The threat of climate change has been very successful in winning over people who were previously wary of GM. In desperate times, the argument goes, we need all the tools we can get, and we’re told GM technology has the potential to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases, and to make it easier for us to go on producing crops in extreme weather conditions.
This approach, however, is fundamentally flawed. Firstly, despite the many successes claimed by the GM industry, there are, as yet, no GM 'solutions' to climate change that work. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions needs to happen immediately if it is to prevent runaway climate change - we simply don't have time to play with pie in the sky magic bullet solutions, especially given the fact that conventional breeding and alternative ways of farming can already have a massive impact on greenhouse gas emissions and growing more crops in bad weather.
In fact, GM technology takes us further in the wrong direction: toowards a greater dependance on agro-industry that increases use of oil-based chemicals that makes farming less sustainable. What's more, the kind of genetic modifications needed to engineer a plant resistant to something as complicated as drought would be themselves much more complex than the GM crops we are seeing today. This would make them much more dangerous for the environment and human health.
Finally, corporations have moved quick to make sure that any potential for GM to be 'part of the solutions' to climate change, remains under thier control.Therefore, we can conjecture, the technology will continue to be used with a profit motive and its benefits will not be felt by the people who need them most.
GM technology doesn't work.
None of the GM crops currently on the market are engineered to help withstand climate change, and those that are in a development stage are much further away from being ready than the GM industry would have us think.To take one example, the industry has been promising drought-resistant GM crops for years, and although there have always been sceptics, BASF and Monsanto claim to have succeeded with a maize variety that will increase yields by 6-10% in dry periods, and will be on the market by 2012.1
However, there is a catch, and not just the fact that the yield increases they are celebrating are extremely modest compared to those that organic agriculture can produce2. Despite performing comparatively well in drought years the new maize variety shows significant yield decreases when compared to its conventional counterparts in a good season. This is highly significant, because to survive climate change, we need crops which will survive erratic growing conditions and unpredictable extremes of all kinds.3.
Claims by the GM industry that biotechnology will prevent climate change are equally unfounded. GM trees for example, engineered to absorb more carbon, were found to also require much more water.4 The GM industry has claimed carbon credits on a voluntary scheme in North America for the use of herbicide resistant GM crops because they claim these crops reduce the need to till the soil, and thereby increase the amount of carbon that is stored (sequestered) rather than released into the atmosphere.5
There are many flaws with this argument. Firstly, these crops lead to increased use of herbicides6, which are energy intensive to produce, and which eventually break down emitting more greenhouse gases.7
Secondly, while no-till agriculture can effectively reduce carbon emissions when used in conjunction with cover crops and organic practices, when used as part of a conventional, fertiliser-dependent system it does not have the same effect.8
Finally, even where carbon emissions are reduced by no till agriculture, the results for other greenhouse gases can be highly variable depending on the type of soil, and these variations are also not factored in to the carbon accounting systems that GM companies subscribe to.
GM not needed
The technology already exists to limit and protect us from climate change, and in many cases that technology is simple and cheap.
If we take drought tolerance as an example, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) claims that it has so far developed more than 50 drought-tolerant maize varieties (conventionally bred) that are being grown on about one million hectares worldwide.12 Perhaps more significantly, drought is rarely a simple product of too little rain, it is also about human activity: how the available water is used or wasted, and more specifically in this case, the ways in which farming affects the amount of water that is stored in the soil. If, instead of feeding plants with fertilisers we feed the soil with organic matter its ability to retain water will be dramatically increased.13
Equally, precision irrigation, mulching and the use of cover crops can reduce the amount of water that evaporates out of the soil, and thereby increase productivity.14 The Rodale Institute, a respected US research institute whose results have been corroborated in several universities, ran a twenty-one year, direct comparison between organic and non-organic agriculture and concluded that in drought conditions, organic systems produced yields that were 28 - 34% higher than non-organic ones, and did not suffer the drop in yields that GM 'drought-resistant' crops experience in good years.15
As for limiting greenhouse gas emissions in the first place, the Rodalle Institute makes the argument that “regenerative organic farming practices are the most effective currently available strategy for mitigating CO₂ emissions”, because, (unlike no till agriculture used in conjunction with energy-intensive chemicals), a widespread and holistic adoption of ecological farming practices “could sequester nearly 40% of current CO₂ emissions” at the same time as building up soil fertility16. Conventional agricultural fields, they state, contain very much lower soil carbon than they did 50 years ago.
Carbon that is stored in stable compounds in the soil does little but nurture plants, but when that carbon is lost from the soil, as it has done through intensive agriculture, it escapes as carbon dioxide, the major gas contributing to climate change. Organic practices that feed the soil reverse the process, and can increase the carbon that is beneficially stored in the soil.17 For other studies confirming the benefits of organic agriculture see our articles on the two UN reports: The International Assessment of Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, and Organic Agriculture and Food Security in Africa.
