GMOs: Seven obvious questions in search of straightforward answers

The commercial-political-scientific momentum is nudging us step by step towards a world of GM crops and livestock. Yet the fundamental questions remain unanswered. Does GM really solve problems that need solving? Is it really intended to save the world, or to maximize short-term wealth and centralize control?


The commercial-political-scientific momentum is nudging us step by step towards a world of GM crops and livestock. Yet the fundamental questions remain unanswered. Does GM really solve problems that need solving? Is it really intended to save the world, or to maximize short-term wealth and centralize control?

“Genetic Engineering” has been with us now for 40 years – ever since the early 1970s when Paul Berg in California first transferred DNA between bacteria. The first “GM” (“genetically manipulated”) plants were with us by the 1980s and GM crops now are very big business — notably including maize, soya, and rapeseed. To many, including an army of scientists, economists, policy-makers and presumably well-meaning journalists, they seem essential.  The former Government Chief Scientist Professor Sir David King summarized the mood way back in 2007 when he told the Royal Society that “By 2050 we will need to feed over 9 billion people on the planet” – and added: “We will, I believe, only do this with the assistance of a third green revolution, and GM technologies will be crucial in delivery of this”. Of late this thought has been echoed from on high ever more insistently.

But even after all the decades of investment and hype many remain unconvinced and although we are told that the doubters are luddites and backsliders, the ones who are least convinced include some of the best informed.  Indeed, it is hard to find scientists or farmers who are truly versed both in the details of biology and in the realities of global farming who feel that GM technology should ever be more than a tool in the box – and not a particularly important one. The out-and-out enthusiasts tend to be scientists of the theoretical kind who do not engage with the problems of day-to-day farming, and/ or are journalists or politicians who avoided science at school and discovered it late in life like Aladdin’s lamp, or entrepreneurs who know an opportunity when they see one. Many who once enthused have changed their minds (including me; for I wrote with great zeal about GM crops in the 1980s, when they were still new, not least in a book called Food Crops for the Future).

Yet the issues could surely be resolved more or less once and for all if we, people at large, whether we “believe” in GM or not, simply framed the objections in the form of a few simple questions and demanded clear answers. If the advocates really are sure of their ground, then they should be able to answer those questions without effort or dissemblance. If the case for GM really is robust then it should by now be open and shut, and the doubters silenced forever.  So what are these questions and challenges?

The seven obvious questions

The most obvious question is the one that used to be put (and perhaps still is) by the Food and Drug Administration of the United States to any pharmaceutical company that was seeking a license for a new drug. Does the new drug demonstrably improve on what is already available? Only if and when this could be demonstrated did the FDA move on to consider safety, cost-benefit, and the rest. After all, if the proposed innovation isn’t actually better, then what justification can there be for considering it at all?

So our first question should be:

1: After 30 years of intense effort and huge investment, can the GM advocates offer any examples of GM food crops that have brought unequivocal benefit to humanity or to the world at large? 

The benefits that have been claimed include:

Enhanced yields. But is it really true that GM food crops consistently give higher yields, over time, under field conditions? Where are the trials that show this? In any case — is it the case that food shortfalls are caused primarily, or directly, by lack of yield? Is this the problem that needs solving?

Enhanced nutritional value. But where nutritional value has been raised, is that of critical importance? Is the novel GM crop providing nutrients that otherwise would be deficient? (See question 2 and the reference to Golden Rice).

Enhanced gastronomic qualities. Do GM crops taste better? Evidence?

Improved food security. Is humanity safer with GMOs on board?

Improved food sovereignty. Does GMO technology increase people’s control over their food supply? (Or is it perhaps undesirable that people should have such control?)

Environmental benefits. Eg: do GMOs really reduce the use of pesticides and herbicides on food crops? Are pest-resistant food crops safe for non-pest species?  Evidence – pro and contra?

2: Assuming that the advocates of GM food can demonstrate unequivocal benefits, can they also show that those benefits could not have been achieved – just as easily, at the same cost, in the same time, and without collateral damage — by traditional means? 

Again, hard evidence and case histories are needed. It isn’t enough simply to assert that a new gene can be dropped into a crop plant (or animal) in a few minutes, while traditional breeding takes years. For once the novel gene is inserted, further breeding is necessary and the resulting candidate crops must then be tested for efficacy and stability before a license can be granted – and all this takes several years. So is it fair to claim – as is often implied – that GM really does offer a quick fix? 

