Now that many environmentalists are coming around to the idea that GMOs don't have to be evil, we need a more nuanced view of how we want to use GMOs in agriculture. When is it a good idea to use GMOs, and when is it overkill?
University of Guelph professor Evan Fraser suggests some ideas in this video. It's part of a series on GMOs and food security, and serves as an excellent introduction to what is a much more complicated issue than many of us realize. Fraser explains that GMO crops are part of a toolset we can use to improve crop productivity and maintain delicate food webs that are harmed by many pesticide solutions (including Roundup-ready crops).
We should always investigate whether low-tech solutions exist to problems before we start thinking about such high-tech strategies as moving genes between species.
For instance, in large parts of the developing world a lack of phosphorus in the soil limits yields. But in India a traditional variety of rice called Kasalath is able to grow without much phosphorus. In 2012, scientists figured out how Kasalath's amazing ability works and are now using a scientific method called "marker assisted plant breeding" to move the gene responsible for this trait this into other rice varieties. This illustrates the potential for biotechnologies that avoid many of the problems associated with GMOs.
But there other even simpler stories about how science and technology can play a major role in feeding the future. Take the case of the geneticist Manish Raizada who works at the University of Guelph and has spent part of his career using GM techniques to understand how plants function. Unlike a lot of plant geneticists, instead of starting in the lab, Manish begins his research by talking to farmers in the developing world to identify what they actually need. While working with farmers in Nepal with a local organization called LI-BIRD, his team found that farmers traditionally plant grain by scattering handfuls of seeds into the dirt. But by simply planting seeds in orderly rows, Manish's collaborators showed farmers they could increase yields by 25-40%.
This is because evenly spaced seeds have equal access to soil nutrients, moisture and sun light. This team developed an elegantly simple tool kit to make it easy to plant in rows: two sticks and a string to mark lines in the ground, and a hollowed out stick drops one seed at a time into the prepared earth. It's the perfect marriage of science and locally appropriate technology.
The moral of this story is that of the fly swatter versus the Cruise missile – we should always look to see what fly swatters are at hand before we launch a cruise missile.
Nathaniel Johnson makes a similar point today in Grist, where he notes that we shouldn't be looking at GMOs as a monolithic entity. There are good uses of GMOs and bad uses — and that's what we should focus on:
The anthropologist Glenn Davis Stone has pointed out that each side of the debate has agreed to talk about GMOs as if "GMOs" are a single entity up for approval or rejection. This makes zero sense. Pro-GMO partisans, for example, often lump all the different GM plants together as a universal good that we must accept if we want to avoid starvation. The logic here is Malthusian: We are outgrowing our food supply, and the productivity gains of the Green Revolution are falling off, so we need something to save us. That thing, according to this line of thought, is genetic engineering. Set aside the problems with the Malthusian argument for a moment. We still have to ask: What type of GMOs? Are we talking about rice engineered to feed the poor in Indonesia, or soy engineered to feed pigs in a country suffering from calorie surpluses? Those two plants don't belong in the same argument.
Anti-GMO partisans also frequently treat GMOs as a monolithic entity, and that's not any more logical. If you care about the environment it would make sense to support the responsible use of insect-resistant GMOs to help farmers move beyond chemical agriculture. It's hard to argue with scientists like Bruce Tabashnik when they present evidence that insect-resistant plants have helped the environment in the places they've been used fastidiously. Thoughtful greens might, at the same time, oppose herbicide-tolerant GMOs until we can figure out a better solution than just spraying more. Again, the different forms of GMOs don't belong in the same argument.
It's time for us to start looking at GMOs as a part of the toolkit we'll use to feed humanity in the future. To do that, we can't reject GMOs outright. We'll have to educate ourselves enough to distinguish between sustainable uses of GMOs and unhealthy ones. Most importantly, as Fraser points out, we need to realize that there may be low-tech solutions that are cheaper and easier to implement than gene splicing in a wet lab.
GMOs are not the enemy in a sustainable future. But there are companies, like Monsanto and others, whose GMO practices need to be reformed or stopped entirely. The better we understand the actual science and policy underlying the use of GMOs, the more likely we are to have good food security.
Read more, and watch more videos about GMOs and food security, on Feeding Nine Billion.