Even many GM proponents accept that it is “not a panacea”, and that other ways of breeding plants and ecological farming techniques are important, but maintain that GM should be “part of the solution”.18 For reasons why GM technology is unlikely to help the people who really need it see below, and for reasons why the risks are not worth it see GM threat to the environment and GM health risks. We should not be allowing GM to distract funding away from the developments we need if we are to have a real impact on climate change and our ability to survive it.
You can find our more on our page about why GM is just not needed.
GM technology is no more likely to mitigate climate change than it is to feed the world and for the same reasons. The technology is completely dominated by corporations, for whom it is a lucrative source of profits.Some people argue that 'in the future' this situation might change, and therefore we should encourage the development of GM technology so that, one day, it can be used in the public interest. However, there are major problems with this argument, firstly that the climate will not wait for 'the future' when GM is under public control, and secondly that the GM industry are doing everything they can to maintain their stranglehold over the technology.
Recently, many GM companies, especially BASF, but also Syngenta, Monsanto and Bayer, have filed patents on so-called 'climate ready' genes which are believed to help a plant withstand environmental stresses, including drought, flooding, salty soil and extremes of hot and cold. 19 These patents do not apply simply to a single gene in a single plant as was initially the case with GM patents, but to any similar gene sequence occurring in any food crop20 so they have limited the capacity for other institutions to get involved in research even further.
The 'ETC group' (action on erosion, technology and concentration) report of 2008 points out the extent to which these patents overlap 21, and imply that while there is a possibility of this leading the companies into major legal battles, there is also the possibility of them increasing their combined power through collaboration, giving them even more opportunities to control the future of research and agriculture.
1: London South East, 'INTERVIEW: BASF: Plant Biotech Ops A Potential Earnings Driver', 2.08.10, available at http://www.lse.co.uk/sharecast-news-article.asp? ArticleCode=3610363&ArticleHeadline= INTERVIEW_BASF_Plant_Biotech_Ops_A_ Potential_Earnings_Driver, last viewed 16.09.10
2: .GM Watch, January 30, 2009 http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_16689.cfm, last viewed 13.09.10
3: .Niles, Meredith, 'Organic farming beats genetically engineered corn as response to rising global temperatures', available at http://www.grist.org/article/ Food-security-and-global-warming- Monsanto-versus-organic, last viewed 13.09.10
4: 'Third world network biosafety information service', 26.03.05, http://www.twnside.org.sg/title2/service180.htm, last viewed 15.09.10
5: .'Patenting the “climate genes” .. and capturing the climate agenda', ETC group communique, Issue 99, May/June 2008,
6: 'Who benefits from gm crops? The rise in pesticide use' Executive summary, Friends of the Earth International, January 2008
7: .Mailloux, Nabil, 'Pesticides and the Kyoto Protocol', http://www.pesticidefree.ca/kyoto.htm, last viewed 15.09.10
8: .'Environmental benefits of Organic Agriculture', undated, http://www.beyondpesticides.org/organicfood/environment/index.htm, last viewed 16.09.10
9: ETC group communique, May/June 2008, 'Patenting the “climate genes” .. and capturing the climate agenda', p11
10: Lang, Chris,.'GE trees: no solution to climate change', Feb / Mar 2005,.http://chrislang.org/2005/03/01/ge-trees-no-solution-to-climate-change/ last viewed 16.09.10
11: Petermann, Anne and Langelle, Orin, 'Plantations, GM trees and indigenous rights', http://www.grain.org/seedling/?id=428, last viewed 16.09.10
12: ETC group communique, May/June 2008, 'Patenting the “climate genes” .. and capturing the climate agenda', p10
13: Niles, Meredith, 'Organic farming beats genetically engineered corn as response to rising global temperatures', available at http://www.grist.org/article/ Food-security-and-global-warming- Monsanto-versus-organic, last viewed 05.05.09
14: Heinemann, Professor Jack, 'Desert Grain', The Ecologist, Volume 38, Issue 9, November 2008, p23
15: Research quoted by Niles, Meredith, 'Organic farming beats genetically engineered corn as response to rising global temperatures', available at http://www.grist.org/article/Food-security-and-global-warming-Monsanto-versus-organic, last viewed 05.05.09 NEED BETTER REF
16: Rodale Institute, 'Regenerative Organic Farming: a solution to global warming', 2008, p1
17: Rodale Institute, 'Regenerative Organic Farming: a solution to global warming', 2008, p2
18: Crute, Professor, quoted in Vallely, Paul, 'Strange fruit: Could genetically modified foods offer a solution to the world's food crisis?', The Independent, 18.04.09, http://www.independent.co.uk/life- style/food-and-drink/features/ strange-fruit-could-genetically-modified-foods-offer-a-solution- to-the- worlds-food-crisis-1668543.html, last viewed 05.05.09
19: ETC group communique, May/June 2008, 'Patenting the “climate genes” .. and capturing the climate agenda', p1
20: ETC group communique, May/June 2008, 'Patenting the “climate genes” .. and capturing the climate agenda', p6
21: ETC group communique, May/June 2008, 'Patenting the “climate genes” .. and capturing the climate agenda', p6