Speakers’ Abstracts

Feeding the World
Are GM Crops fit for Purpose? If not, then what?

12th November 2008
Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, Westminster, London

The GM transformation process applied to crops: A basic science and technological perspective
Dr Michael Antoniou, King’s College London, UK


The GM transformation of plants is a laboratory-based procedure that represents a radical departure from natural reproduction and involves the transfer of artificial gene units between unrelated organisms, imparting on them new properties. GM is a powerful and invaluable research tool with a relatively good, safe track record when used under contained use conditions with notable successes within a clinical context.

However, the GM transformation process as applied to plants (tissue culture of plant material/cells plus foreign gene insertion process) for novel crop development suffers two major drawbacks that severely limit any contribution that it may be able to make towards meeting current and future world food needs in an effective and above all safe manner.

Firstly, the GM transformation process is highly mutagenic causing hundreds if not thousands of alterations in the DNA of the host plant. Some of these mutations will invariably disrupt the highly ordered and regulated function of plant host genes, which leads to unpredictable outcomes with unknown consequences for human/animal health and the environment. This widespread mutagenic effect of GM can manifest itself in many different ways including impaired crop growth, reduced yields, reduced nutritional value of food, toxic effects as revealed by numerous animal feeding studies and novel allergic reactions shown in both animal and human subjects.

Secondly, the GM transformation process at present can only transfer to a plant host at most a few minimised gene units that generally lack coordinated control. GM crop technology is therefore unable to transfer complex, tightly regulated arrays of genes that are at the basis of properties such as balanced enhanced nutrition, improved yield potential, pest and blight resistance, and tolerance to drought, heat and salinity. Fortunately, there already exist many highly nutritious and tasty types and varieties of food crops that are naturally adapted to grow under harsh conditions and on marginal land. A return to these traditional types and varieties of foods would have an immediate positive impact on food availability and security. In addition, if new food crop varieties are needed then the use of the rapidly emerging and expanding non-GM biotechnology tool known as “marker assisted selection (MAS)” is generally recognised as a more powerful systems biology (holistic) approach for future development. MAS makes use of our increasing knowledge of food plant gene maps to safely augment natural cross-breeding programmes between existing crop varieties and crop plants and their related wild relatives. This saves many years in the selection of new varieties with highly desirable but genetically complex traits, which GM at present and for the foreseeable future cannot deliver.

“Genetic-modification technologies just treat the symptoms rather than dealing with the causes”, Hans Herren, president of the Millennium Institute, Arlington, Virginia (USA); co-chair of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). [Jane Qiu, Nature, 455: 850-852, 2008].

Nutritional diversity and food-based approaches to malnutrition: Magic Bullets or Murder on the Orient Express?
Dr Jeremy Cherfas, Bioversity, Rome, Italy.


Chronic hunger currently afflicts about 950 million people worldwide, who consistently do not have enough protein or calories. Malnutrition, most notably the lack of micronutrients such as vitamin A and iron, afflicts a further 2 billion, most of them young women and children in developing countries. The World Health Organization has also recently recognized a new constellation, which it calls the double-burden household. These are families in which obese and undernourished family members share the same house. Chronic hunger, hidden hunger and obesity place enormous costs on societies, one reason why in its most recent survey the Copenhagen Consensus identified attacking malnutrition as today’s most cost effective investment in development.

The primary causes for hidden hunger and obesity include a simplification of the diet. Most solutions, however, have been equally simple. Supplements of micronutrients cure the symptoms but do not treat the dietary lack of these essential compounds. Fortification of foodstuffs is a similar approach and does not reach those outside the cash economy. Biofortification to increase the nutrient quality of staple crops, whether by conventional breeding or genetic manipulation, has a patchy record to date and also may not reach all who need it.

In this paper I will present a different approach that is based directly on increasing dietary diversity, which has multiple and mutually reinforcing positive benefits for nutrition, health, productivity, environmental protection and incomes. While dietary diversity has much to offer in the fight to feed the world, it has not received as much attention as simpler approaches. The paper will discuss possible reasons for this and suggest ways to move forward.

Feeding the world, food security and GM
Dr Charlie Clutterbuck, City University, London, UK


The main ingredients for the sustainable meal, that is needed to feed the world properly, are land, labour and capital. These largely determine what is grown where and why.

“Properly” means dealing with what the WHO calls the “Double Burden” – where about a billion people go hungry while a similar number are overweight. The two are linked by the overall drive for “cheap food”.

“Food is not a commodity like others,” Bill Clinton said on World Food Day. “We should go back to a policy of maximum food self-sufficiency. It is crazy for us to think we can develop countries around the world without increasing their ability to feed themselves.”

While he was probably referring to developing nations, he may be interested to know that the UK also needs to “feed themselves”. We used to talk of “food security” – having enough food to look after ourselves, as an African problem. Now it applies also to the UK.