The requirement – that GM crops should not only improve on what went before, but should improve on other less dramatic approaches – seems to exclude the GM advocates’ favourite example, which is that of GM Golden Rice. Golden Rice is rich in carotene, which is the precursor of vitamin A; and vitamin A deficiency is a major cause of blindness worldwide, so Golden Rice may seem to be a good thing. But carotene is one of the commonest organic molecules in nature, present in all dark green leaves and in yellow fruits and roots, and all that is really needed to make good the deficiency of vitamin A is horticulture – which was practiced almost universally worldwide in cities and in every country settlement until industrial monoculture took over.

Note, too, that we are talking here about GM food crops of the kind that might be fed to livestock or (in some countries) sold for human consumption. We are not talking about the use of DNA technology in general to enhance traditional breeding programmes. Eg new and very promising strains of chickpeas have recently been produced by ICRISAT for use in Ethiopia. DNA technology was used to identify the most relevant genes and this enormously improved the efficiency of the breeding programme. But still — the breeding programme itself was traditional: a combination of selection and crossing. Ie: the new chickpea strains do demonstrate the benefit of DNA science and associated technology; but they do not involve DNA transfer and do not therefore demonstrate the benefit of GM crops.

3: Putting points 1 and 2 together, can the GM advocates demonstrate that the research on GM has been cost-effective? If the same amount of research effort and resource had been put into other approaches, could we not have achieved far more? 

A case in point is that of the new GM wheat under trial at Rothamsted, which contains a gene which produces a pheromone that repels aphids – which at the same time are attracted to decoy plants grown at the field edges. This is the “push-pull” approach. “Push-pull” is indeed a most ingenious and efficacious principle. It is a wonderful thing to drive a pest away from a crop and to lure it harmlessly away by cashing in on its own psychology (if an aphid can be said to have a psychology); and wheat is the world’s most valuable crop, and aphids can be a serious pest, not least as carriers of virus diseases.

But “push-pull” is an ancient technique and does not require GM. Indeed, the principal Rothamsted scientist, Professor John Pickett, developed and championed its use long before GM came properly on board – not least on small farms in Africa. Instead of fitting the crop with an insect-repelling gene, the farmer simply has to plant pest-repellent plants (the kind that provide the required genes) between the crop plants; the approach known as “intercropping”. Intercropping in general is traditionally applied to many kinds and combinations of crops for a great many purposes, and not just for the purposes of pest-repulsion.  So if intercropping works so well, why bother with GM crops? The answer seems purely to have to do with money. Intercropping seems to require more labour than the simple planting of GM crops – and the whole thrust of modern, commercial, industrial agriculture is to reduce costs, which mainly means reducing labour. So is this GM wheat really required to reduce a significant pest problem of a major crop, as Rothamsted claims, and hence to reduce the use of pesticides and improve global food security? Or is it really intended to save money in the short term?

More broadly, is it really a good idea to design agriculture expressly to reduce labour, if that is indeed the purpose? If farm labour was reduced in India, say, to the extent that we have seen in Britain, then nearly half a billion people would be dispossessed. The continuing drive towards urbanization in China is causing immense problems. In Britain, with the farm workforce stripped to the bone, 2.7 million people are currently out of work including a million under 25. Are zero-labour industries of any kind really what the world needs?

Note, however, that intercropping need not be particularly labour-intensive. Machines are available that can plant more than one crop at once, or plant new crops decorously into existing crops. So the real point of GM isn’t simply to reduce costs and increase profit. It is to transfer control away from the farmers, who could do all that is necessary for themselves, to the biotech companies who have unique control over the GM seed. Rothamsted to some extent is still public-funded which means in practice that taxpayers’ money is being used to develop technologies that transfer power to specialist corporates. Is this good?

4: Can we really be sure that GM crops are safe — for our fellow creatures in the environment at large; or for consumers – whether livestock or people?

This broad general question breaks down into many sub-questions. For instance:

The GM advocates claim, or apparently take it to be self-evident, that the case for GM is rooted in sound, modern science and is therefore incontrovertible; that the detractors must be misguided. But how sound is the science? After all, when DNA transfer first came onto the agenda in the 1970s it still seemed (more or less) as if the traditional “determinist” concept of the gene still applied: essentially, “one gene, one protein”. It seemed, then (at least up to a point) that if a particular gene was added to a genome, then a corresponding feature or “character” of the organism would be changed in a clear and predictable way.

