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GM Is the Best Option We Have

by Anthony Trewavas
Institute of Cell and Molecular Biology
University of Edinburgh

June 5, 2000

I have been a plant biologist for 40 years. What drew me to the subject was love of the organism. All those that deal with plants will know this feeling of pleasure and peace that comes from contact. We use plants in many different ways; for food, clothes, timber, cooking and drugs and to beautify our environment. To improve these uses for human benefit we must first gain better understanding of the way such complex organisms work. My respect has grown the more I have come to understand the beautiful and intricate way in which plants function. Our role on this planet is to act the good gardener. Like all such gardeners or stewards we seek to provide a planetary garden which survives in harmony with itself. But this garden can only be in harmony when all our fellow men and women, the other stewards of this planet, can enjoy a complete and fulfilling life enabling the full flowering of the potential in all of us.

There are some people in this country that stereotype scientists without ever knowing any of them; that ascribe ulterior motives to scientific endeavour and surround themselves with acolytes of similar limited experience. These people commonly rate the wisdom of nature as superior to human ingenuity and survival.

But we investigate nature so that we can stop the natural things that destroy our lives and curtail our stewardship. I am talking about natural things like child death, leprosy, disease-ridden water, starvation or floods that are clearly part of nature and nature's wisdom. Human ingenuity, which our opponents cast so easily aside, has given us antibiotics, anaesethics and warm houses to prolong and protect life, security of food supply, transport to places so that we can share in the pride and glory of human achievements in arts, music and architecture; and has even taken us to the moon. All these ingenuities derive from knowledge of the world in which we live and result from experimentation and improvement of nature, the 'good gardening' which opponents denigrate. There is a desire by some to reverse history, to recover some mythical golden age when life expectancy was under half what it is now; when people died needlessly and painfully from a variety of unknown causes (some most certainly from diseases in their poor quality food) and when, for example in the UK, half the young men called up for the Boer war were refused on the grounds of serious underweight, height and poor health identified as resulting from malnourishment. When problems develop we must continue to rise to the challenge to tackle them as we have done in the past with nobility and intellect. Do not listen to the siren voices that say "stop the world I want to get off". There are many such voices in the UK at present.

A decade ago, as a university plant biologist, I thought that genetic manipulation GM would be publicly funded and used for the benefit of mankind. Indeed I share in the general distrust of GM commercialisation and I know this is a major complication in the UK. But this is the world we live in; if you don't like it change the economics, don't demean the knowledge. We can't eliminate knowledge simply because someone makes a profit out of it.

Two recent reports of publicly-funded, university GM research now indicate its true potential. US scientists in collaboration with Japanese workers have genetically improved (GM) rice to increase seed yield of each plant by 35%. Why is this important?

One of the most certain facts about the human population is that it is increasing. By 2025 there will be 2.3 billion extra souls on mother earth; 50 times the current population of the UK and they will have to be fed. Our current numbers of some six billion have already placed dangerous burdens on the ecosystems of spaceship earth and threaten our bio-diversity on which we are all interdependent. Global warming may indeed be global warning. So ploughing up wilderness to feed these extra people is no option. We can also eliminate organic farming as a meaningful solution. Organic farmers rely ultimately and only on soil nitrogen fixation to provide the essential nitrate and ammonia for crop growth and yield. Rainwater provides the other minerals. Since the maximum yields of fixed nitrogen have been measured numerous times we can estimate that by taking another 750 million ha of wilderness under the plough we could feed just three billion. When Greenpeace tell us to 'go organic' I ask myself which three billion will live and which three billion will die; perhaps they can enlighten us when they have finished tangling with the courts.

Clever plant breeding in the early 60's produced rice and wheat plants with well over double their previous yield; such progress enabled a parallel doubling of mankind, without massive starvation. But this option is now exhausted. Ignoring the problem, leaving billions to starve in misery, the worst of all tortures according to Amnesty International, is not an option either. "Every man's death diminishes me because I am part of mankind; ask not for whom the bell tolls..." is a philosophy I know many here will share with John Donne. So where one grain grew before we now again have to ensure that two will grow in the future. Currently GM is our best option to achieve this difficult task. This first report is very encouraging.

Critics say to me there is enough food to feed the world and they may well be right; at present. We produce sufficient to feed 6.4 billion people but the excess is largely in the West and it is far easier for scientists to conjure more food from the plants we grow than to persuade the West to share its agricultural bounty with its poorer neighbours. But the excess will not last long; our population increases by 1.3% /year, current annual cereal increases are only 1.1%. We live on the residual excess produced by the green revolution. At some point catastrophe beckons.

Our second report deals with a problem that kills one million young children in the third world every year and leaves many millions permanently blind. For a variety of reasons, babies can be prematurely weaned off breast milk. It's not a problem in the West, a variety of other foods and milk are available. But in the backwoods of the Far East, the usual option is rice gruel. Rice however contains no vitamin A and such babies rapidly become deficient. Either eye development is permanently damaged, (we all need vitamin A for sight), or they succumb to childhood diseases that any western baby shrugs off in a week. Scientists in a Swiss university in a 'tour de force' have genetically improved rice to make vitamin A. This golden rice has been given to the International Rice Institute in the Philippines for distribution to help ameliorate this serious problem and ensure a better life for parents and children.