We have about 3 days supply of food in the country at any one time. If the lines of logistics fail for any reason, we are about “9 meals from anarchy”. The recent Cabinet Office Report “Food Matters” is a first attempt to address this issue.

While the definition of “sustainable development is about balancing “environmental, social and economic concerns”, for “sustainable food” (that which is healthier for people & the planet”), I prefer to talk of the battle between land, labour and capital.

We need a new mix of land, labour and capital, where we make better use of our land, where we pay people decent rates for working it, and where the capital builds up on the land – rather than in the finance sectors of the City of London. This means more investment throughout the food chain.

At present, the driving force is increased “productivity” to produce cheap food for a market of only those who can afford to buy. We need a richer, more complex, mix of production to provide for a wider diversity of interests, but primarily for more local fruit and vegetable and grain production.

The inevitability of (trans)gene flow – environment and health risks
Prof. Jack A. Heinemann, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand


Failure to contain transgenes can have human health, environmental and legal implications. Gene flow is the key environmental concern for sustainable coexistence of GM and non-GM crops.

The flow of transgenes to wild relatives or into new environments may cause harm to humans or other species. These harms may be different from those created by the primary GMO in its intended use. The flow of transgenes also makes both GM and non-GM farmers increasingly vulnerable to liability lawsuits from either those who hold the intellectual property rights of the transgenes or farmers whose crops mix with those certified to be GM free.

Risk assessment frameworks in most jurisdictions are case by case. Gene flow undermines this case by case approach because the movement of transgenes to different genetic backgrounds and species in an uncontrolled manner will result in the creation of new GMOs that have not benefited from an assessment.

The development of GM pharma and industrial plants introduces new complexities because these plants are not always intended to be safe. The track record of containment from the last 12 years of commercial development provides little confidence that either the biotech or the agriculture industries can keep these plants on the farm or segregate them away from the human food supply.

I will introduce options for managing transgene flow. However, as also concluded by others, there appears to be no single method and perhaps no combination of methods that can reliably keep transgenes fully contained.

Systemic risk in food & farming: can it be avoided? The IAASTD assessment
Prof. Janice Jiggins, Wageningen University Research, The Netherlands


In the second half of the last century, there were dramatic increases in yields, based on improving productivity per ha; at the turn of the millennium, dietary energy supply was an average 2803 kcals per person per day, comfortably within the range of energy intake considered adequate for healthy living. Food prices had experienced a significant long term decline.

But business as usual is not an option:

  • Unbalanced dietary outcomes; approx. 1bn do not have enough to eat; an additional 1bn are unable to buy an adequate and healthy diet; an additional 1bn are obese. And over a third of the world’s people suffer moderate to severe health because of micronutrient deficiencies
  • Little of the profits from food & farming find their way to small scale producers & labourers
  • Impacts on natural systems are unsustainable; trends are getting worse
  • Commercial food & farming systems are fossil fuel dependent
  • The playing field for trade is not level
  • Legislation for soils and water often are not ecologically literate
  • Climate change heightens uncertainties, increases risks of surprise

Institutional failures increase systemic risk:

  • Unbalanced markets in Agricultural Knowledge, Science & Technology  (AKST) do not produce optimal solutions
  • Risk estimation takes insufficient account of the context of use & combinatorial effects
  • Unbalanced economic institutions
  • Food security is highly coupled to financial market stability
  • Significant under-investment and lack of balance in public good AKST
  • Current IPR regimes drive innovation along the wrong path
  • The illusion of the ‘global anywhere’ allows consumers to distance themselves from the resource claims and impacts of production in far away places

Some powerful GM enthusiasts claim GM technologies can solve these complex problems.

There are no facts about the future. IAASTD findings are that on past evidence GM technologies so far have not served the inter-dependent goals of sustainability and development. The specific findings are detailed in the presentation. The IAASTD further finds that the systemic risks can be managed but require determined action, on a broad front. The options are further specified in the presentation.

Impacts of GM Crops on biodiversity – is this solely a GM issue?
Dr Brian Johnson, Devon, UK


This paper will explore the relationship between crops and biodiversity in farmed and natural landscapes, not only in the UK but in other parts of the world where arable farming is practised.

The development of GM crops has raised serious issues about how changes in cropping systems can impact on biodiversity, issues that were investigated by the UK farm scale evaluations of GM herbicide tolerant crops.  Other research has been conducted abroad on the biodiversity implications of GM insect resistant crops.  Some of this research has revealed large impacts on biodiversity of changes in cropping systems unrelated to their GM traits, emphasising the importance of prior assessment of changes in all novel cropping systems, whether GM or not.

This research has also shed light on the biodiversity impacts of the GM traits, and has raised questions about how conventionally-bred traits might interact with biodiversity by changing the way in which crops are grown.  Assessments of the biodiversity impacts of cropping systems before they are introduced are rarely done.  Ignorance of biodiversity impacts has led to the dramatic declines in farmland wildlife we have witnessed over the past 60 years, most of which have been caused by changes in cropping systems enabled by the development of novel crop varieties.  If GM crops are to become part of our arable enterprises, impacts of the crop management systems associated with them should be taken into account before they are introduced, not decades afterwards, when it may be too late to reverse any adverse impacts.

Cropping systems associated with some GM traits may also have positive impacts on biodiversity, particularly if their use leads to reductions or elimination of pesticides and other methods used to combat plant pests and diseases.  These traits should not be dismissed simply because they are GM – in many parts of the world they could make a real difference to the viability of farming, especially in impoverished areas with poor soils and little rainfall.  Even in developed areas, such crops may be better for biodiversity than conventional intensive farming, and some traits such as fungal resistance may allow quasi-organic systems to be used in areas where multiple applications of fungicides are currently used.

Gene flow from GM crops has been extensively estimated for nearly 20 years, yet we have little knowledge of the impacts of gene flow on the genetics and ecology of recipient plants.  The paper will emphasise the importance of research in this area, especially research that reveals impacts of gene flow on fitness.  There have been few studies of this kind, but those that have been done highlight the facts that assessing fitness is very difficult, and that many transgenes are unlikely to impact on fitness in natural ecosystems.

But there are some transgenes, and their conventionally bred equivalents, that could affect fitness of recipient plants, especially in saline and arid environments. Theoretically some gene complexes, especially if stacked, could have significant ecological effects, but until research has investigated these issues, any predictions about the impacts of the transfer of “second generation” genes such as salinity and drought tolerance are speculative and should be treated with scepticism.

Profit for few, or food for all in Africa? GM Crops

Eric Kisiangani, Practical Action, Nairobi, Kenya. (Paper delivered by Katherine Pasteur, Practical Action, Rugby, UK)


This paper argues that GM crop technology is not a solution to a hungry Kenya and Africa in general. Building on Practical Action’s work experiences with small-scale farmers in Kenya and Zimbabwe and drawing lessons from the failed “green revolution” in Africa the authors call into question the overall value of GM crops to Africa’s food security situation and to local farmers in particular.

With reference to cases of GM sweet potato and Bt maize in Kenya, the authors cite more effective crop protection alternatives that ought to be supported and promoted by anybody including those in the corporate sector who care about food security situation in Africa. But because there is no money to be made from such alternative solutions by corporations they are not often promoted by the corporate sector.

More space for critical reflection should be created to take into account the complexity of the African farming environment instead of advancing quick technology-fixes – the GM crops. What will the GM crops mean to farmer-based innovations under climate change? Small-scale agriculture is by its very nature a form of adaptation to climate change, which has been demonstrated over millennia by farmers saving and exchanging seed and growing a wide diversity of crops to manage risks.

The authors submit that enduring agricultural approaches in Africa are those that require a much more complex approach, as farmers across Africa know only too well. As the Rockefeller Foundation has slowly come to understand: “The complexity of small-scale farmers’ decision-making can be startling.”  Efforts to promote GM crop technology are taking attention away from the more fundamental problems affecting African small-scale farmers.

Agro- Ecological approaches and the case of drought resistance
Dr Julia Wright, Garden Organic, Coventry, UK


An industrial approach to agriculture seeks to maximise production through the simplification of farm components, the suppression of natural processes and the use of external technologies. An ecological approach, on the other hand, seeks to optimise production through the enhancement of farm components and ecological processes toward an integrated, eco-systemic whole. Underlying these divergent approaches are particular sets of attitudes and beliefs surrounding agriculture, and the development of GM technology stems from the belief that mankind can break free from and take control over the natural environment and that this is a positive step.

Whereas GM technology attempts to manipulate nature at the level of the gene, agro-ecological approaches manipulate at the level of the ecosystem. The impacts of the former are not immediately invisible, whereas the impacts of the latter are largely visible and have been tested and improved over millennia.  There is no GM techno-fix for which there are not already an agro-ecological solutions, including for weed suppression, resistance to pest and disease, improving nutrition, soil bioremediation, and drought and salt tolerance.

The majority of arguments against the use of GM technology are based on concerns over their negative impacts from environmental and socio-economic perspectives.  However what if, and a big WHAT IF, a GM crop was developed that averted these concerns? In terms of ‘feeding the world’, drought in particular is frequently cited as a problem case in point. What if a GM drought-resistant crop was developed by farmers and held in the public domain, was freely available and open pollinated, was tested over sufficient human lifetimes to ensure that it had no negative impacts (measurable and immeasurable). Would it then be fit for purpose? Results from a project in Cuba on agro-ecological approaches for drought mitigation demonstrated that these approaches provided multiple benefits which would not be gained from the simple introduction of a simple GM drought-tolerant crop. The most significant benefit was the transformation of an arid micro-environment into a water-rich one that no longer suffered from drought. Ecological literacy was the key factor for success. As Mollison explains (1988)”Yield is not a fixed sum in any design system. It is the measure of the comprehension, understanding, and ability of the designers and managers of that design.”

Feeding the World Conference


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