suggests? If this is because fertiliser and pesticide inputs are not needed then bring it on as I consider that a greater good! I don’t think in reality NBTs are any more a threat to farm labour than robotics, AI or the other emergent technologies we are told we will see on farms. It is regrettable that much of farm productivity gains have been made by reducing labour requirements in the past but that’s just how things are and how things will continue to be for all industies, not just Agriculture. It’s a concern for me there is so much push towards fruit and nut trees in this context; who is going to pick this produce when the Eastern Europeans are blocked from coming here and aren’t these crops cheaper to grow than in other parts of the world? George is also spot on that there is a societal disconnect with food production and perhaps cutting edge new emergent technologies are sadly only going to make this worse and raise levels of suspicion. Thank goodness for open farm Sunday and facetime a farmer campaigns; we need many more of these initiatives to keep the public on board.

But again I digress….I do that a lot! I’d like to finish with a few final independent thoughts on the whole GM theme. This has all, of course kicked off because of our new Prime Minister’s pronounced enthusiasm for GM crops. The cynic in me says this is more about a No-deal agenda based around a foreseeable panicked trade deal with the US and the need for an enabling alignment of our food production standards. If the caveat of a relaxation of GM tech in the UK at this present time is an opening of the floodgates to US corn and beef imports then any potential benefits will be lost in a tsunami of undercutting imports. If this is what Boris’ pronouncements are all about then I’d personally rather keep the status quo for now especially if such change simultaneously shuts down potential trade with our EU neighbours (currently account for the majority of our exports). I am therefore very suspicious of Boris’ motivations and not convinced he has the best interests of UK agriculture at heart. He also specifically talked about blight. Potato blight control is horribly complex and I’m sure fish and chip fans would probably welcome lower fungicide residues with their salt and vinegar but this was surprisingly specific and I have no idea why he picked on this particular trait. It would seem to be obvious that there needs to be a collective global consensus on these NBT introduction so all regions of the world are singing from the same hymn sheet as global food needs change but maybe I’m being naive to think this is ever possible.

Will there ever be GM crops grown on my farm? In my view it is only a matter of time. I genuinely believe that Climate change is far more serious than people understand and as our weather becomes increasingly psychotic it will be harder and harder to produce enough food. The current huge complacency around our food supply will evaporate pretty quickly and we will soon need every new tool to stay afloat. I have this notion that by combining the emerging fields of AI and plant breeding robust crops will be rapidly developed to cope with these challenges rather than increasingly relying on imports from other continents (directly triggering further losses of precious rainforests and wild lands.

Some contributors to the thread on George’s tweet have said but what’s in it for me; will it make me more money? I find this extraordinarily selfish; for me this is more about planet before profit. I do foresee that those who actively choose to refuse adopting these new technologies will be left behind and will be less profitable than their openminded peers. New technologies cannot be shut in a box; if other around the world use these tools we are in danger of being left behind. I wonder if similar conversations were had on my farm in the 1930ies as tractors started to appear in the valley challenging the roles of stables full of shire horses! I have also long since accepted that farming is never going to be a high profit enterprise and consequently given up on the dream that it ever will be; we have too many tax breaks and support payments which can be removed in a jiffy should we be perceived to be raking it the cash! For those who think this also only an issue for wealthy countries I would also say :think again and read this link about the Indian farmers actively challenging their Governments for the right to grow GE crops for real benefits to their personal health and the wider environment:

George finishes with some what-if questions and rightly asks whether there might be unintended consequences to using GM. This is always possible but it is important to treat each potential introduction on a case-by-case basis rather than blanket-dismiss the whole field. I would ask whether there will also be unintended consequences of NOT using NBTs? No one wants to see images of African famines or snaking food bank queues and I have no doubt sustainably feeding 10 billion people is going to be super challenging whatever path we take:

In short there is no right or wrong answer to this hugely complicated subject but the important thing is to keep talking to each other in a civilized manner, find common ground and work the problem! We all want the same outcome; a safe, prosperous, healthy world for our children but we just see different ways to reach that noble objective.