Genetically-Modified Crops Gain New Importance (But Be Careful)

Stephen DeAngelis

May 19, 2010

Farmers in India have been looking skyward for signs of the rains that normally come during the annual monsoon season. Those rains did not come last year and caused widespread drought on the subcontinent. Some scientists now believe that heavy snowfalls in the Himalayas can cause reduced rains during the monsoon season [“‘Heavy Himalayan snowfall cause of drought in India’,” by Ashis Ray, The Times of India, 23 April 2010]. Whatever the cause, Indian farmers have been scrambling to stay in business. Many Indian farmers have turned to technology, in this case drip irrigation, to mitigate the effects of drought [“The seeds of a profitable crop,” by Amy Kazmin, Financial Times, 22 April 2010]. Kazmin reports:

“In the mid-1990s, one of the wealthier farmers [in the Indian village of Jarandi] bought a small drip-irrigation system, a technology unknown among the poorly educated villagers, from Jain Irrigation Systems, a family-run Indian business. Cotton yields on the drip-fed land quadrupled and a second villager tried it, then a third and so on. Today, nearly every landowner in Jarandi has bought drip-irrigation systems and local cotton yields are 15 to 20 quintals per acre. Yields of food crops have also increased dramatically. With surging agricultural output, local life is changing. The farmers’ children now go to school, ownership of motorcycles has soared and diets are improving.”

Jarandi is a good example of why individuals and organizations involved in development work concern themselves with food security and improving the lot of small farmers. Increased crop production not only eliminates hunger, but it begins a chain of good things that improve the quality of life for current and future generations. Kazmin continues:

“The evolution in Jarandi highlights the potential for transforming Indian agriculture through modern technology such as drip irrigation, a fast-growing business in which Jain is a pioneer and market leader. … Netafim, the Israeli company that pioneered drip irrigation in the Negev desert and is the global market leader for the technology, set up an Indian subsidiary in 1997 and now has two plants in the country manufacturing systems for local use and for export to elsewhere in Asia. Netafim also employs big marketing teams to try to raise awareness among Indian farmers. John Deere Water, a subsidiary of the US tractor and agricultural equipment maker, is also gearing up to sell modern irrigation systems in India.”

Drip-irrigation technology delivers water “only to the plants the farmer wanted to grow – thus cutting not only water consumption but also labour costs, because there is less need for weeding, fertiliser and fuel.” Saving water is especially important, obviously, in times of drought. Kazmin reports that the increased use of drip irrigation in India “is almost a revolution.” Even greater use of drip irrigation systems is important, because water tables in India are plummeting. In an effort to expand the use of drip irrigation systems, the government subsidizes farmers who use the method and helps others pay for installing the systems. It may not be enough, however, to avert future challenges. As Ajit Jain, one of the four sons of the founder of Jain Irrigation Systems, avers, “There is no food security without water security.” Planting genetically-modified plants that require less water to thrive is another strategy that farmers are likely to use in the future to deal with water scarcity [“The Seed Makers Who Don’t Pray for Rain,” by Jack Kaskey and Antonio Ligi, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, 29 April 2010]. Kaskey and Ligi conclude that “technology that boosts crop yields despite dry environments will become a growth engine for agriculture companies.” They explain:

“After battling for a decade over the $11 billion market for insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant seeds, DuPont, Monsanto, and Syngenta are turning their attention to crops that can survive drought. DuPont estimates that up to 150 million acres of drought-tolerant corn eventually could be planted globally. For seed producers, that could add up to annual revenues of $2.7 billion, or about 10% of the global seed market and nearly a third of corn seed sales. ‘Farmers around the world are going to pay hundreds of millions of dollars’ for seeds that require less water, predicts Michael Mack, chief executive of Syngenta. The technology could change the economics of farming by reducing the need for irrigation, lowering crop insurance premiums, and boosting land values in water-starved regions. With agriculture accounting for 70% of global freshwater use, ‘The biggest single issue in farming going forward is…water availability,’ says Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant.”

Drought-tolerant plants that are being developed include corn, cotton, wheat, and sugar cane. According to Monsanto’s CEO, “developing crops that require less irrigation not only contributes to more sustainable farming, … but also will help farmers in the developing world.” Although genetically-modified plants are gaining greater acceptance, they still face some opposition. Kaskey and Ligi report:

“The drought-resistant seeds aren’t winning over opponents of genetically modified foods. They say the latest technology may further taint conventional corn supplies and allow large companies to perpetuate an industrial agriculture system that remains too water-intensive. ‘Their approach is that…we can use technology to adapt to any problems and make money at the same time,’ says Maude Barlow, chairwoman of Washington-based Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit that advocates for sustainable agriculture.”

