The debate over Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) has captured so much of the times we live in: the hope and potential of scientific and technical breakthroughs; the hubris of human control over nature; corporate control of the food system; enormous financial risks and rewards; and passionate support for organic agriculture and a determination to protect the natural world. Now there’s change in the air. There has been a comeuppance for some of the chemical/seed corporate high flyers, and recent technical and regulatory developments that will bring a new round of interesting questions, and force us all to think a little harder.
No one could avoid the debate over GMOs that’s been raging for more than three decades. Once the courts ruled in 1981 that new genetically manipulated products could be patented, there was a huge financial incentive for private companies with deep pockets (Monsanto, Syngenta, BASF, Dow, Dupont, etc) to produce new crop varieties with useful traits that farmers would have to pay for every year. Soybean, corn, cotton, and canola received the most attention.
Despite promises that transgenic engineering (moving foreign genes into a plant’s DNA, essentially creating something that could NEVER happen in nature) would have great financial and environmental benefits, the reality has been more than disappointing. The main “useful” trait has been resistance to herbicides (principally Glyphosate or Round-up), allowing farmers the convenience of blanket spraying fields to control weeds. This of course further enriched these same corporations, but also led to new resistant weeds requiring more bio-engineering and chemical formulations. The use of Round-up went from 3,500 tonnes in 1990 to 113,400 tonnes in 2014 and continues to climb.
But something else is climbing, the amount of money Bayer (which bought Monsanto) is paying out to settle more than 10,000 lawsuits that have been filed since the World Health Organization called Glyphosate a “probable carcinogen.” Bayer is prepared to spend $10 billion to settle these claims while continuing to sell the product. The Wall Street Journal reports that U.S. regulators won’t even allow the company to put warning labels on the product because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.) considers the product safe if used properly.
By the way: Health Canada as recently as January said that “no pesticide regulatory authority in the world considers Glyphosate to be a cancer risk to humans at the level at which humans are currently exposed.”
Earlier this month a U.S. Federal Court ruled that farmers must stop using Dicamba (a successor to Roundup needed because of new resistant weeds). This affects about 60 million acres of crops in the U.S., and agriculture officials say this kind of ruling in the middle of a growing season is unheard of. The problem is that Dicamba wanders through the air into nearby fields killing crops that don’t have the necessary genetic modification, and the Federal Court ruled that the E.P.A. did not have sufficient evidence to register the product in the first place. The E.P.A. is telling farmers to ignore the ruling.
Another by the way: Earlier this month (June 5) there was a large killing of bees in Quebec that was directly linked to drifting Dicamba, not the first time this herbicide has shown toxicity to bees.
Perhaps the most far reaching development came in mid May. Robert Arnason in the Western Producer reported that GMO’s could soon be a thing of the past, not because courts or legislators finally agree that they’re a threat, or growing consumer backlash, but because new technologies that are cheaper and more efficient to bioengineer novel traits are now widely available.
The critical point is that GMO’s “transgenic” modification (foreign genes pushed into plants’ genomes) is being replaced by “cisgenic” modification (using a natural gene from a crossable plant in the same family, essentially something that COULD happen in nature.)
CRISPR-Cas9 is a gene-editing tool that’s been compared to the “find and replace” function in a word processor. That’s combined with on-going mapping of plant genomes allowing technicians to do what farmers and backyard plant breeders have been doing for centuries, crossing and producing hybrids with better qualities, but now doing it much more quickly. There are smart scientists who caution that the word processor analogy is a little trite, that plant genomes are very complex, and changing one group of genes for another always comes with risk.
In mid May the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced new seed breeding regulations that mandate if novel traits could be developed through conventional breeding, then “cisgenic” creations will require virtually no oversight. Crop scientists in Canada are asking the federal government to follow suit.
We will see a few more “transgenic” crops over the next few years that are already in development, and the debate over their safety and the need for labelling will continue, but bioengineering is quickly moving in a different direction.
I think the most important part of this development is that public breeding programs can expand. The high cost of creating GMO’s pushed government programs to shut down, and large corporations took over. Now public breeders can get back in the game, and produce varieties that are really driven by environmental and production benefits, not just profits. That’s better for all of us.