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Genetically modified crops aren’t a solution to climate change, despite what biotech industry says

16 Comments
By Anneleen Kenis and Barbara Van Dyck

The European Commission launched a proposal in July to deregulate a large number of plants manufactured using new genetic techniques.

Despite extraordinary attempts by the Spanish presidency to force a breakthrough, EU members have not yet reached a consensus on this plan. But if the proposal were to be approved, these plants would be treated the same as conventional plants, eliminating the need for safety tests and the labelling of genetically modified food products.

The European public has refused to blindly accept genetically modified food from the moment the technology was developed, largely due to concerns about corporate control, health and the environment.

Biotech firms have been trying to sell genetically modified crops to Europeans for decades. But most European citizens remain convinced that crops made with both old and new genetic techniques should be tested and labelled.

So, where has this proposal come from? Biotech firms seem to have succeeded in convincing the European Commission that we need new genetically modified crops to tackle climate change. They argue that by enhancing crops’ resistance to drought or improving their ability to capture carbon, climate change may no longer seem such a daunting challenge.

If this seems too good to be true, unfortunately, it is. Biotech firms have taken advantage of growing concerns about climate change to influence the European Commission with an orchestrated lobbying campaign.

Climate goals as PR strategy

In 2018, the European Court ruled that plants made with new genetic techniques have to be regulated like any other genetically modified organism. Biotech firms and their allies within biotech research centers have since set out to convince the European Commission of the need for an entirely new legislation.

The first step was to rebrand the techniques they are using, aiming to distance themselves from the bad reputation of genetic modification. Biotech firms started to use more innocent terms like gene editing and precision breeding instead.

They then argued that their processes are not really any different from what happens in nature, portraying them as an advanced version of natural processes. Biotech firms need this argument to eliminate the requirement for labelling, which serves as a barrier for selling their products in a climate of public disapproval.

In a third step, they leveraged the urgency of the climate crisis to argue that we cannot afford time-consuming safety tests. They contended that such tests would hinder innovation in a period of accelerating climate change.

There are several flaws in this approach. The terms “gene editing” or “precision breeding” may sound more reassuring, but we argue they are essentially marketing terms and say nothing about the accuracy of the techniques used or their potentially negative effects.

Studies have shown that new genetic techniques can alter the traits of a species “to an extent that would be impossible, or at least very unlikely, using conventional breeding”. They can also trigger substantial unintended changes in the genetic material of plants.

But, perhaps most importantly, genetically modified plants aren’t the solution to the climate crisis. They are a false solution that starts from the wrong question.

False promises

It is well known that our current agricultural model contributes significantly to climate change. The development of genetically modified crops is being steered largely by the very same agro-chemical giants that established and control this form of agriculture.

Companies like Corteva and Bayer (which acquired US agrochemical company Monsanto in 2018) are leading the race to secure patents on new genetic techniques and their products.

Typical examples include patents for soybeans with increased protein content, waxy corn, or rice that is tolerant to herbicides. These crops are designed for an agricultural model centered on the large-scale cultivation of single crop varieties destined for the global market.

This agricultural model relies on staggering amounts of fuel for distribution and places farmers in a state of dependence on heavy machinery and farm inputs (like artificial fertilizers and pesticides) derived from fossil fuels.

Research has found that farming in this way causes soil depletion and biodiversity loss. It also increases vulnerability to pests and diseases, necessitating the development of different and potentially more toxic pesticides and herbicides.

Although biotech firms are playing the climate card, only a small proportion of the genetically modified crops being developed deal with concerns related to the climate. In fact, the climate credentials of many of these crops are questionable. Modifications such as an increased shelf life, or being better able to withstand being transported are merely intended to smooth the operation of our unsustainable food system.

Rather than strengthening our unsustainable agricultural model, the focus should be on restoring what industrial agriculture has destroyed: farmers’ livelihoods, biodiversity and soil health. Only then will farmers be able to cultivate local climates that naturally store carbon and provide optimal conditions for food production without placing so much pressure on the environment.