The past 40 years have shown how naïve that is. Now it is abundantly clear (as indeed was already obvious in principle in the 1970s) that most phenotypic characters are shaped by many genes working in concert; that most genes affect many different characters; that different bits of different genes operate in different permutations to create a range of different proteins; that all genes are influenced by the presence of all other genes (the “genetic background”); and, which in some ways is the most profound and elusive caveat of all, that the 80% or so of the genome does not code for proteins at all and to a large extent was previously written off as “junk”, influences the behaviour of each gene profoundly. All of this shows us that in truth, the relationship between the genes and phenotype is “non-linear” – a term borrowed from physics; and in detail is very unpredictable. The idea that “genetic engineering” can emulate the precision of mechanical engineering is seriously misguided (and mechanical engineers are also very aware that their own remarkable skills are nothing like as “precise” as they may seem). Indeed it has been suggested that GM is not “engineering” but is more like editing: stabbing an ancient text in an unknown language with a ball-point pen and hoping for the best.

This analysis is a little unfair, perhaps. But still the question remains: are the scientific assumptions that underlie GM really as solid as we are led to believe? Are these assumptions truly “modern”, or are they based on a seriously out-moded conception of how genes really work?  And for good measure: should science in general really be taken as the arbiter of truth, as technophiles in general tend to suppose? All of the philosophy of science over the past 80 years or so (at least since Kurt Goedel and Karl Popper) has been telling us that science does not, and cannot, deal in certainties. In short, even if GM does produce some successes, it cannot justify the confidence that so many of its advocates display. Their confidence suggests that they do not appreciate the limits of science itself – which is itself rather worrying.

Never mind, the advocates say. GM is really just an extension of traditional plant or livestock breeding – only more precise. Or at least, DNA transfer by genetic engineering simply imitates the kind of inter-species gene transfer that so obviously happens in nature.

But are either of these arguments really valid? In genetic engineering, individual bits of DNA are parachuted, in fairly “pure” form, from one organism to another – for the most part without the many other genes and other controllers that would normally influence their effects. Traditional breeding normally begins with sexual union in which an entire half-genome – thousands of genes together, plus their various controllers and modifiers – are brought together with another half-genome. Then, over the course of the first few cell divisions, and influenced by the cytoplasm of the receiving egg, the two half-genomes (one from each parent) sort themselves out. But genes transferred by GM are taken out of context and introduced largely unchaperoned. On the face of things, the two processes seem very different indeed.

But DNA transfer between species does seem to resemble the horizontal transfer seen in nature – whereby the genes of animals for example may finish up in the genomes of plants, and those of bacteria may fetch up in animals, and so on. Presumably such gene transfer is normally brought about by viruses – and viruses are ubiquitous. The horizontal transfer that occurs in nature is not necessarily harmful. Indeed, some of the virally transferred genes seem highly beneficial to the receiving organism and evolve to become essential. So, say the GM advocates, the artificial transfer of DNA is likely to be similarly benign. At least, there is no particular reason to fear the outcome.

But there are several obvious caveats. First, is the mechanism of horizontal gene transfer in nature actually known? We can see the results of it – but when has it actually been observed to happen? If we don’t know the mechanism, how can we be sure that DNA transfer effected in the laboratory is the same? It may well be the same. But if this is not known, should that be assumed? So how do we know, as the advocates of GM so confidently assert, that they are merely imitating nature? We might argue rather (from what is actually known) that laboratory transfer of DNA is only a crude pastiche of the natural process.

More to the point, the genes that can now be seen in wild organisms that are known to have come from other species, were all transferred (presumably by viruses) some time in the past. Many of those transferred genes have obviously been in their adopted lineages for many thousands, or many millions, or sometimes for hundreds of millions of years. So what we are seeing now is the result of a great deal of evolution. Perhaps the transferred genes did have ill effects in the first few generations – perhaps in the first hundred or so generations. But whatever ill effects they may have had initially would by now have been weeded out by natural selection.

