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GM crops help fight hunger

In the light of new European legislation, Sterling Crew, Head of Technical at Kolak Snack Foods, reviews the essential role of GM crops in safeguarding the security of our food supply, protecting the environment and improving our quality of life.

Food security
Among the greatest challenges facing mankind is the provision of sufficient healthy and nutritious food for an ever growing population. It is a stain on humanity that one out of every nine people on our planet go to sleep hungry. According to the latest Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) figures, about 805 million people are suffering from serious food shortages and about two billion people do not consume enough vitamins and minerals. There is a desperate need to eradicate extreme hunger and poverty and improve the security of our food supply. The Committee on World Food Security defines food security as ‘when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food, that meets their dietary needs and food preferences to maintain an active and healthy lifestyle’. The four pillars of food security are availability, access, utilisation and stability. The nutritional dimension is key and integral to the concept. Food security is a complex sustainable development challenge, linked to health through malnutrition, but also to sustainable economic development, environment, trade and political stability. There is no single silver bullet solution for securing sufficient and affordable food. Food scientists have a very significant role to play in shaping the food environment of the future, increasing crop yield, developing more sustainable ways of eating and cutting food waste. Technical innovation presents a real opportunity to both improve productivity and protect the environment.

Genetic transfer
One of the key functions in the hunger equation is the application of food biotechnology and gene transfer. Gene transfer occurs naturally in the wild and is the basis of evolution of new species through natural selection. Mankind took advantage of natural variation by selectively breeding wild plants and animals to produce domesticated variants better suited to our needs. We have harvested technology to feed ourselves ever since we moved from our hunter gatherer past to a more settled future through organised agriculture. Gene transfer by human intervention has a long history in conventional agriculture through deliberate trait selection. It has had remarkable success. In the 1960’s Norman Borlaug used genetic selective backcrossing to create dwarf wheat which grew faster and was more resilient. Borlaug’s invention was credited with saving many millions of lives.The introduction of foreign germplasm into crops has been achieved by traditional crop breeders by overcoming species barriers: as early as 1875 a hybrid cereal grain was created by crossing wheat and rye.

Genetically Modified (GM) crops, first developed in 1982, have genes added or removed using genetic engineering techniques to modify their DNA. The general aim is to introduce a new trait to the crop which does not occur naturally in the species. GM methods have the ability to significantly increase yields and nutritional values with the added environmental benefit of reducing fertiliser and pesticide use and economic cost. They can also be used in the production of biofuels and drugs.

Genetic modification of crops can be achieved transgenetically or cisgenetically. Transgenic plants have genes inserted into them that are derived from another species. In many cases the inserted DNA has to be modified to effectively express the trait in the host organism. Cisgenic plants are created using genes found within the same species or a closely related one, where conventional plant breeding can occur. Because of this it has been argued that cisgenic genetic modification should not require the same regulatory scrutiny and rigour as transgenics. GM crops not only offer a real opportunity to improve food security but they cut the need for years of conventional cross breeding. Even then it can take 15 years to move a genetic trait from the laboratory into the field. GM technology is not inherently dangerous; essentially it is no different to the selective breeding that we have been engaged in for thousands of years.

GM production of top six countriesThe widespread growth of GM crops could be as transformative as the original agricultural revolution, especially in developing countries where recent research and development has targeted enhancement of locally grown crops. Such developments include insect resistant cowpea for Africa, insect resistant aubergine for India and drought resistant maize and rice that use nutrient resources more efficiently. The planting of GM crops has expanded rapidly in developing countries, where in 2013 approximately 18 million farmers grew 54% of the world’s GM crop. There is robust evidence of GM crop benefits for farmers in developed and developing countries. Recent research has shown that on average GM technology has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%. By contrast in the last decade average non GM crop yields in Europe have plateaued.

Consumer perception and protection
It is often argued that the debate about GM crops in Europe is basedon science, when in reality the science is very clear. The general scientific consensus and weight of opinion suggests that that there is little evidence that GM crops present a danger to humans or the environment. GM crops are as safe as their ‘natural’ counterparts. However, the advancing science is not carrying public opinion with it and the technology does not enjoy widespread political support. The memory of ‘Frankenstein foods’ sticks in the consumer and political consciousness. There is still no real demand for GM foods from the major UK retailers as they recall the late 1990s when there was a consumer backlash which lead to British supermarkets clearing their shelves of GM foods.

An aversion amongst the public towards GM innovation is hindering its adoption. Further work is required to promote its safe use and more importantly the dramatic benefits it can bring. Some very effective Non- Government Organisations (NGOs) are making an anti GM case, that often wrongly pitches progress against nature. However defining the GM crop debate as a contest between objective science and irrational, sceptical belief is not helpful in public engagement. The discussion is affected by strongly held personal opinions that there is something inherently wrong with scientists ‘interfering’ with nature.