There are some Western critics who oppose any solution to world problems involving technological progress. They denigrate this remarkable achievement. These luddite individuals found in some Aid organisations instead attempt to impose their primitivist western views on those countries where blindness and child death are common. This new form of Western cultural domination or neo-colonialism, because such it is, should be repelled by all those of good will. Those who stand to benefit in the third world will then be enabled to make their own choice freely about what they want for their own children.

But these are foreign examples; global warming is the problem that requires the UK to develop GM technology. 1998 was the warmest year in the last one thousand years. Many think global warming will simply lead to a wetter climate and be benign. I do not. Excess rainfall in northern seas has been predicted to halt the Gulf Stream. In this situation, average UK temperatures would fall by 5 degrees centigrade and give us Moscow-like winters. There are already worrying signs of salinity changes in the deep oceans. Agriculture would be seriously damaged and necessitate the rapid development of new crop varieties to secure our food supply. We would not have much warning. Recent detailed analyses of arctic ice cores has shown that the climate can switch between stable states in fractions of a decade. Even if the climate is only wetter and warmer new crop pests and rampant disease will be the consequence. GM technology can enable new crops to be constructed in months and to be in the fields within a few years. This is the unique benefit GM offers. The UK populace needs to much more positive about GM or we may pay a very heavy price.

In 535A.D. a volcano near the present Krakatoa exploded with the force of 200 million Hiroshima A bombs. The dense cloud of dust so reduced the intensity of the sun that for at least two years thereafter, summer turned to winter and crops here and elsewhere in the Northern hemisphere failed completely. The population survived by hunting a rapidly vanishing population of edible animals. The after-effects continued for a decade and human history was changed irreversibly. But the planet recovered. Such examples of benign nature's wisdom, in full flood as it were, dwarf and make miniscule the tiny modifications we make upon our environment. There are apparently 100 such volcanoes round the world that could at any time unleash forces as great. And even smaller volcanic explosions change our climate and can easily threaten the security of our food supply. Our hold on this planet is tenuous. In the present day an equivalent 535A.D. explosion would destroy much of our civilisation. Only those with agricultural technology sufficiently advanced would have a chance at survival. Colliding asteroids are another problem that requires us to be forward-looking accepting that technological advance may be the only buffer between us and annihilation.

When people say to me they do not need GM, I am astonished at their prescience, their ability to read a benign future in a crystal ball that I cannot. Now is the time to experiment; not when a holocaust is upon us and it is too late. GM is a technology whose time has come and just in the nick of time. With each billion that mankind has added to the planet have come technological advances to increase food supply. In the 18th century, the start of agricultural mechanisation; in the 19th century knowledge of crop mineral requirements, the eventual Haber Bosch process for nitrogen reduction. In the 20th century plant genetics and breeding, and later the green revolution. Each time population growth has been sustained without enormous loss of life through starvation even though crisis often beckoned. For the 21st century, genetic manipulation is our primary hope to maintain developing and complex technological civilisations. When the climate is changing in unpredictable ways, diversity in agricultural technology is a strength and a necessity not a luxury. Diversity helps secure our food supply. We have heard much of the precautionary principle in recent years; my version of it is "be prepared".

But how do these examples compare with the scepticism shown by the UK public over GM food; doesn't it harm human health? What about those apocalyptic visions of damage to the environment propounded by green organisations. If these views had any real substance I would share them, but they are totally contrary to all experience.

The testing of GM food is exemplary in its detail and takes at least four years. Sir John Krebs, Head of our new Food Standards Agency concluded that GM food is as safe as its non-GM counterpart. If eating foreign DNA and protein is dangerous we have been doing so for all of our lives with no apparent effects. Each GM food will be considered by regulatory authorities on its own merit.

As for GM environmental effects, many countries provide us with details of reduced use of herbicides and pesticides of 15-100%, of increased crop yields, less insect damage, a return of non-target insects to fields and reductions in fungal toxins in food. Even the flurry over the Monarch butterfly has been capped by record numbers on migration last year. Over 20 laboratories have now shown the original Monarch fears were groundless. Within five years, vaccines against the killer E.coli, hepatitis B, cholera and other diseases will all come in GM food. Even now they are in human trials. These vaccines will be very stable, be easily distributed world-wide, need no refrigeration or injection; merely consumption. The great campaign to eliminate world-wide disease, as we have with smallpox, will be well under way. Apocalypse now? Hardly.

Many of you may think that environmentalists are synonymous with ecologists. You would be mistaken. Let me read out for you extracts from what has become known as the Aachen declaration made by a large number of ecologists.