But breeders or engineers of crops and livestock do not have thousands or millions of generations to play with. They must produce new crops for general use within a few years, to make good their financial investment. The long, long period of natural selection that could sort out the glitches is a luxury that they (and indeed humanity) cannot afford. So is it really safe or sensible or indeed honest to insist that GM merely imitates nature, and that nature demonstrates that there is nothing to worry about?

Ah, say the advocates, but we test all crops before releasing them: or would, if the pesky protestors didn’t keep pulling them up.

But how useful is this? For obvious reasons of money and logistics tests cannot be done on more than a few hectares of crops at a time, for more than a few years. But nature, and agriculture in the long run, deals in millions of hectares over hundreds and thousands of years; and if the genes are transferred into wild nature, then the effects of introduced genes may be felt over many millions of years until the end of life on Earth. How many grains of pollen would a million hectares of cereal produce in a thousand years? Far more, certainly, than there are stars in our galaxy – probably far more than there are stars in the entire universe (which I believe is estimated at around 1022). Small scale tests over a few years fall short of what is really required to demonstrate safety by many orders of magnitude.

Still, though, the GM advocates could reasonably retreat from their position of absolute confidence and simply point out that all technologies carry risks, and many of those risks cannot be known in advance, and things have often gone wrong in unexpected ways but still, in the long run, the technologies were worthwhile. After all, no-one knew about metal-fatigue until air-liners started to break up – but most people surely would agree that mass air-travel is a good thing, and that the risk was worth taking (tragic though it was for the crash victims). The earliest steam locomotives kept blowing up and killing people – but who, now, would want a world without trains?

So the GM advocates might admit that there could perhaps be risks associated with GM; but still they might reasonably suggest that the drawbacks are far outweighed by the benefits.

But this prompts us to ask:

5: Taken all in all, do the advantages of GM really outweigh the perceived disadvantages and the conceivable risks? 

If the advocates fail satisfactorily to answer questions 1, 2, and 3 then question 5 is hardly worth asking at all. It could well be, after all, that there are no unequivocal advantages at all: that GM has done nothing for the world’s food supply after 30 years of endeavour that was really worth doing and could not have been done just as easily by traditional means. The special risks attendant on GM (and special risks can certainly be envisaged in theory) are not worth taking. We might also suggest that if GM really is as worthwhile as its advocates insist then by now its advantages should be obvious. There should be no case to answer. It should by now be clear to all that of course GM increases yields and increases food security and that we can all sleep more easily in our beds because of it. The fact that the question can legitimately be asked at all is enough to suggest that all is not well: the case has very definitely not been made.

But let us assume for the sake of argument that the advocates can give plausible response to 1, 2, and 3. Then we should ask – what are the possible disadvantages? And is there any reason to think that bad things might actually come about?

Well, the theoretical risks (which have been obvious for at least 20 years) include the following:

Newly introduced genes can alter the function of resident genes and cause them to behave in untoward ways; in particular, many crop plants have poisonous wild ancestors and the genes in those ancestors are still present in the crop but in a quiescent state. Newly introduced genes could trigger them into life. Crops fitted with pesticidal genes could kill wild populations of non-pests. Genetically transformed animals could in various ways become sick (and many experimental GM animals produced so far have been very sick indeed) which of course is a huge welfare issue – though one that may not become manifest for several generations. We could add to this list – but these are just a few of the possible hazards that we can readily anticipate. There is also a host of what Donald Rumsfeld called “unknown unknowns”.

But GM crops are already grown widely all around the world. Is there any reason to suppose that any such ill effects have ever come about?

Well, a huge and growing literature suggests that there is plenty of room for disquiet: stories of animals becoming sick when fed on GM crops; of  “super-weeds” – crops fitted with genes for herbicide resistance that cannot be checked; of “innocent” insects including bees and butterflies being slain by crops fitted with pesticide genes; of increases in the use of herbicide, to control the weeds around crops bred to be herbicide resistant; of pest-resistance breaking down in GM crops; and so on and so on.

It is also clear that GM technology – involving patented material of very high cost – lends itself primarily to monoculture. The emphasis on monoculture these past 40 or so years has hugely reduced the emphasis on diversity – although diversity of species and of genes within species is seen by many as the world’s prime defence against future fluctuations, including climate change. This is very serious. Indeed, loss of diversity could lead to mass starvation, if the few crops remaining to us prove unsuited to future conditions.

