GM Cereals – The Pros and Corns

By Frank-Jürgen Richter

Business Times, June 13, 2014

The arguments for or against are bedded in discussions of food security, water security and population growth

The topic of genetic modification is wide and fraught with strong rhetoric. I will restrict my thoughts here to the globally important cereals: wheat, maize and rice. Recently, the French government moved to ban GM crops permanently, though only the Monsanto “Mon810” maize had been allowed.

These seeds have genes added to resist dry conditions and combat the European corn borer pest, reducing the need for pesticides. Furthermore they are infertile plants so they will not pollinate and pollute normal crops.

The arguments for or against GM cereals are bedded in discussions of food security, water security and population growth (often to the distant future of 2100). There are many who consider the promotion of GM crops to be a “big business thing” since research is funded often by large firms active in the agriculture sector who seem to promote seeds too costly for poor people – so we become embroiled in a rich/poor or First/Third World argument rather than taking a more rational view of what is an appropriate agricultural policy sustainable in differing places and economies.

Nowadays developed nations have good logistics, the developing nations are creating good logistics (China comes to mind), while much of Asia and Africa suffer from poor logistics or none at all: their growers have no access to markets. In their case, local people suffer glut or famine according to the weather and GM crops are unused.

Global population, now seven billion, will peak at 11 billion by 2100, falling then to about 10 billion (though the outcome so far into the future is uncertain). European and the Americas’ populations are expected to remain as at present.

Asia and sub-Saharan Africa will see the greatest increase and it is in these regions that transport logistics are poorest. It is perhaps this single aspect that drives arguments about GM or not, becoming conflated with arguments against “big business” who promote solutions more applicable in the rich world, especially given the higher cost of GM seed.

Our decision-making is not logical and rational. Over the years we have believed that we will die, explode or something . . . if we travelled faster than a ridden horse or flew faster than the speed of sound . . . and we would not tolerate heart transplants, believing that action would alter the soul of the organ receiver. Today in France, protesters flatten fields of GM maize despite farmers achieving better yields. All the while the globe needs more grains for food, for oils and for bio-mass, for energy purposes as its population increases, generally becoming more affluent and living longer.

The very poor can benefit from the development of local roadways and mobile markets. Manually carrying produce is hard work and unprofitable in total energy terms. New tracks in the outback need only support bicycles with trailers . . . then at 15-20km per hour a farmer may travel farther with more produce to the markets which may onward link using trucks. Produce aggregation supports all farmers – for sales, for buying new tools, and in being entrepreneurial.

We must support the World Bank and the local NGOs who undertake rural road and education development. Private/public projects are deemed to have too low a commercial return in the outback: they begin infrastructure investment only at township level or higher.

GM arguments thrive in the rich world; they are not applicable when there is no access to a market allowing a poor family to enrich itself by selling excess output. Neither are they applicable in a developing nation with dysfunctional supply chains allowing “40 per cent of food to be lost from field to fork”. The GM argument is more appropriately focused on effective use of land in the developed world.

Developed world fields are immense following farm consolidations; they demand high levels of mechanisation. Consistent data gathering has promoted micro-fertilisation regimes controlled by GPS systems. Monsanto, and others, are now offering fully digitised systems that present farmers with a map of which seeds to plant, at what depths with varying post-planting treatments according to the weather – and planting could be done almost without human intervention.

That could not be done in Africa or Asia – data does not exist, fields are too small (even the roads do not allow large equipment to pass) and the GM seeds are too costly, although yields would be enhanced. For the richer European and American farmers, higher-yielding GM crops with their tightly managed genetic characteristics are worth the higher cost.

Genetic modifications of plant stock have been going on for years. Darwin wrote in 1859 about plant breeding; modern genetics was founded on Mendel’s 1865 reports of pea breeding; the 1980s introduced genetically modified (virus resistant) tomatoes and tobacco. Now a vast variety of foodstuff contain some GM substance. There is no evidence yet of human harm arising from a GM crop. But “yet” does not equate to “never” and people remain reluctant to purchase GM products if it is declared on the package.

We must be vigilant in our discussions about food security. We cannot be complacent and accept poor or biased research, and funding conflicts need to be stated. It is only through open discussion that better decisions may be made – by farmers whose livelihoods are at stake, and by ministers who often are in post for too short a time to become an agricultural expert and who rely upon their juniors who may succumb to lobbyists and corruption. GM seeds promise modifications that resist bugs, droughts, floods and salinity and permit greater mechanisation – increasing yields at each stage. All the time, however, we must focus on appropriate locally sustainable solutions – be this in a poor nation or a rich nation.

The writer is founder and chairman of Horasis, a global visions community.