With the world's food security facing a looming "perfect storm", GM food crops need to be part of the solution, argues Professor Jonathan Jones. In this week's Green Room, he wonders why there is such a fuss about biotechnology when it can help deliver a sustainable global food system.
In the US, where many processed foods contain ingredients derived from GM maize or soy, in the most litigious society in history, nobody has sued for a GM health problem
A billion humans do not have enough to eat.
Water resources are limited, energy costs are rising, the cultivatable land is already mostly cultivated, and climate change could hit productive areas hard. We need a sustainable intensification of agriculture to increase production by 50% by 2030 - but how?
Food security requires solutions to many diverse problems. In the US or Europe, improved seeds could increase yields by 10% or more, reduce pesticide use and give "more crop per drop".
However, improved seeds can only help impoverished African farmers if they also have reliable water supply, roads to take crops to market, and (probably most important) fertiliser.
Better farming methods are also part of the solution; these require investment in technology and people.
Fortunately, after 25 years of "food complacency", policymakers are taking the issue seriously again.
I want to reduce the environmental impact of agriculture while maintaining food supply.
The best thing we can do is cultivate less land, leaving more for wildlife, but if we are still to produce enough food, yields must go up.
There are many contributors to yield; water, fertiliser, farming practice, and choice of seed.
We can improve crop variety performance by both plant breeding (which gets better every year with new genetic methods), and by genetic modification (GM).
Droughts caused wheat prices to rocket as global harvests failed
Ouch; yuck - GM. Did you recoil from those letters? Why?
I started making GM plants (petunias, as it happens) in 1983, working at a long defunct agbiotech company in California called Advanced Genetic Sciences.
In the early 80s, we did wonder about - in Rumfeldspeak - "unknown unknowns; the unknowns we didn't know we didn't know about", but 27 years later, nothing alarming has been seen.
The method (GM is a method not a thing) is simple.
We take a plant, which typically carries about 30,000 genes, and add a few additional genes that confer insect resistance, or herbicide resistance, or disease resistance, or more efficient water use, or improved human nutrition, or less polluting effluent from animals that eat the grain, or more efficient fertiliser uptake, or increased yield.
We could even (heck, why not?) do all of the above to the same plant.
The result is increased yield, decreased agrochemical use and reduced environmental impact of agriculture.
In commercial GM, many hundreds of independent introductions of the desired new gene (the "transgene") are made, each in a different individual plant that is selected and tested.
Most lines are discarded. To be commercialised, a line must carry a simple, stable and well-defined gene insertion, and show heritable and effective transgene function, with no deleterious effects on the plant.
GM is the most rapidly adopted, benign, effective new technology for agriculture in my lifetime.
Fourteen million farmers grow GM crops on 135 million hectares; these numbers increased by about 10% per year over the past decade, and this rate of growth continues.
More than 200,000 tonnes of insecticide have not been applied, thanks to built-in insect resistance in Bt crops; how could anyone think that's a bad thing?
Bt maize is safer to eat because of lower levels of mycotoxins from fungi that enter the plant's grains via the holes made by corn-borer feeding; no insects, no holes, no fungal entry, no toxins in our food.
There are not enough fish in the sea to provide us all with enough omega 3 fatty acids in our diet, but we can now modify oilseeds to make this nutrient in crops on land.
Protection from rootworm means maize crops capture more water and fertiliser, so less is wasted.
Farmers must always control weeds; herbicide tolerant (HT) soy makes this easier, and has enabled replacement of water-polluting persistent herbicides with the more benign and rapidly inactivated glyphosate. HT soy has enabled wider low-till agriculture, reducing CO2 emissions.
And yet in Europe, we seem stuck in a time warp.
Worldwide, 135 million hectares of GM crops have been planted; yet in Norfolk, I needed to spend £30,000 of taxpayers' money to provide security for a field experiment with 192 potato plants, carrying one or another of a disease resistance gene from a wild relative of potato.
It boggles the mind. What are people afraid of?
Some fear the domination of the seed industry by multinationals, particularly Monsanto.