Paying the price

Biotech firms advocate a no-testing policy as they argue that new genetically modified crops would be safe. But there is a problem. The legislation proposed by the European Commission eliminates the possibility of ever finding out if these claims are correct.

Health and environmental problems are often the result of complex, interacting and largely invisible causes. As tracing and labelling won’t be mandatory, it will be very difficult to trace any adverse outcomes back to their causes.

Ultimately, people and the planet will pay the price when untested genetically modified crops penetrate our environments and the food chain.

In response to this article, a spokesperson from the American Seed Trade Association said plant breeders need all the tools at their disposal to provide improved plant varieties to farmers so they can continue producing in a challenging environment. The Association said there is consensus among plant breeders and regulatory bodies that innovative techniques, like genome editing, can be safely integrated into breeding programs to develop plant varieties that are indistinguishable from those developed through conventional breeding. Bayer and Corteva were contacted for a comment on the issues raised in this article, but had not provided any by the time of publication.

Anneleen Kenis is a lecturer in Political Ecology and Environmental Justice, Brunel University London. Barbara Van Dyck is a Research Fellow in Political Agroecology, Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB).

The Conversation is an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts.

© The Conversation

©2024 GPlusMedia Inc.

16 Comments
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There is no way I would ever eat GM crops, and even if they were allowed they would always need to be labelled so their potential ill health effects could be monitored. Fortunately after Brexit the UK can ignore whatever the EU decides.

Companies testing their own products never end's well, Boeing testing their own 737's for safety resulted in many hundreds of passenger deaths, also car airbag faults didn't go well either.

-3 ( +3 / -6 )

@SapperJon.

The Tories are planning to allow GM food to be sold in UK without labelling, to curry favour with the US.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

Genetically modified crops are only a solution for Monsanto and the like. For the rest of us, the consumers, they are a slow acting poison. Ultra processed food causes many unwanted body conditions such as obesity and cancer.

0 ( +5 / -5 )

Rather than strengthening our unsustainable agricultural model, the focus should be on restoring what industrial agriculture has destroyed: farmers’ livelihoods, biodiversity and soil health.

It's not just about an unsustainable agricultural model. The nature of the system is inherently unsustainable. It's a giant ponzi scheme. Short-term corporate profits will always take precedence over long-term health of the planet and even continued civilised existence. Capitalism will always displace costs elsewhere and into the future for others to pay in order to profit now or in the short term. It has no long-range vision. It cannot. For its victims the overriding motivation is and will be desperation.

-1 ( +4 / -5 )

There is no way I would ever eat GM crops

A nice idea but unless you avoid any package/processed food, with such poor food labelling and transparency in the modern food industry, I'm sure you are consuming GM ingredients.

2 ( +5 / -3 )

Japan allows the import of some GM crops like soybeans.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

Yes, Wallace is right and we eat them all the time. In the past, when it said on the label there were NO GMOs included (遺伝子組換えでない), according to definition by the Ministry of Agriculture, it could still contain up to 5% GMO. Since April 2023 the labelling has become much more strict and so fewer products which used to proudly display that they were GMO free (soy sauce, for example) actually have anything on their labels now. The assumption presumably is that everyone simply believes it is all GMO-free anyway. I am not sure what the maximum allowable percentage of GMO in a product is now. Maybe someone knows.

-1 ( +4 / -5 )

In fact, 5% is still a threshold. Under 5% it has to be labelled as produced separately from GMOs (but can still be contaminated up to 5%). Above 5%, labels have say vaguely that the product is not separated from GMOs in production but there is no limit about the percentage that can be included in that vague definition. However, somewhere close to 100% it must say it is GMO (sort of. It should say '遺伝子組換え' など (Bureaucracy loves the vague など) in terms of what must go on the label).

-2 ( +4 / -6 )

Why would anyone down thumb Moonraker's comments, which are simply informative?

-5 ( +2 / -7 )

Now a fan of the GMO lark and e Levi ally the way it’s been used to fiddle farmers in third world countries. Another way to make easy money by the usual suspects.

-4 ( +2 / -6 )

There is no way I would ever eat GM crops

So you've never eaten corn, wheat, broccoli, watermelon, bananas, etc?

