Would I eat genetically-modified foods? Damn right I would! (Updated 2020-02-18)

MC900436915Eat genetically-modified foods? I’ve been eating them all my life and I haven’t noticed any negative effects yet.

There’s hardly a food plant that we grow today that hasn’t undergone some sort of genetic modification. Let’s take the potato as a good example. I can’t think of any modern potato variety that does not have one or more wild species in its pedigree somewhere. These have been used for their disease resistance, among other reasons, such as Solanum demissum from Mexico to control the late blight pathogen Phytophthora infestans (the culprit in the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s). That’s just one species – plenty more have also been crossed with modern potato varieties. There are also good examples from rice for submergence tolerance or salt tolerance using distantly-related wild species.

That’s genetic modification. Plain and simple. I guess most people don’t even realize. It’s what plant breeding is all about: taking different varieties or species (and their genes), crossing them (where possible) to make a hybrid, and selecting the best from the ‘DNA soup’. To increase the precision of conventional plant breeding, molecular markers are often now used to follow the transfer of useful characteristics or traits in conventional plant breeding populations.

GMO – genetically modified organism. An emotive term for some. For others, like me, genetic engineering is one of the tools in the arsenal for feeding a world population of 7+ billion – that’s growing rapidly – especially under a changing climate. Genetic engineering is even more precise than conventional plant breeding for moving genes (DNA) between species. However, there has been a lot of scare-mongering – and more – when it comes to GMOs. 

Now you might ask why I’ve focused on this topic all of a sudden. Well, on 8 August 2013, a field trial of Golden Rice (that contains beta carotene, a source of Vitamin A) in the south of Luzon, Philippines was vandalized by anti-GM activists (and maybe a few farmers), and destroyed.* This field trial was part of the important humanitarian research undertaken by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and its partners in the Philippines, the Department of Agriculture and PhilRice (the Philippines Rice Research Institute) to develop biofortified rice varieties that can deliver Vitamin A and other micronutrients sustainably without having resort to supplementation or commercial fortification, which are expensive and only effective as long as such initiatives are funded.

In the video below, IRRI Deputy Director General, Dr Bruce Tolentino explains what happened on 8 August and why Golden Rice is so important for people who suffer from Vitamin A deficiency.

While GM crops are widely grown in the USA and some other countries, there has been significant public resistance in Europe, and particularly in the UK. I can understand, however, why the general public in the UK was – and is – wary. In the 1980s there were a couple of important food scares: a major foot and mouth outbreak in farm livestock; and BSE or ‘mad cow disease’. Furthermore, one or two commercial companies were attempting to commercialize some GM crops – without taking the time to explain why, how, and what for. The public lost faith in the ‘trust us’ line put out by the government of the day.

Environmental groups conducted major campaigns against even the testing of genetically-modified crops, let alone their commercialization. Very soon the activists had seized the initiative; the label of ‘Frankenstein foods’ stuck. An opportunity was lost, since scientists didn’t adequately step up to the plate and explain, in language that the average man in the street could understand, what GM technology was all about, and its importance. In the early days of GM research there were some inherent risks (such as the use of antibiotic markers to identify plants carrying the gene of interest); and some issues such as the ‘escape’ of genes from GMOs into wild plant populations. GM techniques have moved on, new approaches for identification of transgenic plants developed. But field research – based on the soundest of scientific principles, methods and ethics, generating good empirical data – is still needed to answer many of the environmental questions.

The vandalized Golden Rice field trial in Bicol, southern Luzon, Philippines

I do question the motives of some activists. Are they really concerned about real or perceived negative health and environmental impacts of GMOs? Or is the real issue that GM technology (as they see it) is in the hands of big agrochemical companies like Monsanto, Du Pont, Syngenta and others – an anti-capitalist campaign. In many countries much of the GM research is actually carried out by universities and publicly-funded research organizations such as the John Innes Centre in the UK.