Despite the rapid adoption of GM crops by farmers in many countries, controversies over GM biotechnology continue. Uncertainty about the impacts of GM crops is one reason for widespread public suspicion. It is important to communicate to the public the rewards that GM crops can bring as well as the risks of banning them. Attitudes to biotechnological innovation are putting our long term food security in danger. A key part of our role as scientists is to communicate risk, to separate pseudoscience from sound science and to dispel unnecessary fears.

European Union legislation
The science of genetic crop engineering has outstripped the current European Union (EU) regulatory framework. A fundamental revision of GM legislation is needed that strictly follows principles of science based evaluations, with approvals grounded in trait assessment and farming practices rather than the method by which they are achieved. It is reasonable to assume that cisgenic GM plants present less of a risk than transgenic ones, but currently they are treated equally in legislation. The approach should be risk appropriate with safety remaining paramount. Legislation must ensure that planting GM crops and selling GM foods will not cause harm to people or the environment.

The risk assessment for GM crops is a scientific process following the precautionary principle but the management and final decision making is a political construct and the two do not always marry up. Even though GM crops are used widely in the America’s, Africa and Asia, many EU Member States are wary of their impact on health, biodiversity and the environment. Europe is split between pro and anti GM countries and because each crop approval requires a collective unanimous vote by Member States, this has effectively blocked the introduction of GM crops in the EU with a consequence that much of the technology and expertise has moved elsewhere. The insect resistant maize MON 810 is the only GM crop currently grown commercially in the EU. This situation has hampered the general global development of GM crops.

However in January 2015 there was a seismic change in the European Parliament when the Council approved new rules on GM crops designed to break the stalemate between the pro and anti GM states. The new legislation comes into force this spring and will allow individual states to cultivate GM crops that have already been approved by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). This may create a unique challenge in the UK where the current political position in Scotland and Wales is GM sceptic contrasting with England which is GM optimistic. Undoubtedly GM will become a hot topic again. The new law only applies to crops and does not cover GM used in animal feed.

The current procedures for evaluation and authorisation of GM foods are laid down in Regulation (EC) 1829/2003 on GM food and feed, which came into force in April 2004. The safety assessments are carried out by EFSA, according to its published guidelines for the assessment of GM plants. It is interesting that so far EFSA has not identified any GM crops that pose a serious risk to human or animal health. The IFST position is that it ‘welcomes the European Council’s decision to give Member States more flexibility to deal with GMOs on their own territory. We hope that this change in legislation will lead to the controlled cultivation of GM crops in the UK ‘.

Policies for innovation
Sustained political commitment at the highest level is an imperative for hunger eradication. It is important that global policy makers understand the complex and interrelated nature of biotechnological policy and food security in its widest sense. The current approach to GM management relies on risk avoidance rather than risk management with too much emphasis on the hazard, rather than the way it is applied in practice. A more appropriate, proportional approach to risk is needed which takes into account the benefits of GM, including stimulating innovation and economic growth as well as providing solutions to the challenge of world hunger.

Innovation requires an enabling environment where the risks and benefits of GM biotechnological science and ethical considerations use rational decision making. Policies need to be founded on solid evidence-based science and not driven by populist campaigning and media scare stories.

Feeding the future
The good news is that FAO estimates indicate that global hunger is down by more than 100 million people over the last decade. Despite overall progress, marked differences occur across regions with modest progress in sub-Saharan Africa and Western Asia. By 2050 there will be an extra two billion mouths to feed. In addition emerging economies, such as China and India, are creating wealthier people who naturally expect richer diets. This is a problem because meat and dairy use up significantly more resources than nutrition provided by crops grown for human consumption. It is estimated that the world will need to produce an additional 60% more food to meet this growing demand. If we are to avoid the Malthusian concept, business as usual is clearly not an option. The security of food supply is in danger unless negative attitudes to GM crops shift.

There are considerations on ethics, environmental impact and consumer choice along with economic concerns about who ultimately profits, the so called ‘lining of corporate pockets’. However, scaremongering over GM crops hampers the fight against poverty and is having a dramatic impact on the world’s poorest people. It is time to warn policy makers that global food security needs this new technology and that ignoring it would make future solutions more difficult to achieve. We would be acting immorally if we did not make the benefits of GM crop biotechnology available to poor countries. It is time to put a fresh perspective on the essential role of GM crops in safeguarding the security of our global food supply, protecting the environment and improving our quality of life.

Sterling Crew FIFST, FCIEH, FRSPH, is Head of Technical at Kolak Snack Foods Ltd, Vice President of the Institute of Food Science and Technology and Chair of the IFST Food Safety Group.

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