With climate change distrupting agriciltural activities around the world, and as 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.
Interestingly, agrochemical companies have long developed seeds designed to thrive in particular local conditions.
Be that as it may, skeptics of engineered foods, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs), still aren’t buying it.
Bill Freese, science director at the non-profit Center for Food Safety, opined that, “I don’t see why we should evolve our views when they’re still doing the same things,” criticizing the “dramatically increased toxic herbicide use” following the proliferation of GMOs.
He stressed that, 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.
Explaining the intricacies, he said, 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.
Accordingly, 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.
READ MORE: Can Africa Power its Growth with Renewables?
The spokesperson for Bayer said, “Drought tolerance is a complex trait involving many genes.”
“Therefore, the ability to develop drought-tolerant traits through classic breeding methods such as crossbreeding is limited.”
It was pointed out further that, longtime GMO critics have 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.
Explaining the trend, Freese said “How many times have we read that we won’t be able to feed the world by 2050 unless we have GMOs?”
He was, basically, referring to the argument of GMO proponents that genetically modified crops will be necessary to produce enough food for a growing population on a warming planet.
Yet 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.”
In this regard, US company Corteva said it, too, is focused 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.
Therefore, such GMO products can only help normalize a crop’s performance, even if extreme moisture from rain or flooding promotes the spread of fungus or pests, related companies say.
Incidentally, 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.
Prospectively, many American growers favor GMO options because, while more costly, they require less human labor, Freese said.
He explsined that, more than 90 percent of the corn, cotton and soybeans grown in the United States are currently genetically modified to withstand herbicides and/or insects, according to US government figures.
Thus, 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.
Michael Hansen, a senior scientist at Consumer Reports said, “They told us in the ’70s and ’80s that GMOs were going to be more nutritious, fix the nitrogen level, withstand everything,”
But, “what did we see? Mainly herbicide-tolerant crops.”
Dana Perls, senior food and agricultural programme manager at environmental network Friends of the Earth, said GMOs “go hand in hand with harsh chemicals that perpetuate pesticide pollution,” harming insect populations, soil health and water quality.
Effectively speaking, Perls acknowledged “incredible advances” in mapping and manipulating genetic material, 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.”
She thus advocates for regulatory oversight of new GMO technology “rooted in a precautionary approach.”
Furthermore, 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.
Hence, Smith favors agricultural practices such as crops rotation, limiting chemical inputs and reducing soil tillage. Such techniques, known as regenerative agriculture, he said, lead to healthier soil able to retain more water.
Smith, therefore, stressed that, “It’s just a strategy to mitigate climate change.”