Feeding the world: non-GM success stories

March 2011

There are over 100 reasons to think GM crops are nothing more than a charade struggling to be real.

Claims on the wonders of GM have been aired regularly for years.
British radio listeners will have heard that:
“Using GM technology, there are now varieties of major crops, rice, wheat and maize being produced that are drought resistant, flood resistant, saline resistant and disease resistant, which could transform Africa's ability to feed its people ... Some products have emerged, for example, from South Africa. They are now planting drought resistant crops that have increased the yield by 30% ... so you can actually save millions of people from starvation by these techniques ...”

And that:
“... I could give you one example and this is the use of inter-crop planting in Africa which has increased grain yields already around Lake Victoria very substantially. And this is done by discovering what the pheromone is in the root of the grain plant that attracts root borers and destroys them. And if you snip that gene into the grass so that the grass attracts root borers, the root borer does not feed well on the grass and dies. You interplant the grass with the grain and it turns out the crops yield goes up 40-50%. Very big advantage.”
And even that:

Not only can food be made safer by “snipping out” allergenic proteins, but GM will be able to produce “more crop per drop” of water to allow them to thrive in drier conditions.

These quotes may sound like the usual biotech industry spin, but they came from quite another source. They were in fact the words of the UK government's Chief Scientist (now retired), and stand out for three reasons. They come from someone who ought to know what he's talking about, who ought to know the difference between technical aspirations and fact, and who ought not to be misleading anyone about science.

The problem is that the examples given by him are not true:
  • no drought-resistant GM crops are being grown in South Africa (nor flood-resistant GM crops, nor salt-resistant GM crops, anywhere)
  • the suggested 'GM' grass to divert pests away from the crops around Lake Victoria wasn't GM
  • the removal of allergenic proteins by GM techniques was recognised during the 2003 GM Science Review (chaired by the same Chief Scientist) as 'not simple to achieve', with particular reference to the life-threatening properties of peanuts because more than 20 different proteins are involved
The current Chief Scientist seems to be carrying on the tradition. Sound-bytes attributed to him in the press continue to tout GM as a solution to world hunger: 
“It is very hard to see how it would be remotely sensible to justify not using new technologies such as GM. Just look at the problems that the world faces: water shortages and salination of existing water supplies, for example. GM crops should be able to deal with that.” 
The tone is more measured than his predecessor, but the misinformation being spun on what genetic engineering can achieve is identical.

The government seems to be getting an earful of carefully crafted advice designed to keep its attention on GM as the only solution to global food supplies. This view is reinforced by the media which is ever keen to devote vast amounts of column inches to the 'news' of potential GM “miracles”, while non-GM actual success stories get minimal coverage. As GM Watch describes it:
“Without GM's often exaggerated crisis narratives and claimed silver bullet solutions, it seems there is no story”
GM Watch continues:
“The biotechnology industry and its PR people are keen to keep it that way, particularly because the non-GM solutions are often way ahead of the work on GM. They also bring none of the uncertainties that surround GM.”
This statement of non-GM crop solutions being way ahead of GM is backed up by examples of over 100 reports of successful, newly developed, non-GM crops of 23 plant varieties with all the pest-resistance, environmental tolerances, yield and nutritional traits coveted by genetic engineers.

A major fly in the whole GM ointment is becoming increasing obvious: any crop is only as good as conventional breeding has made it. The artificial DNA inserted in GM crops is not so much a silver bullet as a marketing play to add artificial value and a patent.

GM Watch suggests some important questions we should all be asking:
  • which natural parent variety or varieties did the biotech company pirate for its GM variety?
  • how much improvement was made in the parent variety by conventional breeding and marker assisted selection, aside from the GM tweak?
  • how do the natural parent variety, the non-GM improved variety, and the final GM variety compare with each other with regard to the desired trait in side-by-side field trials?
The answers would be educational. But we won't usually get to hear them because the information is commercially confidential. So much so that even UK Chief Scientists don't know. And so the biotech companies are able to maintain their seductive pretense that GM is necessary for the future of plant breeding.


All this pro-GM propaganda in the media may be leaving a sour taste in your mouth. We seem to be seeing a repeat performance of the time when “George and Tony decided it might be fun to attack Iraq” with a “drumbeat for war ... based not on intelligence, but lies”. As one CIA officer described it, “It was 95 percent charade” made possible because “The press allowed the crazies (the Bush government) to get away with it.” The crazies will continue to get away with it unless people (like you) demand the truth.

Watch's compilation of reports of “Non-GM Breakthroughs” in their new website.

Besides countering lies propagated by the press, the thing to watch out for is biotech industry moves to take possession of these real crop breakthroughs by inserting their own genetic brand into them.

  • Chief Scientist's misleading GM claims: GM Freeze calls for a public apology, GM Freeze Press Release 17.12.07
  • GM Freeze letter to Professor David King, 17.12.07,
  • Peter Melchett, Who can we trust on GM food? Guardian 9.12.08
  • Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, GMO apologists ignore science - again. La Vida Locavore, 28.01.11
  • John Pilger, Behind the Arab Revolt Is a Word We Dare Not Speak,, 24.02.11

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