I’ve had my own run-ins with these activists. In the early 1990s, then IRRI Director General Klaus Lampe opened a dialogue with a number of groups in the Philippines. He invited many anti-GM activists to IRRI for a two-day dialogue. I remember ‘challenging’ one prominent activist and future presidential candidate Nicanor Perlas about his anti-biotechnology campaign. As we analysed his perspectives, it became clear that his major concern was ‘genetic engineering’ – not biotechnology as a whole. I suggested to him that we could agree to disagree about genetic engineering (I appreciated there were risks, but as a scientist I wanted to study and evaluate those risks), but we should and could agree about the value of many of other biotechnology tools such as tissue culture, somaclones, or embryo rescue, among others. He concurred. Yet a few days after the meeting, he published a two page diatribe against ‘biotechnology’ (not just genetic engineering) in one of the Manila broadsheets. I find such actions (and positions) disingenuous, and typical of the lack of understanding that many of these people really have about GM. Just listen to the points of view presented by the activists in this Penn and Teller video (Eat This! Season 1. Episode 11. April 4, 2003). I already posted this before in my story about the late Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug – but it’s worth repeating here. Just be careful – there is some strong language.

Here are a couple of classic quotes from Borlaug from that video:
Producing food for 6.2 billion people, adding a population of 80 million more a year, is not simple. We better develop an ever improved science and technology, including the new biotechnology, to produce the food that’s needed for the world today. And in response to the fraction of the world population that could be fed if current farmland was converted to organic-only crops: We are 6.6 billion people now. We can only feed 4 billion. I don’t see 2 billion volunteers to disappear.

Nevertheless, it is good to see the condemnation by the scientific community and media worldwide of the destruction of the Golden Rice field trial two weeks ago. In particular, it’s gratifying to hear that Mark Lynas, a well-respected British writer, journalist and environmental activist has turned his back on the anti-GMO lobby. He recently traveled to the Philippines to find out more for himself about Golden Rice research and the damage to the field trial.

Here are some of the media reports from around the world: in the New York Times; Slate; the Philippine Star; AGProfessional; Science 2.0; the BBC; and change.org. Even Fox News got in on the act in its characteristic over-the-top way! Here is an interesting piece about GM in general, published a couple of days ago in Forbes.

* Read this report by Mark Lynas after his visit to the Philippines recently.

Golden Rice has now been approved in the Philippines. Read this news story from the IRRI website, dated 18 December 2019:

After rigorous biosafety assessment, Golden Rice “has been found to be as safe as conventional rice” by the Philippine Department of Agriculture-Bureau of Plant Industry. The biosafety permit, addressed to the Department of Agriculture – Philippine Rice Research Institute (DA-PhilRice) and International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), details the approval of GR2E Golden Rice for direct use as food and feed, or for processing (FFP).

PhilRice Executive Director Dr. John de Leon welcomed the positive regulatory decision. “With this FFP approval, we bring forward a very accessible solution to our country’s problem on Vitamin A deficiency that’s affecting many of our pre-school children and pregnant women.”

Despite the success of public health interventions like oral supplementation, complementary feeding, and nutrition education, Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) among children aged 6 months to 5 years increased from 15.2 percent in 2008 to 20.4 percent in 2013 in the Philippines. The beta-carotene content of Golden Rice aims to provide 30 to 50 percent of the estimated average requirement (EAR) of vitamin A for pregnant women and young children.

“IRRI is pleased to partner with PhilRice to develop this nutrition-sensitive agricultural solution to address hidden hunger. This is the core of IRRI’s purpose: to tailor global solutions to local needs,” notes IRRI Director General Matthew Morrell. “The Philippines has long recognized the potential to harness biotechnology to help address food and nutrition security, environmental safety, as well as improve the livelihoods of farmers.”

The FFP approval is the latest regulatory milestone in the journey to develop and deploy Golden Rice in the Philippines. With this approval, DA-PhilRice and IRRI will now proceed with sensory evaluations and finally answer the question that many Filipinos have been asking: What does Golden Rice taste like?

To complete the Philippine biosafety regulatory process, Golden Rice will require approval for commercial propagation before it can be made available to the public. This follows from the field trials harvested in Muñoz, Nueva Ecija and San Mateo, Isabela in September and October 2019.

The Philippines now joins a select group of countries that have affirmed the safety of Golden Rice. In 2018, Food Standards Australia New Zealand, Health Canada, and the United States Food and Drug Administration published positive food safety assessments for Golden Rice. A biosafety application was lodged in November 2017 and is currently undergoing review by the Biosafety Core Committee in Bangladesh.


About the Healthier Rice Program
Together with its national partners, the Healthier Rice Program at IRRI is working to improve the nutritional status in countries across Asia and Africa, where rice is widely grown and eaten. Delivering essential micronutrients through staple foods like rice offers a sustainable and complementary approach to public health interventions for micronutrient deficiency, which affects 2 billion people worldwide. In addition to Golden Rice, research is being conducted on high iron and zinc rice (HIZR) to help address iron-deficiency anemia and stunting.


