Genetically modified (GM) crops have been subject to much controversy, with concerns over whether food produced from these crops is safe for human consumption to the ecological impact they may have. However GM crops have also been subject to extensive safety testing and have been welcomed by some as a means to increase yields and relieve economic burdens. With the human population set to reach nine billion in 2050, GM crops have been also been suggested as way to meet growing food demands and avoid an impending food crisis.
Leading plant scientist Dale Sanders, Director of the John Innes Centre, UK told Biome his views on what GM has to offer. Sanders obtained his PhD in plant biophysics from Cambridge University, UK before heading to Yale University, USA to study how plants absorb mineral ions. He has maintained this interest to this day in his current laboratory within the metabolic biology department at the John Innes Centre – an international centre for research into plant science and microbiology, where amongst other investigations work is being carried out into genetically modifying crops.
Will a rapidly growing global population affect the way we need to produce food in the future?
Yes, it will affect it in several ways. First of all we will need to produce more, obviously. And we will need to produce it sustainably – in other words, without adding to the already large carbon footprint. Moreover, we will need to produce it more intensively. Almost all of the arable land available for food production is currently in production, so we need to think about ways of sustainable intensification, which will enable greater productivity with lower environmental impact.
What are genetically modified (GM) crops, and how do they differ to crops generated by domestication?
In fact they’re not that much different, at one level. GM crops are crops that have had a gene introduced into them. Sometimes from a related species, sometimes even from the same species, but with the gene expressed in a different part of the tissue. These GM crops have been subjected to molecular modification. How they differ from conventionally bred crops is really a moot point. I think conventionally bred crops really have taken quite distantly related species and interbred them and come up with quite amazing changes in phenotype – in the way that the crop looks. If you look at simple crops like maize or wheat, you can see the way in which conventional breeding has hugely modified the agricultural potential of these crops. So in a way, GM is adding things around the edges but using modern molecular approaches.
What are the potential benefits associated with growing GM crops?
It turns out that if you can introduce genes from distant or even related species, you can do wonderful things in terms of reducing the environmental footprint or reducing disease resistance. Those are just two benefits. In the first case – environmental footprint – this involves reduced fertilizer application. Fertilizers account for about 50 percent of the carbon footprint of agriculture. In the second case, crop diseases involve heavy duty spraying of agrochemicals. If you can reduce the application of those through genetic modification, you’ve got a win-win situation. And I’d point to a third area in which we can get gains, which is healthier foods. We can actually think about biofortification, which is the enrichment of the food we eat through trace minerals or micronutrients which we all need in the food that we eat.
Could you provide an example of the health benefits of GM crops?
Yes one from my own lab actually. It turns out that between a quarter and a third of the world’s population is defective in its zinc uptake. We all need zinc because 10 percent of our proteins require zinc as a binding agent. The reason many of the world’s population are defective in zinc intake is because the endosperm of cereal grains – that is the bit we eat in white rice or in milled wheat – doesn’t contain very much. So we’ve actually taken a GM approach in which we’ve managed to engineer an enhanced zinc content of endosperm of rice and wheat and other cereals, and that will potentially lead to health benefits. We’ve not yet done nutritional studies, but those are the potential gains.
Where are GM crops currently being cultivated and consumed?
GM crops are currently cultivated in around 28 countries worldwide, over a hectarage of about 170 million hectares. The principle countries for cultivation and consumption are the US and South American countries – Argentina and Brazil. You can, in a way, split the planting of GM crops into two fundamental categories: those that are cultivated for their food value (such as GM maize and GM soya) and those that are cultivated for other products, principally among those is cotton. So there will be few people in the western world who are not wearing a GM product, if they’re wearing something made of cotton.
Do you think enough research has been done to show whether GM crops cause environmental or health related problems?
There is no doubt in my mind about the answer to that question. Many, many studies have been performed, meta-analyses have been conducted on those studies – including by the EU, incidentally – and there is no substantive evidence whatsover of any health or environmental detriment of GM crops. That’s not to say that if you produce a new breed or a new line of germplasm in a crop, there might not be detrimental effects. But those can happen via conventional breeding too, and that’s why we do need regulation. But we don’t need regulation specifically on the basis of the technology on which the breeding has been done.
