NEW YORK (AFP) – As a changing climate intensifies extreme weather, agricultural multinationals are hyping the ability of genetically modified crops to boost yields when facing drought, heat or even heavy rainfall.
But skeptics of engineered foods, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs), still aren’t buying it.
“I don’t see why we should evolve our views when they’re still doing the same things,” said science director at the non-profit Center for Food Safety Bill Freese, criticising the “dramatically increased toxic herbicide use” following the proliferation of GMOs.
Seeds designed to thrive in specific local conditions have been developed for centuries through conventional breeding, by crossing together plants with relevant characteristics and selecting the desired offspring.
But as more severe weather creates hostile growing conditions for conventional seeds, companies such as Bayer/Monsanto, Corteva and Syngenta are promoting GMOs as more efficient.
And newer technologies can reduce development times for these heartier varieties “by many years” compared with traditional crop modification techniques, according to a spokesperson for Germany’s Bayer.
“Drought tolerance is a complex trait involving many genes,” the spokesperson said.
“Therefore, the ability to develop drought-tolerant traits through classic breeding methods such as crossbreeding is limited.”
Longtime GMO critics said they are open to new approaches but are not sold on the latest industry pitch, viewing conventional seed products as safer and with fewer environmental drawbacks.
“How many times have we read that we won’t be able to feed the world by 2050 unless we have GMOs?” said Freese, referring to the argument of GMO proponents.
But for Freese, that claim is “just a really effective smoke screen put on by the pesticide and seeds conglomerates to put a good face on this new technology”.
American company Corteva said it, too, is focussed on “new breeding technologies such as gene editing” to “take advantage of the genetic diversity that already exists within the plant’s DNA” when it comes to creating new seed types.
Such GMO products can help normalise a crop’s performance, even if extreme moisture from rain or flooding promotes the spread of fungus or pests, companies said.
In July, the World Economic Forum highlighted the potential for GMOs to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by creating breeds that remove more carbon dioxide than conventionally grown crops.
Many American growers favour GMO options because, while more costly, they require less human labour, Freese said.
More than 90 per cent of the corn, cotton and soybeans grown in the United States (US) is currently genetically modified to withstand herbicides and/or insects, according to US government figures.
Farmers have been growing corn meant to tolerate drought since 2011. Whether or not this trait is acheived with traditional breeding or with GMO seeds, the resulting plants are then usually combined with GMOs that can withstand herbicides.
“They told us in the 70s and 80s that GMOs were going to be more nutritious, fix the nitrogen level, withstand everything,” said senior scientist at Consumer Reports Michael Hansen. “What did we see? Mainly herbicide-tolerant crops.”
Senior food and agricultural programme manager at environmental network Friends of the Earth Dana Perls said GMOs “go hand in hand with harsh chemicals that perpetuate pesticide pollution”, harming insect populations, soil health and water quality.
Perls acknowledged “incredible advances” but said scientists “are still quite limited in our understanding of the functioning of the incredible complexity of life, both within a single organism and within ecosystems”. For now, she advocates for regulatory oversight of new GMO technology “rooted in a precautionary approach”.
Andrew Smith of Rodale Institute said using GMOs to help crops withstand droughts and other extreme conditions is “nearsighted” unless the health of the soil is ensured.
Smith favours agricultural practices such as rotating crops, limiting chemical inputs and reducing soil tillage. Such techniques, known as regenerative agriculture, leads to healthier soil able to retain more water.