JFC...

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Why would anyone down thumb Moonraker's comments, which are simply informative?

Because a double thumbs down isn't an option.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

I guess, ifd66 that facts or a reasonable argument should never give anyone pause to examine what they want to believe. You never get either in response.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Our governments should be supporting our right to decide what we eat, not forcing us to eat this stuff by hiding it. Another good reason to hate your government.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

The idea that genetically modified crops can be a solution to climate change is ridiculous.

The denial of the climate crisis is stupid and suicidal. Our knowledge of physics and system theory tells us that in the wake of the inputs inserted by humans the climate system has become nonlinear and unstable. This system is full of malignant positive feedback loops that push it away from equilibrium. There are no stabilizing mechanisms whatsoever that can keep the climate system in equilibrium. But there is no need to be an expert: The rapid rise in temperature and humidity is visible to the naked eye. The catastrophic loss of our planet and the ultimate extermination of humanity are very near. There may still be a remedy: Getting out from energizing ourselves from carbon, and moving on to a new era of energizing ourselves from the sun's radiation and from heavy nuclei. That is easy to do, and should have been done a long time ago. However, there are powerful social forces that fight vehemently against this simple and obvious cure and against the attempt to salvage the planet and the human race. These enemies of the planet claim that moving to modern transportation based on electricity will ruin our society. These devils do not explain how can the usage of efficient, high performance and enjoyable electric cars ruin our society? And what society will remain when the temperature rises to hundreds of degrees Celsius and all the oceans boil and become steam?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

what i could find on official gov websites and Internet, says that in Japan, 9 categories of GMO foods are allowed and don't require labeling as GMO if the food was processed (idk how accurate it is, as i can see sometimes on something like potato chip bags that it doesn't contain GMO, but haven't seen a label yet that it does contain GMO). 9 categories of processed foods are potatoes, soybeans, corn, alfalfa, papaya, sugar beets, rapeseed, cottonseed, and recently mustard greens. scientists here said that such foods after processing cannot be distinguished from non-GMO because they no longer can find identifiable DNA, as it gets fragmented during cooking. bu you can't sell unprocessed GMOs, i.e. you can't buy a bag of fresh raw/uncooked GMO potatoes.

everything is fine but i want products to be appropriately labeled. since they're probably not, then if the food contains above mentioned ingredients from USA (at least, need to research which other countries might supply GMOs) - it means they contain GMO. it would be naive of me to think that tofu made from US soybeans would not contain GMOs when 99% of soybeans grown in the US are of GMO variety. most foods containing sugars derived from sugar beets (from US) probably also would fall under GMO-containing category. as well as corn chips, corn flakes, popcorn, corn dogs, and other foods containing corn/corn flour.

if i want to avoid GMOs, I'd look at the label to see origin of the ingredients - tho it seems that it's not always disclosed either. if I don't care, then there's no need to look at the label.

however, it must always be appropriately labeled, when labeling fails to disclose that food was made from GMOs, consumers choice and informed consent are taken away. then ofc thoughts like "why would they want to hide this fact" do come in. do they think majority of consumers will shun GMO containing foods, and they don't want to invest in educating consumers about GMO safety or, perhaps, they have already tried and failed? if they actually tried to educate consumers about GMO safety and failed, why did it fail then? seems like these ingredients are much cheaper than natural foods (non-GMO), i wouldn't be surprised if most processed foods here would contain GMOs without disclosing it on the label. disrespectful to the consumers, as well as to consumer rights. coming from an EU country which not only requires labeling but also soft-bans GMOs, i feel that lack of labeling/poor labeling in Japan is outrageous. also, what happened to "we don't change time to summer/winter time because we shouldn't meddle with nature"? also, purity of the body (I'd think equivalent to "my body - my temple", when there's no properly informed choice given what people put in their own bodies? you are what you eat, afterall, and your body makes itself from the food one consumes. what is my personal preference in food is irrelevant, but a right to choose freely in an informed manner is very important for everyone. how such an important thing as an informed consumer choice can be taken away, is beyond me.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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