The combination of drip irrigation and drought-resistant plants, however, could have tremendous impact on sustainable farming in the developing world. Analysts have concluded that farmers have been the big beneficiary of GM technology so far [“The genetically modified crop marches on,” by Clive Cookson, Financial Times, 4 May 2010]. Cookson reports:

“In agricultural biotechnology, the big theme is still the march of genetically modified crops across the world’s farmland. While farmers have yet to adopt genetic engineering or cloning of animals to a significant extent – even in the GM-friendly US, fears of consumer resistance to biotech meat and milk outweigh any likely benefits – they have embraced biotech plants in some of the world’s most important growing regions. The most authoritative annual survey of GM planting, carried out by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, showed a 7 per cent annual increase last year in the area covered to 134m hectares (330m acres) in 25 countries. But GM food crops are still concentrated in the western hemisphere. The US accounts for almost half the world’s GM planting (64m hectares), followed by Brazil (21.4m ha) and Argentina (21.3m ha). Although India and China are big biotech growers, their GM crops are almost entirely cotton, cultivated for fibre rather than food.”

If farmers in the developing world are going to undergo a new, sustainable “green revolution,” they are going to have to adopt new technologies and plant appropriate GM crops. China and India, with their large populations, should lead the way. They may not, however. Cookson explains:

“The picture may change soon in China, where regulators issued biosafety certificates in November for insect-resistant rice and ‘phytase’ maize (which has an added gene to make the crop more digestible in animal feed). But GM food had a setback in India in February, when the government unexpectedly rejected an application to grow an insect-resistant strain of brinjal (aubergine) and demanded more safety tests.”

Continued resistance in Europe is one reason that GM crops don’t fare better around the globe. Cookson believes that may be changing.

“‘Agbio’ companies continue to face strong consumer and political resistance to GM crops in Europe, where only 95,000ha were grown last year – mainly insect-resistant maize in Spain. The industry celebrated a success in March in its long struggle to get more crops approved in Europe. After a 13-year wait, the European Commission allowed BASF of Germany to plant its GM potato called Amflora to produce industrial starch – but not spuds for human or animal consumption. Many other GM crops, approved elsewhere in the world, are still waiting for a go-ahead from the EC. Three more GM maize products are believed to be at the front of the queue.”

Cookson goes on to paint a broader picture of GM crops around the world.

“Worldwide, the GM scene is dominated by four crops (soyabeans, maize, cotton and canola or oilseed rape), two traits (herbicide tolerance and insect resistance) and one company (Monsanto). Herbicide-tolerant genes let the farmer spray a broad-spectrum weedkiller, usually Monsanto’s RoundUp, to kill all weeds without harming the crop. The Bt insect resistance gene, derived from Bacillus thuringiensis bacteria, reduces the amount of pesticide required to protect the crop. Crops with combined or ‘stacked’ traits are becoming increasingly important. This year, Monsanto will launch SmartStax maize, which has eight added genes coding for three traits. It is herbicide-tolerant and protects against insects.”

Cookson cites a report by the National Academy of Sciences in the United States that concludes that “farmers who grow genetically engineered crops are realising substantial economic and environmental benefits, such as lower production costs, fewer pest problems, reduced use of pesticides and better yields, compared with conventional crops.” That should open the eyes of those who are trying to help small farmers in developing countries become profitable. The next wave of GM crops will likely contain plants that benefit the health of consumers.

“A report last month by in Washington DC said: ‘Many US A new wave of GM crops, to be released over the next few years, may bring more obvious benefits to the consumer, in the form of better nutritional qualities, and to agricultural production, in the form of more resistance to stresses such as drought, salinity and extremes of temperature. An important development will be the commercial launch of drought-tolerant GM maize, scheduled for 2012.”

Cookson notes that farmers have been cross-breeding plants for years to develop desired traits and reports that such efforts continue. “For example Australia’s CSIRO announced last month a salt-tolerant wheat that yields 25 per cent more on saline soils than its parent variety. The Australian scientists isolated two salt tolerance genes in Triticum monoccum, a wheat species that grows on poor, arid soils in the Middle East, and introduced them into durum wheat, which is widely cultivated for pasta production – through non-GM breeding aided by the latest molecular marking technology.” He reports that some companies are specializing in the rapid development of crops with desirable traits:

“Cibus, a privately owned company based in San Diego, is a leader here with its proprietary Rapid Trait Development System or RTDS. This uses the plant’s own genetic machinery to change its DNA. Cibus has reached agreements with a variety of companies and organisations – most recently the Flax Council of Canada – to use RTDS on their crops. Stephen Evans-Freke, Cibus chairman, says the technology makes it possible to commercialise new traits more quickly than GM, because regulatory approval is much more straightforward when no external genes are introduced.”