Plant Genetic Resources and Climate Change – publication by the end of the year*

A perspective from 25 years ago
In April 1989, Brian Ford-Lloyd, Martin Parry and I organized a workshop on plant genetic resources and climate change at the University of Birmingham. A year later, Climatic Change and Plant Genetic Resources was published (by Belhaven Press), with eleven chapters summarizing perspectives on climatic change and how it might affect plant populations, and its expected impact on agriculture around the world.

We asked whether genetic resources could cope with climate change, and would plant breeders be able to access and utilize genetic resources as building blocks of new and better-adapted crops? We listed ten consensus conclusions from the workshop:

  1. The importance of developing collection, conservation and utilization strategies for genetic resources in the light of climatic uncertainty should be recognised.
  2. There should be marked improvement in the accuracy of climate change predictions.
  3. There must be concern about sea level rises and their impact on coastal ecosystems and agriculture.
  4. Ecosystems should be preserved thereby allowing plant species – especially crop species and their wild relatives – the flexibility to respond to climate change.
  5. Research should be prioritized on tropical dry areas as these might be expected to be more severely affected by climate change.
  6. There should be a continuing need to characterize and evaluate germplasm that will provide adaptation to changed climates.
  7. There should be an increase in screening germplasm for drought, raised temperatures, and salinity.
  8. Research on the physiology underlying C3 and C4 photosynthesis should merit further investigation with the aim of increasing the adaptation of C3 crops.
  9. Better simulation models should drive a better understanding of plant responses to climate change.
  10. Plant breeders should become more aware of the environmental impacts of climate change, so that breeding programs could be modified to accommodate these predicted changes.

Climate change perspectives today
There is much less scepticism today about greenhouse gas-induced climate change and what its consequences might be, even though the full impacts of climate change cannot yet be predicted with certainty. On the other hand, the nature of weather variability – particularly in the northern hemisphere in recent years – has left some again questioning whether our climate really is warming. But the evidence is there for all to see, even as the sceptics refuse to accept the empirical data of increases in atmospheric CO2, for example, or the unprecedented summer melting of sea ice in the Arctic and the retreat of glaciers in the Alps.

Over the past decade the world has experienced a number of severe climate events – wake-up calls to what might be the normal pattern in the future under a changed climate – such as extreme drought in one region, or unprecedented flooding in another. Even the ‘normal’ weather patterns of Western Europe appear to have become disrupted in recent years leading to increased stresses on agriculture.

Some of the same questions we asked in 1989 are still relevant. However, there are some very important differences today from the situation then. Our understanding of what is happening to the climate has been refined significantly over the past two decades, as the efforts of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have brought climate scientists worldwide together to provide better predictions of how climate will change. Furthermore, governments are now taking the threat of climate change seriously, and international agreements like the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework on Climate Change, which came into force in 2005 and, even with their limitations, have provided the basis for society and governments to take action to mitigate the effects of climate change.

A new book from CABI
It is in this context, therefore, that our new book Plant Genetic Resources and Climate Change was commissioned to bring together, in a single volume, some of the latest perspectives about how genetic resources can contribute to achieving food security under the challenge of a changing climate. We also wanted to highlight some key issues for plant genetic resources management, to demonstrate how perspectives have changed over two decades, and discuss some of the actual responses and developments.

Food security and genetic resources
So what has happened during the past two decades or so? In 1990, world population was under 6 billion, but today there are more than 1 billion additional mouths to feed. The World Food Program estimates that there are 870 million people in the world who do not get enough food to lead a normal and active life. Food insecurity remains a major concern. In an opening chapter, Robert Zeigler (IRRI) provides an overview on food security today, how problems of food production will be exacerbated by climate change, and how – in the case of one crop, rice – access to and use of genetic resources have already begun to address many of the challenges that climate change will bring.

Expanding on the plant genetic resources theme, Brian Ford-Lloyd (University of Birmingham) and his co-authors provide (in Chapter 2) a broad overview of important issues concerning their conservation and use, including conservation approaches, strategies, and responses that become more relevant under the threat of climate change.