We need smart, sustainable, sensitive science and technology, and we need to use every tool in our toolbox, including GM
Monsanto is certainly the most determined and successful agbiotech company.
In their view, they had to be; they bet the company on agbiotech because unlike their rivals (who also sell nylon or agrichemicals) they had nothing else to fall back on.
But monopoly is bad for everyone. Here's a part solution; deregulate GM.
If it costs more than $20m (£13m) to get regulatory approval for one transgene, lots of little GM-based solutions to lots of problems will be too expensive and therefore not deployed, and the public sector and small start-up companies will not make the contribution they could.
Never before has such excessive regulation been created in response to (still) purely hypothetical risks.
The cost of this regulation - demanded by green campaigners - has bolstered the monopoly of the multinationals. This is a massive own-goal and has postponed the benefits to the environment and to us all.
Some fear GM food is bad for health. There are no data that support this view.
In the US, where many processed foods contain ingredients derived from GM maize or soy, in the most litigious society in history, nobody has sued for a GM health problem.
Some fear GM is bad for the environment. But in agriculture, idealism does not solve problems. Farmers need "least bad" solutions; they do not have the luxury of insisting on utopian solutions.
It is less bad to control weeds with a rapidly inactivated herbicide after the crop germinates, than to apply more persistent chemicals beforehand.
It is less bad to have the plant make its own insecticidal protein, than to spray insecticides.
It is better to maximise the productivity of arable land via all kinds of sustainable intensification, than to require more land under the plough because of reduced yields.
Some say GM is high risk, but they cannot tell you what the risk is. Some say GM is causing deforestation in Brazil, even though if yields were less, more deforestation would be required to meet Chinese and European demand for animal feed.
Some say we do not need GM blight resistant potatoes to solve the £3.5bn per year problem of potato blight, because blight resistant varieties have been bred. But if these varieties are so wonderful, how come farmers spend £500 per hectare on spraying to protect blight sensitive varieties?
The answer is the market demands varieties such as Maris Piper, so we need to make them blight resistant.
I used to be a member of a green campaign group. They still have campaigns I support (sustainable fishing, save the rainforests, fight climate change), but on GM, they are simply wrong.
Even activists of impeccable green credentials, such as Stewart Brand, see the benefits of GM.
Wishful thinking will not feed the planet without destroying it. Instead, we need smart, sustainable, sensitive science and technology, and we need to use every tool in our toolbox, including GM.
Professor Jonathan Jones is senior scientist for The Sainsbury Laboratory, based at the John Innes Centre, a research centre in plant and microbial science
The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website
UPDATE (19 July): Following a request from Professor Jones, we have updated his affiliation details. In 1997, he also co-founded the California company Mendel Biotechnology (www.mendelbio.com), which carries out contract research with Monsanto, Bayer and BP, and he is still a member of the Mendel science advisory board.
Do you agree with Professor Jones? Why are people in Europe so fearful of GM food crops? Is it part of the solution to deliver a sustainable supply of food for future generations? Or does it have the potential to do more harm than good?
GM foods are given an awful hard time by general public ignorance. Nanotechnology is yet another candidate, just most people do not realise that they use so much of it in daily life. Corporations do have the chance to exploit this technology- but as Prof Jones rightly states- deregulation will solve this. A government led review of that patent and IP law would also be needed to prevent corporate monopoly- but don't forget that GM will always have to compete with the natural stuff- the consumer is not likely to be hurt in the wallet. In the "age of austerity," and with food poverty still a huge global issue and only set to get worse, surely NOT utilising technologies such as this is the most selfish and evil thing we westerners can do. As for "It hasn't been proven safe" well, sorry. Science has always experimented with the unsafe. Detection methods and safety this century are millions of times better than previous scientists have had, and whilst that doesn't preclude the fact that things can and do go wrong, progress will never be made with such an attitude. If it is proven dangerous, then I will listen, It may take just one experiment to prove something to be dangerous, but you cannot prove anything to be safe, no matter how many experiments you do. Only that it hasn't been discovered to be dangerous YET.
