on the topic of GM crops and food security

I was recently asked to assist a university student with some research she was conducting in relation to the topic of GM crops and food security. Since this allowed me to consolidate some of my thoughts and views, I decided to share them here. Be warned, it is a little long winded.

Do you use genetically modified crops? 

No, not at the moment. 

Must also specify – I presume that the term here is in relation to Genetically Modified (GMO) in the sense of Genetic Engineering (GE) and not Genetic Marker Enhanced Breeding Programs.

What factors influenced your decision?  

Combination of factors – at the moment i fail to see any true benefit – whether this is commercial, environmental or operational – that would justify any of the current offerings being purchased and utilised. 

If yes, have you come up against any opposition?

I do expect, and would indeed factor in, that there would be opposition from both locals and activist groups if the decision to go ahead was made – the additional managerial, labour and security measures would make up part of the cost-benefit analysis.

Do you have an opinion on food scarcity? Is it political? Economical? Technological?

Yes, doesn’t everyone? The issue of food scarcity is multifaceted – The question of calorific production has an answer that shows we produce far more calories than are required for the global population. We then see that the western world destroys 33% of the food produced through transport and storage spoils, manufacturing waste and market rejection of non-compliant standards.

Ignoring that, the other issue is that even if farms, businesses and governments were willing to provide all of this extra food to the rest of the world – the economic realities of the cost of shipping and distribution make the exercise too costly for many to consider. This is the true failure in the charitable aspect of our society – our willingness to give away a product that has a “face value” but not in actually spending the additional costs required to complete the action.

The other side of the issue of food scarcity is that often heard these days as the Food security issue. Once again, this must be taken from a few different angles – the answer of the opinion on food security can only be answered once the premise of the responder is taken into account.. 
  1. The first is the obvious defence argument for food security – i.e. the “insurance policy” thinking that in the event of a breakdown in global trade, that we should be able to meet domestic food demand if international trade ceases as we do during peacetime.
  2. The second is a more egalitarian view that food security is a global issue and that we are as responsible for maintaining and supporting the food demands of the world’s population.
There are a range of subcategories, flaws and caveats for each – but let us look at a Just the first category, otherwise I will be here all night.

Considering the local defence policy style argument for food security, there is a flawed assumption in the initial argument. In short, that we actually have the capacity to actually provide and maintain a self-sufficient industry. 

Modern food production involves a complex supply chain – agricultural and food distribution relies heavily on foreign made machinery and equipment.  Unless we can self-sufficiently support the maintenance and replacement of this associated capital stock, and can provide the energy to support the whole food supply chain, we can’t be produce food at the same level of production as during peacetime.  This is not something that GE can address – unless they can make self-delivering grain?

Where GE may be able to assist is in providing increased production capacity – especially if in a worst-case-scenario we had to revert to wartime practices and manual labour. To grow them more intensely. To grow them on less land and less water. To do so more efficiently. Unfortunately, this is not something we see. Improving the nutrient quality of crops is rarely researched or offered, drought resistance or greater Water Use efficiency crops are not being marketed — in fact, the majority of GMO/GE crops are targeted at a vertical integration of a set of commercially offered products.

While farmers are already re-thinking agriculture and every aspect of it – from the soil and nutrients, plants and animals, land and water usage, carbon and fertilisers … the research firms, the seed companies and the fertiliser corporations are seemingly blissfully ignoring all of this and going ahead with crops that can handle toxic sprays and can uptake greater levels of macronutrients.

However, crops are not the only food source. As a grazier, for example, I am interested in grass which requires less water to grow, is resistant to high heat and is more palatable, digestible and nutritious for livestock. GM grass may not be what most people think about when we talk about crops, but such a grass would mean an improvement in the production of broad acre stock – which means less energy is used to extract the energy from the grass and more energy in the grass is available for the animal – this translates to more meat and milk with less grass. Since protein is the biggest single missing element of all developing nations and the primary food source required to maintain the commutable workforce of a service oriented society that the western world already has, one would think that a greater degree of focus would be placed in this arena.

Returning to the “standard crops” I still think that more work needs to be done in developing crops that are better adapted to abiotic stresses – such as drought and salinity – for GE/GMO to be taken seriously as a true solution to the food scarcity issue. For example, imagine a GM Rice that could be grown in dry, hot, saline fields in outback Australia or central Africa!

Experts have stated that in 2050 the world’s population will exceed 9 billion people, at which time there won’t be enough farm land to produce enough food with current technology. Will having better crops (e.g. drought resistant, pesticide resistant ) help farmers increase yield and meet demand?

As I said in the above response, I believe that the certain crops will assist – specifically those that are drought resistant or have high Water Use Efficiencies … though I am personally biased towards the “science” of the ability of pesticide and herbicide resistant crops increasing yield and meeting demands. The issue of less land and the need to be increasingly intensive is one i have written about many time before (e.g. http://j.mp/mP9sFA) however, as per my previous response, I believe that while GE/GMO/GMEB may very well have a role to play, it is currently neither silver bullet, and in many cases, on the right tracks.

In the 1970s a ‘green revolution’ occurred, in which dwarf lines of crop plants were selected for their increased grain production and decreased green biomass, allowing crop yields to increase. Some biotechnologists are now touting genetic modification of food crops to be the ‘second green revolution’. What is your opinion on GM crops? Are they necessary to keep up with demand? Are there other techniques that should be explored first?

I do think this is asked and answered above – but i will add one additional point.

A baker wants flour. Not just any flour, though, they are seeking a protein rich blend milled from hard-seeded wheat because the more gluten a flour has, the less is needed to produce a high quality bread. Thus, the baker is seeking QUALITY. In the meantime, the farmer is not being paid on quality, but quantity. GM crops should be aiming to improve the wheat crops, not for the farmer – but for the baker.

A farmer needs GM to meet a range of issues – water, drought, ease of growth, health, less fertiliser, less biomass etc. However, if these items conflict with the needs of the baker – increased seed, increased micro-nutrients, higher proteins, etc … then we are at an impasse and neither side of the market will want to take on the product.

Are there other techniques that should be explored? Yes. Is there one magic bullet? I doubt it.

Do you feel biotechnologists developing better crops, either through GM or other techniques, are listening to agriculturalists? Have you had any experience (positive or negative) working with biotechnologists?

As per all of my above answers, no. The perception is that they sit in research labs, growing monoculture crops in monoculture dirt patches with perfected micro-climate environments that do not reflect the world of the agriculturalist. Even when they do field trials, they prepare the fields to meet their experimental needs first. 

Further, it seems to be that the only research money seems to be coming from those with the most vested interest in Agriculture from a commerce level – Fertiliser, Herbicide and Pesticide companies. I fail to see why Monsanto (to name the biggest GM elephant in the room) would ever consider researching and developing a crop that suits the requirements of the market rather than the vertical integration of their many products.

I am more than happy to be proven wrong on these perceptions, but after three years of conferences, discussions, panels and request for further information, this has yet to be accomplished.

I hope this was useful and not a long winded rant – feel free to contact me if you would like additional clarification, opinions or rants 🙂

Addendum: I recieved a copy of said report and it was a wonderful piece of work (and not just because I featured in it!) I hope she posts it onto her own blog and I will link to it then. 
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