Agriculture of the Future

Wouldn’t it be great to invent crops in the laboratory that could feed billions, nutrient-rich and needing fewer herbicides?

Yes, this would indeed be great, but as usual reality is a lot more complex. What are the biggest threats to crops? Pests and weeds, the former eating the crop, the latter taking away water, light and nutrients. So most genetically modified (GM) crops either contain an insecticide, or are resistant to a specific herbicide, or both. A gene from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is often used as an insecticide, Bt is a soil bacterium. Now the plant produces its own insecticide. So when a bollworm tries to eat Bt-cotton, it dies of the Bt toxin.

But most GM crops are resistant to a herbicide from the same company. The most used herbicide in this context is “Roundup” by Monsanto, the worlds largest producer of GM seeds. Crops that are resistant to Roundup are called “RoundupReady”. So if a farmer plants RoundupReady corn, he can spray his field with Roundup (its active ingredient is glyphosate) and all plants will die except the corn. So in addition to buying expensive seeds every year, farmers also need to purchase the suitable herbicide, otherwise the GM seeds wouldn’t offer any advantages. Nowadays, practically the entire corn, soybean and cotton production in the US is genetically modified.

Different-GM-crops-USA-Dep-Agriculture1

Most corn (maize), cotton and soybeans grown in the US today are genetically modified. “HT” stands for “herbicide tolerant”, “Bt” refers to Bacillus thuringiensis. Source: US Department of Agriculture

But when a single herbicide is used repeatedly, this constant selection pressure leads to resistances. Farmers using GM crops are now required to use additional weed and pest management strategies to reduce resistances, like planting “refuge fields” with traditional corn to support non-resistant rootworms. Ultimately, this can also lead to the use of additional herbicides or pesticides. In India, the pink bollworm became resistant to the Bt toxin in GM cotton, similar resistances were later found in Australia, China, Spain and the US. Monsanto’s answer: introducing a GM cotton crop with an additional gene against pests.

So the fight against pests and weeds is far from over, as proponents of GM crops like to point out, but is now fought with additional genes, not only with novel pesticides.

 

 

Canola field in Saskatchewan, Canada. Canola is a low acid rapeseed and is available in a “RoundupReady” variant. Photo: Nas2, public domain

Once upon a time, in 1997, there was a farmer in Saskatchewan growing traditional canola, a low acid rapeseed. He claimed that his crop had become “infected” with genes from neighbouring GM canola fields via pollination; he hadn’t purchased Bt seeds and thus never signed a patent license. But he harvested the GM field nonetheless, stored the seeds and used them as seeding material the next year. Monsanto sued him for patent infringement – and won. The farmer, Percy Schmeiser, appealed several times, ultimately to the Canadian Supreme Court – and lost again. So patent battles not only concern farmers who sign patent licenses, it could affect anybody affected for instance by genetic contamination (a study showed that by 2010, most wild canola contained genes from GM crops).

A recent study from Germany found out that maize pollen can fly 4,5 km, and not just a few meters as previously thought, increasing the risk of genetic contamination considerably. Accordingly, The European Food Safety Authority EFSA has started an investigation into the safety of growing GM maize in Europe. A decision is expected next month.

 

Record corn harvest in Iowa in 2009. US farmers produced 361 million metric tons in 2014, most of it has been genetically modified. Photo: Bill Whittaker, CCL 3.0

In the developed world, corn (or maize) is mostly used for fodder or biofuel. But in Mexico, where maize originally comes from, more than 80 percent is used for human consumption. The sixty different varieties are mostly planted by smallholder farmers. Since the market in the US is practically saturated, big agrochemical companies tried to get permission for commercial cultivation in Mexico. To protect the native maize varieties from genetic contamination, 53 scientists and 22 civil rights organizations filed a lawsuit against the major players: to everybody’s surprise, the judge pronounced a complete ban on all GM maize in Mexico, even for research, in 2013. The ban still holds, but Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow, Pioneer-Dupont have filed at least 91 challenges to date.

A growing number of organizations and movements mobilise against GM crops, not only in Mexico or Europe, and not only traditional players like Greenpeace, but also in the US, like the “March Against Monsanto”, or in India, just to name a few. But these movements are not the main focus of this article, nor are the feared effects on human health, like for instance potential allergies due to newly introduced genes. The focus is more on legal, economic and environmental issues, as well as on alternative solutions.

 

Golden Rice (right) contains three beta-carotene biosynthesis genes, hence its yellow colour. Photo: International Rice Research Institute IRRI

The flagship project of GM crops is called Golden Rice: it contains vitamin A, hence its golden colour. Vitamin A deficiency is a serious problem in the developing world. Golden Rice was developed by the International Rice Research Institute IRRI, with contributions from the Rockefeller and the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation. Small farmers in developing countries should be allowed to grow it without patent fees. But the concerns about genetic contamination prevail, to the point that protesters vandalised a field trial in the Philippines. Alternatively, the World Health Organization WHO promotes cheap vitamin A supplements, plus local gardens to produce a variety of fruit and vegetables that can help against other deficiencies as well. Activists call Golden Rice a “Trojan Horse” for the introduction of GM crops in countries that have been sceptical in the past.

In its final report “Agriculture at a Crossroads”, the IAASTD (“International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development”), initiated by the World Bank and including organizations like the FAO and WHO, declared that for sufficient and sustainable food production, ecological farming methods and smallholder farms had to be promoted, not mainly GM crops or large-scale farming. Consequently, the agrochemical companies stopped cooperating with IAASTD.

 

Tithonia diversifolia, or Mexican sunflower, is planted by farmers in Tanzania on the edge of fields to attract whiteflies that would otherwise eat the farmers’ manioc plants. Photo: B. Naves, CCL

Janet Maro co-founded the NGO “Sustainable Agriculture Tanzania”, or SAT, while she was still studying agriculture in Morogoro. She and her colleagues now teach smallholders in Tanzania how crop diversity, natural fertilizers and biological pest management can increase their yields and incomes, and make them less dependent on expensive materials and less vulnerable to crop failure. In an article for National Geographic’s series “Food of the Future”, the author asked Maro if genetically modified seeds might help the farmers. “It’s not realistic,” she said. “How could they afford the seeds when they can’t even afford fertilizer?” And if most farmers never saw a government agricultural adviser, how could they ever be expected to grow GM crops properly?

No matter which approach is taken, it all comes down to making information accessible and educating farmers. One example: Whiteflies regularly threaten to destroy cassava fields in Africa. One approach would be to incorporate an insecticide into cassava plants – geneticists are working on this. But poor, remote areas without proper roads are not exactly ideal for GM farming methods. Maro and her team however teach the farmers to plant Mexican sunflowers at the edges of fields to attract whiteflies. Already many inventive organic approaches like these have been found and tested, but not all have been put into practice where they are most needed. On top of that, organic farming methods help against soil nutrients depletion – an enormous problem of the agribusiness approach.

Most of the projected world population growth, reaching about 10 billion in 2050, will take place in sub-Saharan Africa and other developing countries. For local food production, these countries need solutions tailored to their specific needs. Many experts agree that more than one approach is required to feed the billions – but the sole focus on large monocultures of GM crops seems outdated today.

Susanne Dambeck

About Susanne Dambeck

Susanne Dambeck is a science writer in English and German, and author of several nonfiction childrens' books. A political scientist by training, she has worked in politics, television and as a biographer. Apart from scientific findings, she is interested in people and in storytelling in different languages.

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