"Today's campaign against gene technology has no base in ecologically sound science. In the case of gene technology there is substantial evidence for positive environmental effects with decreased pesticide use and healthier food. The campaign neglects the beneficial effects of these plants for the environment. Unfortunately many environmental activists have chosen to publicise only potential adverse effects of GM crops during their campaign, natural phenomena like gene transfer or pollen movement between organisms are declared as a phenomenon related only to GM crops although this happens throughout nature". Patrick Moore, a founder member of Greenpeace, has said the present Greenpeace campaign is junk science and pagan myth.

We have in recent years been treated to flag wavers like "superweeds", "genie out of the bottle" and "frankenstein food"; statements as empty of meaning and content as those who mouth them. Superweeds are merely herbicide resistant weeds. There are over 100 weeds world-wide with resistance to some 15 different herbicides. There are even four crops with natural herbicide resistance from conventional breeding. These include oil seed rape and are used by farmers.

If you sow a rape crop with natural herbicide resistance, only marginal regulations apply and the crop could be grown alongside an organic farm without objection. The herbicide resistance genes would spread to surrounding weedy relatives by so-called gene flow although as we now know at a very low rate. Furthermore pollen from this crop could be spread by bees up to a kilometre away although it would probably not be viable at this distance. The chances of such pollen successfully competing with local sources and producing seed would be extremely remote. Perhaps more important there would be no objections from green organisations.

However in one case this natural herbicide resistance gene has been isolated and inserted back into oil seed rape by GM. Planting this GM crop necessitates satisfying 50 pages of regulations, four years of safety tests, 3-4 committees for approval with detailed examination and at the end of the day the likelihood of getting your crop trampled by unthinking activists. You would also get objections from organic farmers miles in every direction. Yet the spread of resistance genes to weedy relatives would be identical between the two crops and spraying both fields with herbicide would lead to identical ecological effects. Common sense is called for here and certainly there is certainly a lack of common sense in current attitudes with supposed contamination by GM.

If rape is removed from the field, the herbicide resistance gene in feral weedy relative would disappear within a few years. If the cultivated field is left fallow, both GM and non-GM rapes would disappear within a few years. Like any other crop plant, domesticated rape cannot compete with weeds. The genes we put into crops are for our benefit and not for survival in the wild. Crops last no longer than a domesticated chiuhuahua would last in the company of wolves. Populations of weeds are a sea of natural mutant variants. I am unable to think of any gene they could acquire from our efforts that would improve their weediness. Certainly in ten thousand years of plant breeding and gene flow into weedy relatives none has ever been discovered.

The "genie out of the bottle" is really attached by elastic and is easily re-corked when required. When I asked the BMA for the evidence for their genie out of bottle statement made by Sir William Aesscher I was told that a lot of people were saying it!

The main goal we are told by GM opponents is to 'go organic'. Was this a thought-through policy or made up on the hoof? It is quite clear to me it was the latter.

Experts tell us that cancers that occur under the age of 65 are avoidable. 30% of these cancers are thought to result from poor diet. Over 200 detailed investigations have shown that a diet high in fruit and vegetables cuts all cancer rates by at least half. But only 10% of us eat the recommended fruit and vegetable requirements. Increasing the price of these essential foods will reduce consumption; particularly in the poorest families for which the food bill is a much higher proportion of their weekly wage. The consequence, higher avoidable cancer rates, premature death and soaring health bills. Organic food, whatever it's supposed environmental merits (and incidentally these merits are shared by many conventional farms), is less efficient and more wasteful of land. For a variety of reasons it comes at a much higher price and will continue to do so. Any attempt to 'go organic', to thus increase the price of fruit and vegetables and thereby reduce consumption will have the consequences on cancer and death I have listed above. Let us hope it is not your child. My fear is that unsubstantiated claims and incorrect assumptions about organic food will lead those who strive upwards on weak incomes to buy organic but eat less fruit and vegetables because of the expense. The only justification left for buying organic food is that farmers apply less pesticide in its production. But that is precisely what the current GM crops offer us but at conventional food prices or even lower! Whose food is the real benefit now?

I am often asked what do I want to see in agriculture. Variety is probably the spice of stability. My own preference is for Integrated Crop Management (ICM), a sustainable but efficient technology organised in the UK by LEAF and CWS farming systems amongst others. ICM requires the farmer to use his intelligence whilst delivering on the so-called environmentally- friendly front. In fact ICM with its emphasis on crop rotation, integrated pest management, zero tillage and precisely timed manure and mineral application is nicely placed between two extremes. The organic farmer that does what he is told by the Soil Association, (something I tell students is best described as authoritarian farming), and the conventional farmer who merely does what he is told on the instruction leaflets by companies. As for many of our students with lecture information, the instructions and rules pass through, with out stopping in the brains of either. The goal must be to train the farmer to view his farm as an ecosystem and then leave it to the individual and his particular circumstance to construct his own farming system. Advantageously a variety of agricultural styles would result which should improve the stability of food supply in the uncertain years ahead.