Stu Haynes, Coventry, UK
As regards the economics of GM, it is worth remembering that Monsanto and others were perfectly happy to produce plants which had fertile seeds. The reason GM plants do not have fertile seeds is solely due to the green lobby insisting that GM plants must be infertile, so that GM traits cannot find their way into the wider ecosystem. Anti-GM campaigners are therefore criticising agribusiness for doing precisely what anti-GM campaigners asked them to do! It's also important to note that whilst distribution is indeed a problem in the third world, better distribution networks will simply have the result of destroying third-world farming, since it'd be cheaper to buy grain farmed on American prairies on an industrial scale than to grow it yourself in Africa. This is already happening on a significant scale, and only the lack of infrastructure is currently holding it back.
Graham Bartlett, Cambridge, Uk
I think GM has missed the boat, none of the current projects appear to work but do damage the environment. It appears similar to the green revolution of the sixties, now held responsible for destroying whole agricultural areas of India and eslewhere. I do not believe that the risk is still hypothetical, where it has been implimented there is far greater damage than expected and it appears that the crops themselves just help the problems they were designed to combat evolve. The plan was to make lots of money by having complete control over crop production, it has not paid off and appears far less useful than modern methods like no til farming.
Craig, Edinburgh, UK
Agree in principle with the good Prof. Deregulate and focus on method are key. Besides GM, employing and enhancing farming and harvesting methods for increased yields need be taught and encouraged. Crop rotation, soil restoration and reintroduction of grazing animals onto crop farms will all help.
James Doerfel, Redmond, Wa
How could the BBC publish an article so pro-GM, written by someone with ties to Monsanto without full disclosure of this obvious interest? Do not allow my licence fee to be spent furthering the greed of an organisation intent on making us dependent on them for our food-supply.
Dan B, London
A big problem is lack of science education or knowledge on the part of otherwise educated people about how food gets to their tables. For example, Darren of Ottawa says that companies make GM crops sterile so that farmers have to buy new seed. He is confusing genetic engineering with hybrid varieties, and in the latter case farmers buy fresh seed each crop season (rather than re-sowing saved seed) not because of sterility, but because the progeny of re-sown hybrids lose their "hybrid vigor" and uniformity, and grow as a very heterogenous stand of individual plants that will yield much less on average. This lack of understanding makes it hard for people to evaluate information from diverse sources and easy for anti-GM groups to mix fact with supposition, as they often do so well!
Mike Listman, Texcoco, Mexico
Interestingly, Professor Jones is on the scientific advisory board of Mendel Biotechnology, a company that counts Monsanto as their most important customer and collaborator. This article smacks more of corporate propaganda than reasoned argument.
Jack Judge, Reigate,UK
I agree heartily with Jonathan Jones. Improved crop varieties have a part to play in increasing yields to get more food to the poor. Plant breeders can do this and it is wrong to deny them one particular modern technique - genetic engineering - just because there is irrational opposition. All crops have been greatly modified genetically by selection and breeding (a good book for general readers is Hybrid by Noel Kingsbury, 2009) so GM has always been an unfortunate term, implying that other crops have not been modified. Most arguments by the opposition arise from incomplete knowledge of the current situation. For example, farmers are perfectly familiar with buying seed each year for new varieties of crops when they are F1 hybrids that do not breed true (half the rice in China and most maize worldwide are F1 hybrid varieties). They make a judgement that the increased cost is covered by the better yields, improved pest resistance, etc. Much plant breeding in the developing world is carried out by national and international research centres, such as the International Rice Research Institute, with varieties released without restrictions, for the public good.
Peter Mitchell, Sheffield, U.K.
I fully support the article. The arguments against in comments are common but not valid. We are reliant on corporations for many things in life. The state is a corporation, with a monopoly on the use of force over a territory. I would rather be reliant on a private corporation than the state. Farmers buy the seeds voluntarily every year because they save time and money. The best way to control population is through development-not starvation. There is no proof that anything you can imagine won't have a side effect down the road because you cannot prove a negative-you deal with it if it arises.
