10 December 2015
GM Crops: what are the risks?
Last month we took our successful TalkScience series on the road to Leeds Central Library. Here Ruth Amey (PhD student at the University of Leeds) shares some of the highlights of the event.
The GM crop era may seem like a golden age of technofixes, but in a recent ‘TalkScience’ discussion in Leeds the panel explored some of the less obvious risks associated with this technology. It is commonly stated that GM crops can ‘help feed the world’, but the speakers challenged this idea and considered issues of control, ecological harm and the unknown dangers from altering genetic code.
This is the first TalkScience event to be held outside of the British Library’s London’s site, organised by the West Yorkshire branch of the British Science Association in collaboration with the national British Science Association, British Library and Leeds Central Library.
What are GM Crops?
Genetically Modified (GM) crops are plants which are grown for food and have had their genetic code altered. This is often done to introduce a trait to a crop that does not occur naturally, by modifying DNA. For example, rice could be cultivated to produce vitamin A, or crops are altered to produce a small amount of toxin that is harmful to the insects that would eat them.
Can GM Crops really feed the population?
It is a phrase commonly heard that GM crops will ‘feed the world’, and yet Professor Jurgen Denecke from Leeds University pointed out that we already grow enough food to feed more than the population. The problem is not in the amount produced, Jurgen argued, but instead the issue is in limited energy for transportation and Liz O’Neill, director of GM Freeze, argued that starvation is a socioeconomic problem – ‘people starve because they are poor’. GM crops aren’t a quick-fix for world hunger. The problem is in politics and not production.
The issue of control
‘No-one should own genetic code’ posed Liz O’Neill. If a company can patent a crop, then they can charge royalties and control who can buy that crop. Andy Goldring, CEO of the Permaculture Association network, invited us to imagine a future in which a handful of companies control the world’s food supply, and require you to buy only their crops, and puts people in jail for using traditional crops. ‘This is almost like a James Bond film!’ jested Andy – but with GM Crops could this be the future? GM crops gives the potential for companies to have complete control of a seed, and consequently complete control of our food. Martin Coates, Managing Director of Agrantec, explained how complex the food chain is and without transparency GM crops are potentially an opportunity for companies to exploit this complexity - ‘Anyone working with genetic modification needs to recognise that GM Crops are not just about science, but also about political and corporate power’.
Andy Goldring particularly highlighted the ecological problems. Certain GM Crops can produce toxins harmful to non-target insects, such as butterflies. Planting different crops also affects crop rotations and affects biodiversity, which are particular issues to Permaculture’s aim to create a sustainable society from ‘permanent agriculture’.
Fear of the unknown
We can’t predict the long-term effects of GM crops. Ecosystems are complicated, crops are hard to contain and cross-contamination can occur. ‘DNA is not lego!’ proclaimed Liz O’Neill – altering genetic code is complicated, there’s a lot that can go wrong.
The closing remarks all followed a broadly similar theme. Jurgen Denecke maintained that every method that increases knowledge is a good thing and Martin Coates suggested we should be supportive of research that makes us understand GM crops better. Andy Goldring too urged us to keep an open mind about science, all of which answered a question from the floor about our society’s responsibility to pursue the potential of GM Crops. But ultimately the panel agreed with Liz O’Neill’s caution to separate the scientific potential of GM crops to how GM crops are being produced now. Andy Goldring stressed that we should follow the money and make sure crops aren’t about making shareholders wealthier. Ultimately, it seems there is a political issue behind GM crops that perhaps, currently, is bigger than the science.
We invited the audience to share with us their views on GM Crops before and after the debate; the audience overwhelmingly voted with a positive opinion of GM Crops.
The panel included:
- Liz O'Neill from GM Freeze, the UK umbrella campaign for a moratorium on GM in food and farming.
- Professor Jurgen Denecke from Leeds University - Professor for Plant Cell Biology and Biotechnology, Faculty of Biological Sciences
- Andy Goldring from Permaculture, the national charity that supports people to learn about and use permaculture – ‘Permanent Agriculture’
- Martin Coates from Agrantec - an all-in-one cloud based data management system to meet the needs of the food industry.
- Alice Owen from Leeds University – Lecturer in Business Sustainability & Stakeholder Engagement in Sustainability Research Institute, School of Earth and Environment