GE crops: Insights blog readers say no

The opinion poll on GE crops is now closed. Over 2500 readers voted, and while it’s obviously not a scientifically conducted survey, your comments did cover the main points that come up in any debate on the subject.

But first the results. There is a clear majority for the view that GE crops are “A threat to biodiversity and have too many unknown consequences”, with 1431 votes for this option (54%) versus 1171 (44%) taking the view that these crops represent “A positive innovation, helping to improve food security and quality, while reducing chemical use”.

Very few people were undecided – only 35 participants wanted to find out more before making a decision. On the other hand, the sample is self-selecting, so it’s not surprising that it attracted voters with firm opinions already.

Three-quarters of the comments were in favour of GE crops, with only 6 against. Contributors from companies involved in agroscience were in favour, with the main arguments against coming from Greenpeace. A remarkably high number of comments (around two-thirds) came from India, as did many of the votes in favour of GE crops.   

For a summary of the arguments for and against, see the contributions from Vijay Kumar Shrivastav of Bayer Bioscience and Rachel Dujardin of Greenpeace.

Thanks to everybody who took part in the poll and encouraged other people to participate. A special thanks to those who contributed comments.

We’ll organise other polls around controversial issues such as climate change and intellectual property rights, and we’d be happy to hear your suggestions for other subjects you’d like to see debated here.

GE crops: good for farmers, good for the planet?

What was the 18th century French historian Pierre Jean-Baptiste Legrand d’Aussy talking about when he said : “The pasty taste, the natural insipidity, the unhealthy quality, which is flatulent and indigestible, has caused it to be rejected from refined households and returned to the people, whose coarse palates and stronger stomachs are satisfied with anything capable of appeasing hunger.”

Well done if you recognised the potato, newly introduced into France at the time.

Comments like Legrand d’Aussy’s raise a smile today, but in fact we’re far more conservative about food now than in previous generations (when was the last time you knowingly ate a crow?). For example, over the years, most of the 7000 or so edible plants farmers have cultivated have been marginalised, and a few major crops and animals assure most food supplies.

The big difference is in the variety of ways ingredients are processed by the food industry, and, more recently, in new ways of producing food.

The most controversial of these is genetic engineering, GE. Supporters see it as continuing a long line of technical innovations that have boosted agricultural productivity and contributed to improved food security. Opponents argue that we don’t know enough about the consequences of GE crops and it’s foolish to push ahead, especially when so many other solutions to food security are underused. 

The National Research Council of the National Academies has just published a report on the economic and environmental impacts of GE crops looking at the impacts of GE in the US. (In other OECD countries, notably in Europe, consumer hostility means that GE crops are less widespread than in the US.)

According to the NRC, there are significant environmental benefits.

Insecticide use has declined since GE crops were introduced, and farmers who grow GE crops use fewer insecticides and herbicides that linger in soil and waterways. In addition, farmers who grow herbicide-resistant crops till less often to control weeds and are more likely to practice conservation tillage, which improves soil quality and water filtration and reduces erosion.

There are economic benefits too. In many cases, farmers who have adopted GE crops have either lower production costs or higher yields, or sometimes both, due to more cost-effective weed and insect control and fewer losses from insect damage.

It sounds great, but the report also issues a number of warnings.

Gains aren’t guaranteed. For instance, insect or weed resistance could render genetically engineered crops ineffective and force farmers to resume using more toxic chemicals. The NRC says that more needs to be done to slow the evolution of resistant weeds, such as spraying more than one kind of chemical.

Although farmers have gained economic benefits, more research is needed on the extent to which these advantages will change as pests adapt to GE crops, other countries adopt genetic engineering technology, and more GE traits are incorporated into existing and new crops.

Industry mergers and the dominance of a few players might stifle competition, an issue the Department of Justice is examining.

What do you think?

Useful links

OECD report on Biotechnologies in agriculture and natural resources to 2015

OECD Agriculture homepage

FAO on biotechnology in food and agriculture

20 questions about GM food answered by WHO

Greenpeace says no to genetic engineering

ISAAA says share the benefits of crop biotechnology

Avaaz would like more research, and a ban until it’s done