Non-GM breakthroughs keep coming thick and fast for problems that GM proponents claim require GM, but GM solutions, if any, are years away
From GM Watch: www.gmwatch.org
Does the mention of allergen-free peanut, salt-resistant wheat, beta-carotene rich sweet potato, and virus-resistant cassava make you think of GM? If so, you’ve missed the great unpublished story of 2007 – all the non-GM answers to precisely the problems (drought-resistance, salt-resistance, biofortification, etc.) that proponents claim only GM can solve.
While GM ‘miracle’ stories win vast amounts of column inches in the popular media, the non-GM stories are seldom reported. Without the GM lobby’s exaggerated crisis narratives and silver bullet solutions, it seems there is no story. The biotech industry and its PR people, of course, are keen to keep it that way; particularly as the non-GM solutions are often way ahead of the work on GM. They also bring with them none of the uncertainties over environmental and health hazards that surround GM.
Thanks to the lack of success of GM ‘solutions’, non-GM success stories can end up being claimed as GM breakthroughs. This happened most recently when the UK government’s retiring chief scientist, David King, claimed an important non-GM breakthrough in Africa as evidence of why we need to embrace GM . This tells us why we need to stop being distracted by GM and support the non-GM solutions to crop production problems.
Many organic successes have been covered in detail in this and previous issues of SiS (see for example, Message from Andra Predesh:Return to organic cotton & avoid the Bt cotton trap, SiS 29; Scientists Find Organic Agriculture Can Feed the World and More, and FAO Promotes Organic Agriculture, SiS 36; Organic & Sustainable series, SiS 37) [2-5]. Here are other examples over the past year.
Although drought-prone Zambia is still facing problems, huge improvements have been reported in its maize harvests – its main staple crop. Production is reported to have changed dramatically after President Levy Mwanawasa took over from Frederick Chiluba in 2001. He promoted innovations such as mixed farming and conservation farming. Mwanawasa rejected GM maize and encouraged the growing of non-GM maize, resulting in bumper harvests for the past three years .
Ironically, when the Zambian government rejected GM maize in 2002  (Africa Unites Against GM to Opt for Self-sufficiency, SiS 16), there were calls from the US Ambassador to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization for its leaders to be tried “for the highest crimes against humanity in the highest courts of the world” .
UK crop scientists have been awarded a £13.3m boost in funding to carry out research aimed at delivering benefits for farmers and consumers. Researchers say they will not be producing GM crops. Prof. David Pink at University of Warwick, Coventry, whose team has been awarded £500 000 to identify genes in broccoli that will extend its shelf life and maintain its nutritional value longer, said , “We are not going down that [GM] route because GM is not acceptable at the moment, and not acceptable to our plant breeding partner].”
In March 2007, the South African authorities gave Monsanto permission to conduct GM drought-tolerant maize field trials in South Africa. The African Centre for Biosafety released a report on the issue, pointing out that drought tolerance GM maize is at least 8-10 years away from commercial release, and points out that traditional breeding, marker assisted selection, and building up organic content of the soil are proven and immediately available methods of dealing with drought . Nevertheless GM drought-tolerant crops are being used as PR tools by biotech lobbyists to promote acceptance of GM crops, to expand existing markets and develop new markets.
Philippine scientist Dr Antonio Mercado at the University of Philippines Los Banos has developed a new non-GM maize variety that was able to survive a drought for 29 days .
Navdanaya, a New Delhi-based NGO headed by Vandana Shiva, together with farmers from nine Indian states, has developed a register of over 2 000 indigenous rice varieties. They say GM rice strains are not only costly to cultivate but also perform poorly compared to native strains in fighting pests, diseases and environmental fluctuations. Several indigenous rice strains adopted by the Indian farmers can withstand extremes of climatic conditions, survive submergence for a fortnight and even withstand salinity with great success .
The larger grain borer is taking a beating from CIMMYT (International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre) breeders in Kenya, as a new non-GM African maize withstands the onslaught of one of the most damaging pests. CIMMYT researchers found resistance to the borer in the Centre’s germplasm bank, in maize seed originally from the Caribbean . The bank holds 25 000 native maize races.
A researcher at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University has developed a simple non-GM process to make allergen-free peanuts. An estimated one percent of children in the United States suffer from the allergy. The inventor, Dr Mohamed Ahmedna, is optimizing the process further to remove allergens from other foods .
While we do not have enough information on the process to judge any potential downsides, it is noteworthy that a seemingly straightforward solution has been found to a problem that GM proponents claim requires the use of GM.
Scientists at Australia’s Molecular Plant Breeding CRC are using marker assisted breeding to identify salt-tolerant wheat varieties which could allow farmers to crop agricultural land lost to salinity across Australia’s wheat belt. Some 67 percent of the dryland cropping area in Australia is affected by salinity, resulting in meagre yields .
Scientists based in Victoria, Australia, have developed a new species of drought tolerant canola that could make up to 1.5 million hectares of drought-prone farmland in Australia more productive and profitable. Traditional breeding and molecular marker assisted selection were used .
The breakthrough comes after pro-GM lobbyists persuaded the Australian states of Victoria and New South Wales to lift their moratorium on GM plantings, partly based on claims that GM would provide drought tolerant crops. However, Robert Horsch, Monsanto's vice president, has admitted that such crops are actually not so easy to develop, while Christopher Horner, another Monsanto spokesperson, has admitted such GM crops are years away from commercial production .
Biofortification alliance HarvestPlus has received a US$ 6 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to introduce a nutritionally improved orange sweet potato into the diets of the undernourished in East Africa. The orange sweet potato is rich in beta-carotene, an essential building block of vitamin A, which helps to prevent blindness .
According to a BBC report, only a “relatively small” amount of HarvestPlus’s work in biofortification involves GM. Harvest Plus’s Bonnie McClafferty said , “We’ve been able to experience great success in actually finding varieties to do conventional plant breeding with.” Harvest Plus has recently announced the discovery of a new non-GM method of improving the vitamin A precursor content of maize .
Article first published 27/02/08
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