Although RTDS may be able to commercialize traits more quickly, GM crops are likely to develop more varied and useful traits than those that can be created more “naturally.” Wheat may be the next crop that requires the deft touch of plant modifiers. Ug99, a fungus that causes stem rust, is starting to spread and it could cause widespread starvation if it is not stopped [“Red Menace: Stop the Ug99 Fungus Before Its Spores Bring Starvation,” by Brendan I. Koerner, Wired, 22 February 2010]. Koerner writes:

“Stem rust is the polio of agriculture, a plague that was brought under control nearly half a century ago as part of the celebrated Green Revolution. After years of trial and error, scientists managed to breed wheat that contained genes capable of repelling the assaults of Puccinia graminis, the formal name of the fungus. But now it’s clear: The triumph didn’t last. While languishing in the Ugandan highlands, a small population of P. graminis evolved the means to overcome mankind’s most ingenious genetic defenses. This distinct new race of P. graminis, dubbed Ug99 after its country of origin (Uganda) and year of christening (1999), is storming east, working its way through Africa and the Middle East and threatening India and China. More than a billion lives are at stake. ‘It’s an absolute game-changer,’ says Brian Steffenson, a cereal-disease expert at the University of Minnesota who travels to Njoro regularly to observe the enemy in the wild. ‘The pathogen takes out pretty much everything we have.’ Indeed, 90 percent of the world’s wheat has little or no protection against the Ug99 race of P. graminis. If nothing is done to slow the pathogen, famines could soon become the norm — from the Red Sea to the Mongolian steppe — as Ug99 annihilates a crop that provides a third of our calories. China and India, the world’s biggest wheat consumers, will once again face the threat of mass starvation, especially among their rural poor. The situation will be particularly grim in Pakistan and Afghanistan, two nations that rely heavily on wheat for sustenance and are in no position to bear added woe. Their fragile governments may not be able to survive the onslaught of Ug99 and its attendant turmoil. The pathogen has already been detected in Iran and may now be headed for South Asia’s most important breadbasket, the Punjab, which nourishes hundreds of millions of Indians and Pakistanis. What’s more, Ug99 could easily make the transoceanic leap to the United States. All it would take is for a single spore, barely bigger than a red blood cell, to latch onto the shirt of an oblivious traveler. The toll from that would be ruinous; the US Department of Agriculture estimates that more than 40 million acres of wheat would be at serious risk if Ug99 came to these shores, where the grain is the third most valuable crop, trailing only corn and soybeans. The economic loss might easily exceed $10 billion; a simple loaf of bread could become a luxury.”

Whether plant modification is done by manipulating genes or cross-breeding, plants must continue to change with the environment or the world’s food supply could be at risk. A report by National Resarch Council “actually suggests that environmentalists should be feeling pretty rosy about G.M. crops. It concludes that they’re providing American farmers with substantial net environmental and economic benefits over conventional crops, including lower production costs, fewer pest problems, reduced use of pesticides and better yields. But the report noted that these benefits aren’t universal and may decline over time, and that both benefits and risks may increase as more farms adopt the technology.” [“Genetically modified crops may not be environmentally harmful,” by Nina Shen Rastogi, Washington Post, 18 May 2010]. Rastogi did raise one growing concern.

“The report did flag one issue that’s been a major concern to environmentalists: The likelihood that herbicide-tolerant crops will lead to herbicide-resistant weeds. But again, it’s important to note that the problem of herbicide-tolerant weeds isn’t unique to G.M. crops: It’s a risk farmers run any time they rely too heavily on one form of weed management, whether the seeds are genetically engineered or conventionally bred.”

An editorial in the New York Times, citing the same NRC report, raised this same issue and suggested that the “solution is more diverse crops and cultivation practices, and a wider array of seeds, including non-genetically engineered ones. The unpalatable alternative is the re-introduction of far less benign herbicides.” [“Resisting Roundup,” 16 May 2010]. Food security remains a serious challenge, especially over the century or so as the world’s population peaks. For more on the challenges that lie ahead, read my series of posts that detailed the agricultural challenges that must be faced in the coming decades (Agriculture Old and New, Agriculture: The Bumpy Road Ahead, Agriculture Production and Prices, Feeding the World While Watching the Environment, The Gherkin and the Olive Tree, and Eating and the Environment).