The New Year GM pep talk

February 2014

No New Year would be complete without a GM pep-talk from our Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, at the influential annual Oxford Farming Conference [1].  

As before, Paterson's seven paragraphs on GM buried in a sixty-paragraph speech became a major headline in a major national newspaper.  This seems to have been assisted by a particularly histrionic sound-byte suggesting that “Europe  risks becoming the Museum of World Farming as innovative companies make decisions to invest and develop new technologies in other markets”.  

Paterson cited “compelling evidence” from a European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) report entitled “Planting the future: opportunities and challenges for using crop genetic improvement technologies for sustainable agriculture” (June 2013).  To a GM sceptic this title looks like a pro-GM propaganda exercise tailored to Owen Paterson's needs: it is clearly about 'opportunities and challenges' while ignoring the practical limitations and unresolved safety questions.  An old sound-byte has interestingly been resurrected: the term 'genetic improvement technologies' is  misleadingly substituted to describe engineered DNA constructs which might be anything but an 'improvement'. 

Our Environment Secretary's “compelling evidence” was about “sustainable development goals”.  In the real-life world, however, GM development seems too slow, too inefficient, too limited, too simplistic, and too uncertain regarding the long-term quality of the outcome or the existence of any market for the product, for it to contribute meaningfully to sustainable goals.  Yields of US GM crops have been neck-and-neck with comparable EU non-GM crops [2], giving the lie to the EASAC assertion that “The EU is falling behind international competitors in efficient land use for food production and other applications”.  Even in the US which has been promoting commercial uses of GM for decades, only two trait-types have ever been successfully inserted into crop plants on any scale: both are proving unsustainable due to evolving weed and pest resistance in the field.  The notion that genetic transformation is somehow a quicker and easier way to achieve useful crops than conventional breeding is false, as is the EASAC's assertion that “the slow and expensive EU GM regulatory framework has acted as an obstacle to agricultural innovation” (see below).

After well over a year of government orchestration to bounce Britain into a GM future, you might expect the springboard to be set for action. 

It may be, but there's very little sign of it: 2014 marked the first year since 2007 which started with no GM field trials in the ground nor in the DEFRA application pipeline.  Since then, there has been another wave of reports about a GM purple tomato with wondrous health-benefits about to be tested on UK citizens after being grown in Canada (article to come), and a GM flax which generates fish-oil to be fed to fish (article to come); both of these seem to have been decades in the development already, and both raise safety issues which won't be easily or quickly resolved.  America's 2014 New Year GM pipeline doesn't have much 'wow-factor' either: nine (old-hat) herbicide- and/or insect-resistant crops; an apple designed not to turn brown when damaged; a eucalyptus tree designed not to freeze; a potato designed to bruise less easily; and an alfalfa grass with less lignin. 

Was there something tired about Owen Paterson's speech?  It included a sound-byte we haven't heard for years: he referred to “Europe's rigorous, independent scientific assessment” of GMOs prior to approval.  As in past decades, 'rigorous' just means that a formal system is in place, not that it provides any assurance of safety: at the end of the day a 'rigorous' system can simply be rigged to achieve any desired outcome.  Scientific 'assessment' doesn't, and never did, mean testing.  The independence of the European Food Safety Authority whose advice is central to GM approvals in the EU has been repeatedly questioned by GM concerned parties such as Testbiotech, Corporate Observatory Europe, MEP Corine Lepage, and even the European Parliament. 

GM crops are not faster to develop than non-GM ones

“The falsity stems from the notion that once a gene is found, it is simply a matter of sticking it into a plant and running a few tests to see if it works properly. In fact, years of field testing are needed to determine how well the trait responds in various and variable environments regardless of whether the trait is developed through GM or breeding.

Years of backcrossing are needed to get rid of possible harmful mutations and epigenetic changes introduced through the tissue culture process used with GM.  And backcrossing is also needed to transfer the trait into multiple elite crop varieties of many crops (e.g. grains).  Sometimes the original genetic construct turns out to cause problems (this happened for example with GE flood tolerant rice, that showed breeding to be faster and more effective than GM).  New regulatory sequences are found to be needed, or there are position effects that cause problems from the particular site of insertion in the plant genome.

When we look at actual examples, it has taken 10 to 15 years to develop a GM trait.   And it is important to note that this is not an issue of delay due to regulatory requirements, as GM proponents are fond of asserting, but inherent in the limitations of the process.”
(For an actual example of the inability of backcrossing to overcome the disturbances caused by a genetic insertion, see [3])

Goodman M. and Carson M, 2000
Reality vs. myth: Corn breeding, exotics, and genetic engineering
Proceedings of the 55th Annual Corn & Sorghum
Research Conference, Chicago IL, 55



Better a Museum of Farming showcasing useful, successful, tried-and-tested, adaptable agri-techniques, than a graveyard of GM corpses.  

However the 'museum' part is unwarranted, because as GM Freeze pointed out
“ ... there is plenty of important and highly productive non-GM research needed, and the UK should be aiming to emerge as a centre of excellence in these areas rather than pursuing unnecessary GM crops that no one wants.” 
[1]  WESTMINSTER'S PRO GM PUSH - January 2013
  • Owen Paterson's speech to Oxford Farming conference 2014, Western Daily Press, 7.01.14 
  • Fiona Harvey, Owen Paterson: Embrace GM or risk becoming 'museum of world farming', Guardian, 7.01.14 
  • Is GM quicker than conventional breeding? GM Watch, 23.12.13
  • Tom Philpott, Crop flops: GMOs lead ag down the wrong path, Mother Jones, 21.01.14
  • GM Freeze celebrates a GM-free New ear in UK fields, GM Freeze News Release, 31.12.13
  • Fish oil extracted form plant seeds, BBC News, 9.01.14
  • GM Purple Tomatoes Set for EU Legal Problems over Human Testing, Sustainable Pulse, 26.01.14
  • European Parliament postpones EFSA budget approval over conflicts of interest, Corporate Europe Observatory, 10.05.12
  •  Independence of EFSA's GMO risk assessment challenged, Corporate Observatory Europe and Testbiotech, 21.03.12
  • Conflicts of interests within the EU agencies, Brussels, 27.03.12

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