But although the literature that questions the benefits of GM crops is huge and growing it does not seem to be taken seriously. Feeding trials that seem to demonstrate harm to animals have been dismissed, and their authors vilified. Angry reports from farmers are dismissed as “anecdotal” or “unquantified”.

But are the denials and the dismissals truly justified? This raises another, very serious issue:

6: Can we trust the GM advocates? Can we trust scientists who depend on commercial sponsorship? 

It is a shocking thing to have to ask such a question. When I first studied biology formally in the 1950s and ‘60s it was taken for granted that science is unimpeachably honest – truly the arbiter of truth insofar as truth could be found out by rational means. But then, almost until the 1980s, agricultural research in Britain was mainly financed by government for the public good, according to a very simple process whereby a network of research institutions answerable to the Agricultural and Food Research Council were each given budgets and told to get on with it. So it was that as late as 1977 Sir Kenneth Blaxter, then Director of the Rowett Research Institute, Aberdeen, told the Royal Society:

“It seems wrong that … the science related to producing food has to be used in a competitive fashion: the essence of science is its universality, and freedom from hunger should be the birthright of all mankind”.

(From: “Options for British Farming” in Agricultural Efficiency (The Royal Society, 1977).)

But in these neoliberal days, frighteningly little agricultural research is financed directly by the government, directly for the public weal. The AFRC has been replaced by the BBSRC (the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council — agriculture has ceased to exist as a discrete discipline) which uses taxpayers’ money primarily to carry out the kind of research that could be of use to big commercial companies. A generation of scientists has grown up who apparently think that this is the norm – that nothing can or should happen without commercial sponsorship, with a huge pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Research projects that do not offer rapid financial returns remain entirely unfinanced except sometimes by NGOs who may be financed by charities – or indeed by farmers working off their own bat. With commercially-sponsored research – by far the majority of the whole — there is very good reason to suspect that results unfavourable to the sponsors remain unpublished. Even if this is difficult to prove, the suspicions are certainly justified.

Overall, though tracks are covered and armies of commercial lawyers are on constant stand-by, it no longer seems sensible to take the assurances of scientists at their face value. That is a tragedy. If I was a professional scientist I would be very angry about this, and ask why. But the established institutions of science, including the Royal Society, don’t seem to be angry. As least, they are angry only with those who raise honest doubts. It isn’t obvious where people at large who seek the truth can turn for advice that is at the same time authoritative, truly scholarly and well-informed, and is also unimpeachably honest. In such a world, all bets are off.

Finally, on a general point, we should be asking whether agricultural strategy in Britain, and indeed in the world, is being framed by the most appropriate people. In particular, we may note that practicing farmers do not seem to be involved – apart from the industrial farmers of the NFU. Even in this age of top-down bureaucracy, we would not expect governments to frame medical strategy without involving doctors, or education policy without teachers. But farmers who are not part of big business are routinely sidelined. This is very dangerous (as demonstrated by the numerous breakdowns in the health of livestock over the past few decades).

7: What is the real motive behind GM? 

If the caveats are justified – if it is indeed the case that GM has contributed nothing or very little that is of unequivocal benefit, that could not have been done by other means; if indeed the alleged advantages are outweighed by the theoretical and reported drawbacks – then what is the real motive behind GM? Most of the advocates, after all, are not villains. Most believe that they are doing good, as almost all scientists aspire to do. How then did they get sucked in to something which – perhaps – has been at best a serious diversion?

The answer seems to lie with the theory of neoliberalism and the modern concept of progress: the notion that the world can make progress only by maximizing wealth and that everything must be geared to this end; and that wealth is best generated by vast commercial companies, known as corporates; and that the task of governments is not to protect humanity and the world from unfettered commerce, but to foster that commerce; and that the role of responsible citizens, including responsible scientists, is to support this grand endeavour by the powers-that-be. Overall, the net effect of GM technology this past 30 years – and of the science of industrial agriculture at least since the end of the 1970s – has been to transfer wealth and power from millions of small farmers and shopkeepers into the hands of a few big companies, supported by compliant governments. This, it seems, is what GM is really for. What reason is there to doubt this?

So – the last question of all: Is it reasonable for people at large to leave the world’s affairs, and indeed our lives, in the hands of the political-commercial-intellectual-expert elite who find themselves in power, and have given us GM? Or should we at last wake up to the fact that we need to take matters into our own hands?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *