As a changing climate exacerbates extreme weather, agricultural multinationals are touting the ability of genetically modified crops to increase yields when faced with drought, heat or even heavy rain.
But skeptics of engineered foods or genetically modified organisms (GMOs) still don’t buy it.
Bill Freese, scientific director of the nonprofit Center for Food Safety, criticized the “dramatically increased use of toxic herbicides,” saying, “I don’t see how we should improve our thinking when they’re still doing the same thing.” Spread of GMOs.
Seeds designed to thrive in specific local conditions have been developed through centuries of traditional breeding, crossing plants with appropriate traits and selecting the desired offspring.
But since harsher weather creates hostile growing conditions for conventional seeds, companies like Bayer/Monsanto, Corteva, and Syngenta are promoting GMOs more efficiently.
According to a spokesman for Germany’s Bayer, the newer technologies could reduce the development time of these heartier varieties by “years” compared to traditional crop modification methods.
“Drought tolerance is a complex trait involving many genes,” the spokesperson said. “Therefore, the possibilities of developing drought-tolerant traits through classical breeding methods such as hybridization are limited.”
Longtime GMO critics say they are open to new approaches, but not sold on the latest industry pitch, which they consider conventional seed crops to be safer and less ecologically flawed.
“How many times have we read that if we don’t have GMOs, we won’t be able to feed the world by 2050?” Freese said, referring to GMO proponents’ argument that genetically modified crops will be necessary to produce enough food for a growing population on a warming planet.
But to Freese, the claim is “a really effective smoke screen put up by the pesticide and seed conglomerates to put a good face on this new technology.”
US company Corteva also said it is focusing on “new breeding technologies such as gene editing” to “take advantage of the genetic diversity already present in the plant’s DNA” when it comes to creating new seed varieties.
Such GMO crops can help normalize crop yields, even if excess moisture from rain or flooding promotes the spread of fungi or pests, the companies say.
In July, the World Economic Forum highlighted the potential of GMOs to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by creating breeds that emit more carbon dioxide than conventionally grown crops.
Safety, environmental concerns
Freese said many American growers prefer GMO options because, while more expensive, they require less human labor.
According to US government figures, more than 90 percent of the corn, cotton, and soybeans currently grown in the United States have been genetically modified to withstand herbicides and/or insects.
Farmers have been growing corn since 2011 to withstand the drought. Whether this trait is achieved through conventional breeding or GMO seeds, the resulting plants are usually combined with GMOs that can withstand herbicides.
“In the ’70s and ’80s, we were told that GMOs would be more nutritious, fix nitrogen levels, withstand everything,” said Michael Hansen, chief scientist at Consumer Reports. “What did we see? Mostly herbicide-resistant plants”.
Dana Perls, senior food and agriculture program manager for the environmental network Friends of the Earth, said GMOs harm insect populations, soil health and water quality “by going hand-in-hand with harsh chemicals that perpetuate pesticide pollution.”
Perls acknowledged “incredible advances” in mapping and manipulating genetic material, but said scientists are “still quite limited in our understanding of the workings of the incredible complexity of life, both within a single organism and within ecosystems.”
For now, he maintains that regulatory oversight of new GMO technology is “based on a cautious approach.”
Andrew Smith of the Rodale Institute said using GMOs to help plants withstand droughts and other extreme conditions is “short-sighted” unless soil health is ensured.
Smith favors agricultural practices such as crop rotation, limiting chemical inputs and reducing tillage. Such techniques, known as regenerative agriculture, lead to healthier soil that can hold more water.
“It’s a strategy to mitigate climate change,” Smith said.
© 2022 AFP
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