Tractor spraying pesticides on field with sprayer

Agriculture is uniquely positioned in the environmental movement. Because everyone needs to eat, a sustainable food system is crucial for humanity’s well-being. However, agriculture is currently responsible for a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, and crops exposed to extreme weather events are vulnerable to the impacts of a changing climate.

Everybody wants a truly healthy food system — one that provides good food for all, and does so within the limits of the earth’s resources. 

The biotech industry would have us place all our eggs in their basket, promising silver-bullet solutions in genetic engineering. But these are expensive dalliances. They sound good on paper, magical even, but relying on biotech solutions to complex environmental problems is ultimately ineffective. Worse still, costly GMO development steals focus and funding from more promising initiatives, such as the adoption of agroecological farming practices.

With so many resources behind them, why do GMOs keep falling short? By examining the parts and ignoring the whole, the biotechnology industry bases its solutions on a reductive and distorted vision of the natural world.

Traditional GMOs and “Failure to Yield”

Some of the earliest GMOs were commodity crops engineered for herbicide tolerance or to produce their own insecticide. These traits, the thinking went, would reduce losses to weed competition or insect activity. With fewer losses, yields would ultimately improve. Despite the promises of agrichemical corporations, however, it hasn’t worked out that way.

Multiple assessments of crop performance show no evidence that GMOs increase yields. For example, the Union of Concerned Scientists released a report in 2009 examining 13 years of GMO corn and soy production in the U.S., and concluded that genetic engineering “has done little to increase overall crop yields.” Genetically modified “soybeans have not increased yields,” the report continues,”and corn has increased yield only marginally on a crop wide basis.” 

Moreover, the most prominent traits in early GMOs — herbicide-tolerance and the production of insecticide within the plant — have serious consequences. Herbicide-tolerance traits go hand in hand with the dramatic increases in pesticide use which in turn gave rise to “superweeds.” Pest-resistant GMOs, engineered to produce insecticide in every cell, have dramatically increased the target pest’s exposure to the toxin, resulting in “superbugs.” 

Gene editing and crop performance

New GMO techniques such as gene editing are advertised as precise tools for modification, genetic “scissors” that cut only where we tell them to. There are, however, serious doubts about the level of precision that gene editing offers. As we’ve discussed before, off-target effects and unintended outcomes occur regularly in gene-editing experiments. But perhaps a bigger problem for gene-editing advocates is in the basic functioning of genetics. 

Crop performance relies on a whole range of factors. The genetic makeup of the crop is one of those factors. Other factors include soil health, biodiversity within the soil biome and in the surrounding plants and animals, precipitation and storm activity, and the skills of the farmers tending the crops. Neglect in any one of these areas can impact performance, even in crops with the strongest genetic profile.

Gene editing works on a “one-gene-at-a-time” basis. DNA may be cut, silenced, or have new sequences inserted — hopefully at the desired location. A one-gene-at-a-time tool might seem precise, but it is only effective at addressing traits that are driven by one gene. There are many, many, many genes involved in complex traits such as high-yield, drought- or saline-tolerance or better nutrient uptake. 

Simple traits — traits that can be affected by a single gene — are limited.

The performance of crops or livestock, or how they react to environmental stressors such as heat or drought — these are highly complex traits. Complex traits are determined by many genes working together. Some traits, called “omnigenic” traits, need all the genes to participate, every single one. Jumping in with the biotech tool of choice to modify all of the genes in specific and controlled ways is simply not possible.

Here’s a visual tool to help explain the difference: Picture a DNA strand as a string of lights. Each light on the string is a gene. If we were to ask which genes are involved in higher  crop yields, all the lights would shine. If we were to ask which genes are involved in more biomass and better growth, all the lights would shine. Which genes might contribute to salt-tolerance — you get the picture. 

The complexity and interconnectedness of nature is present at a genetic level. With each step back from the microscope, those relationships continue, now between one species and another, now between all parts of the ecosystem. Nature is more than the sum of its parts. 

Holistic solutions are the best solutions

Over the past 30 years, there have been increases in crop performance made through traditional crossbreeding and other agroecological practices, from looking at the totality of the genome, and the entirety of the landscape it occupies. 

The idea that GMOs are the best way, or the only way, to feed the world is based on reductive science and an extractive mindset. The premise of this theory, how it casts food production and our relationship to our environment, is simply flawed. 

We don’t need GMOs to feed the world. We need to work with the land so that it can thrive — and we can thrive with it. 

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