Climate projections
In three chapters, Richard Betts (UK Met Office) and Ed Hawkins (University of Reading), Martin Parry (Imperial College – London), and Pam Berry (Oxford University) and her co-authors describe scenarios for future projected climates (Chapter 3), the effects of climate change on food production and the risk of hunger (Chapter 4), and regional impacts of climate change on agriculture (Chapter 5), respectively. Over the past two decades, development of the global circulation models now permits climate change prediction with greater certainty. And combining these with physiological modelling and geographical information systems (GIS) we now have a better opportunity to assess what the impacts of climate change might be on agriculture, and where.

Sharing genetic resources
In the 1990s, we became more aware of the importance of biodiversity in general, and several international legal instruments such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture were agreed among nations to govern access to and use of genetic resources for the benefit of society. A detailed discussion of these developments is provided by Gerald Moore (formerly FAO) and Geoffrey Hawtin (formerly IPGRI) in Chapter 6.

Crop wild relatives, in situ and on-farm conservation
In Chapters 7 and 8, we explore the
in situ conservation of crop genetic resources and their wild relatives. Nigel Maxted and his co-authors (University of Birmingham) provide an analysis of the importance of crop wild relatives in plant breeding and the need for their comprehensive conservation. Mauricio Bellon and Jacob van Etten (Bioversity International) discuss the challenges for on-farm conservation in centres of crop diversity under climate change.

Informatics and the impact of molecular biology
Discussing the data management aspects of germplasm collections, Helen Ougham and Ian Thomas (Aberystwyth University) describe in Chapter 9 several developments in genetic resources databases, and regional projects aimed at facilitating conservation and use. Two decades ago we had little idea of what would be the impact of molecular biology and its associated data today on the identification of useful crop diversity and its use in plant breeding. In Chapter 10, Kenneth McNally (IRRI) provides a comprehensive review of the present and future of how genomics and other molecular technologies – and associated informatics – are revolutionizing how we study and understand diversity in plant species. He also provides many examples of how responses to environmental stresses that can be expected as a result of climate change can be detected at the molecular level, opening up unforeseen opportunities for precise germplasm evaluation, identification, and use. Susan Armstrong (University of Birmingham, Chapter 11) describes how a deeper understanding of sexual reproduction in plants, specifically the processes of meiosis, should lead to better use of germplasm in crop breeding as a response to climate change.

Coping with climate change
In a final series of five chapters, responses to a range of abiotic and biotic stresses are documented: heat (by Maduraimuthu Djanaguiraman and Vara Prasad, Kansas State University, Chapter 12); drought (Salvatore Ceccarelli, formerly ICARDA, Chapter 13); salinity (including new domestications) by William Erskine, University of Western Australia, and his co-authors in Chapter 14; submergence tolerance in rice as a response to flooding (Abdelbagi Ismail, IRRI and David Mackill, University of California – Davis, Chapter 15); and finally plant-insect interactions and prospects for resistance breeding using genetic resources (by Jeremy Pritchard, University of Birmingham, and co-authors, Chapter 16).

Why this book is timely and important
The climate change that has been predicted is an enormous challenge for society worldwide. Nevertheless, progress in the development of scenarios of climate change – especially the development of more reliable projections of changes in precipitation – now provide a much more sound basis for using genetic resources in plant breeding for future climates. While important uncertainty remains about changes to variability of climate, especially to the frequency of extreme weather events, enough is now known about the range of possible changes (for example by using current analogues of future climate) to provide a basis for choosing genetic resources in breeding better-adapted crops. Even the challenge of turbo-charging the photosynthesis of a C
3 crop like rice has already been taken up by a consortium of scientists worldwide under the leadership of the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines.

Unlike the situation in 1989, estimates of average sea level rise, and consequent risks to low lying land areas, are now characterised by less uncertainty and indicate the location and scale of the challenges posed by inundation, by soil waterlogging and by land salinization. Responses to all of these challenges and the progress achieved are spelt out in detail in several chapters in this volume.

We remain confident that research will continue to demonstrate just what is needed to mitigate the worst effects of climate change; that germplasm access and use frameworks – despite their flaws – facilitate breeders to choose and use genetic resources; and that ultimately, genetic resources will be used successfully in crop breeding for climate change thereby enhancing food security.

Would you like to buy a copy?
The authors will receive their page proofs any day now, and we should have the final edits made by the middle of September. CABI expects to publish Plant Genetic Resources and Climate Change in December 2013. Already this book can be found online through a Google search even though it’s not yet published. But do go to the CABI Bookshop – the book has been priced at £85 (or USD160 and €110). If you order online I’m told there is a discount on the list price.

* This post is based on the Preface from the forthcoming CABI book.