New York (AFP) – As climate change intensifies extreme weather, agricultural multinationals are banking on the ability of genetically modified crops to increase yields in drought, heat or even heavy rain.
But skeptics of modified foods, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs), still aren’t buying it.
“I don’t see why we should evolve our views when they’re still doing the same things,” said Bill Freese, chief scientific officer of the nonprofit Center for Food Safety, criticizing “the dramatically increased use of ‘toxic herbicides’ as a result of the proliferation of GMOs.
Seeds designed to thrive in specific local conditions have been developed over centuries through conventional breeding, crossing plants with relevant characteristics and selecting the desired offspring.
But as harsher weather creates hostile growing conditions for conventional seeds, companies such as Bayer/Monsanto, Corteva and Syngenta are promoting GMOs as more effective.
And new technologies can cut development times for these hardier varieties “by many years” compared to traditional crop modification techniques, according to a spokesperson for Bayer in Germany.
“Drought tolerance is a complex trait involving many genes,” the spokesperson said. “Therefore, the ability to develop drought-tolerant traits through conventional breeding methods such as crossbreeding is limited.”
Longtime critics of GMOs say they are open to new approaches but are unconvinced by the industry’s latest pitch, viewing conventional seed products as safer and with fewer environmental drawbacks.
“How many times have we read that we can’t feed the world by 2050 if we don’t have GMOs?” Freese said, referring to GMO proponents’ argument that GM crops will be needed to produce enough food for a growing population on a warming planet.
But for Freese, that claim is “just a really effective smokescreen put up by the pesticide and seed conglomerates to put a good face on this new technology.”
US company Corteva said it is also focusing on “new breeding technologies such as gene editing” to “take advantage of the genetic diversity that already exists in the plant’s DNA” when it comes to is about creating new types of seeds.
These GMO products can help normalize a crop’s performance, even if extreme humidity from rain or flooding promotes the spread of fungi or pests, the companies say.
In July, the World Economic Forum highlighted the potential of GMOs to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by creating breeds that remove more carbon dioxide than conventional crops.
Safety, environmental concerns
Many U.S. growers prefer GMO options because, while more expensive, they require less human labor, Freese said.
More than 90% of corn, cotton and soybeans grown in the United States are currently genetically engineered to resist herbicides and/or insects, according to US government figures.
Since 2011, farmers have been growing drought-tolerant maize. Whether or not this trait is obtained with traditional breeding or with GMO seeds, the plants obtained are then generally associated with herbicide-resistant GMOs.
“They told us in the 70s and 80s that GMOs were going to be more nutritious, fix the nitrogen level, withstand everything,” said Michael Hansen, senior scientist at Consumer Reports. “What did we see? Mostly herbicide-tolerant crops.”
Dana Perls, senior food and agriculture program manager for environmental network Friends of the Earth, said GMOs “go hand in hand with harsh chemicals that perpetuate pesticide pollution,” harming insect populations, soil health and water quality.
Perls acknowledged “incredible advances” in mapping and manipulating genetic material, but said scientists “are still quite limited in our understanding of how the incredible complexity of life works, both within a single organism and within ecosystems”.
For now, she argues for regulatory oversight of new GMO technology “rooted in a precautionary approach.”
Andrew Smith of the Rodale Institute said using GMOs to help crops withstand droughts and other extreme conditions is “myopic” unless soil health is ensured.
Smith promotes agricultural practices such as crop rotation, limiting chemical inputs and reducing tillage. These techniques, known as regenerative agriculture, lead to healthier soil that can hold more water.
“It’s a strategy for mitigating climate change,” Smith said.
© 2022 AFP