GM Foods – Cultivating Fear (Panorama)

Genetic modification of aubergine in Bangladesh has dramatically reduced the need to use pesticides

Genetic modification of aubergine in Bangladesh has dramatically reduced the need to use pesticides

Broadcaster: BBC 1

Year: 2015

Genre: Documentary


Review by Prof John Bryant (University of Exeter)

Fierce opposition to the growth of GM crops, especially in the EU (including the UK),  goes back to the late 1990s, shortly after the first successful commercialism of crops bred by these techniques. One of the most unfortunate casualties of this opposition is Golden Rice™, bred by GM techniques to provide extra vitamin-A. Its use in SE Asia would save the eyesight of tens of thousands of children and the lives of several thousand each year. However, its uptake into agriculture has been opposed by anti-GM activists at every step such that in 2015, 16 years after this development was announced to the world, the variety is still not available to Asian farmers. Nevertheless, GM-bred crops are now grown in 28 countries (the programme says 27, which was the total in 2013) on a total area of 182 million hectares and, as pointed out in the programme, the countries in which these crops are grown have not suffered environmental disasters nor have there been any detrimental effects on human or animal health.

This brief background leads us to the theme of the programme which asks whether two newer GM-bred crops may be ‘game-changers’ in respect of public attitudes. The first is insect-resistant aubergines which are now being grown in Bangladesh (where the local name for aubergine is brinjal). These plants carry the Bt-toxin gene, already widely used across the world in insect-resistant maize and cotton. Farmers growing Bt-brinjal are enthusiastic about it: the development reduces their costs, reduces crop losses and above all reduces the use of insecticides which, because of poor safety measures, cause harm to farmers’ health.

The second is a GM-bred potato which is being developed in the UK. It is resistant to late blight, to round-worm and to environmental heat-stress. Its use would reduce dramatically the application of fungicides and pesticides, bringing obvious benefits to the farmer and to the environment. It is still at the trial stage but this time Professor Jonathan Jones, the head of the project, is hopeful that it will be taken up in UK agriculture. The presenter of the programme, Tom Heap, notes in passing that the last GM-bred potato developed in Prof Jones’ laboratory was commercialised in the USA, not the UK.

During the programme we hear from both sides of the argument, with representatives of anti-GM campaigning groups presenting views which are juxtaposed with views of scientists and others who wish to see an end to the opposition. Amongst the latter are two former high-profile anti-GM activists, one of whom was an executive director of Greenpeace. Not only have these people changed their minds but they now state that opposition to GM-bred crops is immoral in the face of the growing human population and the benefits that these ‘biotech crops’ could bring. Further, there are suggestions – indeed statements – that the anti-GM groups have deliberately ‘cultivated fear’ based on false premises and even on actual falsehoods.

In respect of the facts presented, the programme underplays the extent to which the products of GM-bred crops have entered the food supply chain in Europe. The presenter mentions the inability of supermarkets to prevent the sale of meat from animals whose feed has included components from GM-bred crops such as maize, soybean and oil-seed rape. However, he failed to mention the extent to which protein and oil from soybean is used in processed foods for human use. In 2014, 82% of the world’s soybean crop was from GM-bred plants; the products from these plants are inevitably widely present in our food supply chain.

I also wonder whether the ‘Round-up Ready’ glyphosate-tolerance gene is now the most widely used transgene. Certainly it was in the early days, when glyphosate-tolerant soybean became the first major GM-bred crop (after the brief appearance and then disappearance of the Flavr-Savr™ slow-ripening tomato). Since then however, there has been very extensive commercial growth of crops carrying the Bt-toxin insect-resistance gene. In 2014, 68% of the world’s cotton crop (albeit not a food crop) and up to 30% of the world’s maize crop carried this gene. So, even if glyphosate-tolerance is still the world’s leading plant GM trait, it is surely being challenged by the insect-resistance trait.

Tom Heap also said that the slowness of vetting procedures in the EU was hindering the use of GM-bred crops. While this has been true, a recent ruling says that individual member-states no longer have to wait for a decision from the European Commission before deciding whether to use a particular GM-bred crop.

In respect of use of the programme in teaching, I think that the whole of ‘GM Foods – Cultivating Fear’ should be viewed. It would be very helpful I think, to divide the students into two groups, one allocated the role of supporters of GM-bred crops and the other the role of opponents. In watching the programme, the task of both groups is to note the evidence presented by both sides and then critique the views of the other side. In this way, it is hoped that the strengths and weaknesses of all the arguments/viewpoints can be evaluated. You might also ask whether the programme was for or against GM-bred crops (I note in passing that anti-GMO organisations were not at all happy but that many in the scientific community felt that the balance had now been re-dressed).

It would helpful, but by no means essential, if the students had some knowledge of the methods used in genetic modification of plants, of the major traits that are inserted by these techniques and of the range of crops that now carry GM-inserted transgenes. Some knowledge of the anti-GMO movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s would also be helpful but again not essential.


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