GM crops: the truth will free us from hunger

When it comes to genetically modified crops, ignorance isn’t bliss, it’s downright dangerous, making the public prey to scaremongers and hampering food security, warns Dr Charlie Reinhardt.

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The majority of archaeologists agree that agriculture was one of the cornerstones of civilization. It provided the knowledge, skills and tools that made possible the transition from a nomadic to a sedentary lifestyle so crucial for the evolution of civil society, economic systems and cities.

Agriculture, in turn, was made possible by farmers gradually learning to domesticate animals and ‘manipulate’ nature to provide food, shelter and fibre for clothing. Crop production in particular would have required ‘management’ of the environment to increase yields. And archaeological evidence shows that the earliest farmers of about 10 000 years ago recognised the importance of practices such as soil tillage, weeding and irrigation.

In their time, these were major technological advances, to be followed later by contour ploughing and the invention of the stirrup. GM crops are simply part of an ongoing process. The problem is, these days the pace of technological advances is so fast that major breakthroughs often sidestep public comprehension.

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This is something that modern science is keenly aware of, especially as most scientists are notoriously poor ‘marketing agents’ for the products of science! Human nature tends to baulk at events or ideas it cannot comprehend. Therefore, it should come as no surprise when a poorly informed public resorts to an emotive response if denied accurate information about an issue – or when the information supplied appears incomprehensible.

Exploiting ignorance
When it comes to GM technology, this understandable lack of ‘scientific awareness’ among the general public is exploited by activist groups. Often their attacks are cloaked under the veil of science itself, but the evidence that they marshall cannot stand the ‘acid test’ of ‘true science’ with its rigorous methodology.

Unfortunately, it is virtually impossible for the non-scientist to distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ science, unless assisted in the interpretation of scientific findings by an unbiased scientist with sound knowledge of the subject.
Let us turn to a concrete example that has sparked much heated debate – Roundup Ready technology, or crops scientifically engineered to make them tolerant to the non-selective herbicide glyphosate.

Combating weed resistance
When weed resistance is suspected, the first step is to ascertain if it is ‘real’ or due to factors such as user disregard of the recommendations or restrictions on the product label. Only research employing internationally acceptable protocols can do this.

More than 400 weed species worldwide have proven resistance to herbicides from all the major herbicide groups. ALS and ACC inhibitor herbicides lead the field, with nearly 200 resistant species. Glyphosate resistance, meanwhile, evolves slowly; it took 22 years for the first case to be reported, in 1996. Since then, only another 23 weeds have been added to this list, a much lower number than for other major herbicide modes of action. Three of these are found in South Africa: Conyza bonariensis (hairy fleabane), Lolium complex (ryegrass), and Plantago lanceolata (buckhorn plantain).

A research programme is currently underway at the University of Pretoria to investigate glyphosate resistance in the winter and summer rainfall regions of South Africa. But the bottom line is this: weed resistance can and does have serious consequences for profitable crop production. So it’s hardly surprising that Roundup Ready has
been hailed by prominent weed science experts as the “most important agricultural technology in 100 years”.

Emerging farmers
Furthermore, there is no reason that emerging farmers cannot reap the same benefits from GM crops as commercial farmers. In South Africa there are numerous opportunities for transforming a farming enterprise from ‘emerging’ to ‘commercial’, a privilege which about 70% of farmers in the rest of Africa might never experience. 

This said, there is no easy answer when it comes to trying to effectively implement modern innovations such as Roundup Ready crops and the associated Bt technology in small-scale agriculture.

However, I contend that the most basic constraint in such a setting is lack of knowledge. I place finance second in importance because I believe that sound knowledge about the benefits of GM crops can overcome financial constraints. Field demonstration trials, supported by knowledge transfer, are probably the best way in which to convey to emerging farmers the benefits of any ‘new’ crop production practice.

For companies, it is a tough environment in which to do research and development, mainly because of lack of infrastructure. Trial sites, for example, are often poorly protected from predators. Also, mixed cropping is a common practice in small-scale farming for the sake of diversity in the diet, or simply to spread risk. In the process, good crop husbandry practices are often neglected.

None of these hurdles are insurmountable, however. We must endeavour to reach the situation where at least yield per unit area is close to parity. Of course, as should be evident by now, for this to happen, the onus cannot rest on GM technology alone; best agricultural practices need to be in place as well.

Vociferous detractors
Unfortunately, as is the case with all highly visible technologies, Roundup Ready crops worldwide have a vociferous group of detractors. These individuals seem to have little understanding of the benefits associated with the technology and are apparently simply stirred-up by the modern scientific practice of genetic modification as a whole. In other words, for them, so it seems, anything GM is ‘bad’.

Roundup Ready crops were developed by Monsanto and have been grown commercially since 1996. To date, almost 20 years later, not a single case of any malady in animal, human or plant, or any long-term adverse effect on the environment has been unequivocally linked to Roundup Ready technology.

Scientific articles and reports that cast aspersions on the technology do appear from time to time. So far, all have been proven to be (a) deliberately false, (b) the result of anomalies due to poor scientific technique, or (c) a misinterpretation of the facts, incorrectly ascribing adverse effects to the technology, for example.

By contrast, the main benefit that Roundup Ready crops offers farmers is scientifically well-proven and unequivocal. The broadest range of weeds can be effectively controlled without the risk of adverse effects on the crop and environment, thereby promoting profitable and sustainable crop production.

Dr Reinhardt is extraordinary professor of weed science in the Department of Plant Production and Soil Science, at the University of Pretoria. Contact him on 083 442 3427 or [email protected].

  • The views expressed in our weekly opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Farmer’s Weekly.