Just as an example; it’s known that some trillions of meals have been eaten in the US, in probably what is the world’s most litigious country, and nobody has ever brought a claim to court that has successfully argued that GM has ruined their health. If you have been to the US, as many other Europeans have been, you will almost certainly have eaten GM food, and I’m sure you won’t have come back complaining about health effects.
How important is public perception in controlling the direction of crop research and the use of GM crops?
Public perception is incredibly important, and of course the public have a right to know about the types of technologies that are being used to produce food in the country that they live in. And the public have a right to know that the food that they eat is safe. What we need to do is get to a position in which the public are well-informed about the things that GM crops can offer in terms of environmental and health benefits. They need to be appraised of the wider issues, for example the ways in which the economics of food production works. I think in many cases the discussion about GM gets inextricably mixed with arguments about the economics of food production and I think there is the need for some clarity in the public perception of how GM is produced, who researches it, and regarding the overall safety and beneficial aspects of producing GM.
Our domestic policy on the cultivation of GM crops is controlled by the European Union. What led to these comparatively stringent regulations?
It was essentially something called the precautionary principle. First if we think about the way we live our lives in terms of risk and precaution. For example; just over a hundred years ago, ‘modern motor cars’ went around with a red flag in front of them to warn people that a mechanised vehicle was coming. These days, we accept that road deaths occur, but we also accept that the car is overall beneficial to society. We therefore accept that there is risk in our lives; we accept that we presume when we go out in the morning that we’re not going to get killed in a road accident.
I believe the sensible attitude to the way we approach our lives, is that we take a view of risk. That’s rather different from the precautionary principle, which says that if there’s any doubt whatsoever, don’t do it. If there were any doubt whatsoever about whether you would survive the day when you got up to go to work in the morning, you might not get out of bed in the morning. My feeling is that there has been an overriding of this concept of the precautionary principle without a secure, scientific evaluation of risk. I do not believe that GM, per se, presents any risk whatsoever. It certainly doesn’t present the kind of risk that traffic accidents do in modern countries.
Are there implications for EU countries, and others, in not developing and growing GM crops?
Yes I think there are implications, and they fall in two areas. One of which is in terms of the development of research and the commercialisation of research. We have to accept that food production is an industry and many of those involved in that industry are decamping from northwest Europe, which is a rather small area of the globe that has quite a stringent and precautionary attitude to GM crops, because those companies feel that they wont be able to develop their products in northwest Europe. But there is a wider aspect also and that relates to the global need for sustainable food production.
I think we have tremendous expertise here in northwest Europe, and particularly in the UK, in the methods and approaches to developing crops that can be advantageously used in sustainable intensification. Not to capitalise on that expertise because sometimes – not always, but sometimes – that expertise relies on GM is wasting a huge opportunity in which many scientists in the UK would willingly give their expertise to help solve problems that are defined in developing countries in terms of malnutrition and even starvation.
I think there is a commercial aspect but I think more importantly there’s a huge ethical and ‘public good’ aspect, which we’re wasting in taking seriously this precautionary principle about GM.
Does the perception of GM crops vary in different countries?
Yes, it certainly does. Even where I’m speaking from in Norwich [UK] it varies. When I speak with farmers, I think they are pretty well universally in agreement that they would love this technology. When I go to events in the centre of town, many local residents, particularly the allotment community, are quite against GM crops and think that organic agriculture might solve world food problems, which if you look into the literature it demonstrably cannot. Nationally, in the UK there is not tremendous support for these technologies. I was invited over ten years ago to Argentina to take part in a public debate on GM and in fact there really was not any opposition – among a wide ranging audience – to the notion that GM would help poor farmers as well as rich farmers, as well as the economy generally, and human health. If you go to Argentina or Brazil or the US, GM is not an issue. There’s widespread public acceptance I’d say.
What do you think needs to happen to move the public discussion on GM crops forward and can scientists help?
Scientists can help by presenting evidence objectively and impartially. That’s our job. Our job is not to talk about economic benefits. We can talk about health benefits or we can talk about risk or we can talk about climatic impact and those sorts of things. But there needs to be a wider ranging discussion. To that extent, I think it’s been helpful that the UK Government has come out to really nail its colours to the mast, in talking about the lost opportunities by not producing GM and talking about the potential benefits that we can have for taking a GM route in the UK.
Listen to excerpts of this Q&A alongside the views of four other leading plant scientists on how to address the impending food crises in the Biome podcast, as part of the Genome Biology special issue on plant genomics.