Brendan Trainor, Reno USA
You are treating the symptom not the cause. We do not need GM crops. Every single Human world resource issue we currently have is down to one thing. Our population growth as a species is what needs to be dealt with. There are simply too many people in the world and the problem will keep getting worse until we tackle this very thorny issue.
Danny Coombs, Calgary, Canada
I dont know about any studies, but I do know that my son is violently allergic to soy oil and any derivatives of soy products made from GM soy. No I have no scientific evidence and as far as I know no one has done a study ( these cost time and money) as they say the proof is in the pudding. He can eat anything cooke din soybean oil when it is from European origin , but gets a strong reaction when its US originsoy products.... which are all contaminated by GM prodicts. I think that says a lot for being anti GM
G, Mississauga , Canada
Interesting to see so many adverse comments here about the main problem with GM technology being corporate ownership. The author of the article is a public servant who works for a publicly-funded institution in the UK. We can all own this technology - we don't have to sell it to any corporates. Also some misunderstandings about realities of agriculture displayed here - modern conventional seed varieties are usually owned by the breeders, which means that if we want to plant them again we have to pay for the right. This is far from exclusive to GM technology, and high-yielding F1 hybrid varieties cannot be farm-saved year to year as they don't breed true.
Dr Jim Dimmock, Bodelva, Par, Cornwall, UK
Hardly a balanced argument, is it? Whenever I hear an argument that states "I am right and you are wrong" it makes me very suspicious. Life is very rarely that simple, and in this area, cannot be that simple. Professor Jones completely ignores the topics of improved storage and biological control of pests and pathogens. Personally, I wouldn't give this paper a pass grade.
Michael Papworth, Pershore
GM foods will never solve famine problems and it is naive to suggest otherwise. The vast majority of GM research is done by commercial companies and not charities. How can people incapable of affording traditional varieties (that can be resown year after year), afford the cost of GM crops that cost five times more and cannot be resown?
Carl Thomas, Melbourne, Australia
I agree there are monopolistic dangers of Monsanto's round-up-ready GM crops. But as to dangers of GM crops.... If only the public realised that conventional breeding, with it's lack of regulation can actually result in toxic varieties that will remain undiscovered until consumed. Just look at potato breeding early last century, a brand new, blight resistant variety made it to market, but made thousands of people seriously ill including some recorded deaths. This could still happen today, with conventional breeding, but not GM. By using GM, BASF have moved blight resistance from a wild potato into a modern potato that does not also cause humans harm. Yes this could have been done with conventional breeding but would have taken decades and has far more serious risks to human health.
Dr Richard Hayes, Aberystwyth, Uk
So you've modified a few petunias and there has been no problem that you've noticed. Big deal. That is not proof that there will not be an unforeseen problem in decades to come if GM crops are grown globally. We do not have a complete understanding of the way everything in the environment co-exists. With reference to your comments about Bt maize being resistant to insects, how do you know that another species further up the food chain does not reply on that insect? Use of GM may cause the population of that insect to plummet causing other species to fall in numbers. It may appear to be completely unrelated, but it could cause the collapse of another species we rely upon. There are too many variables to be absolutely sure that GM will have no ill effects or cause no problem. It can often take a long time before we realise what problems scientific advances cause, e.g. lead in petrol, CFCs.
Ian Beckett, Manchester, Uk
It's laudable - we'll genetically modify a baby to rid it's chances of diseases, get a preferred eye colour and choose it's sex. But a plant? Oh no!
We are all talking about preserving the environment, aint we?? Then, what about the traditional form of agriculture where tons of chemical are being used as pesticide or herbicides!!What about all those fertile lands being converted to arid one due to extensive farming???What about the unsustainable exploitation of the oceans to satisfy the growing needs?? I believe we have to stop being selfish!!!The one opposing to GM are the same who voiced out against exploitation of whales n others marine organsim!! In the end, whether we want it or not we have to sacrifice something for something whether we want it or not!!! If we are to opt for taditional agriculture, surely, we are to destroy our environment in some way. Concerning GM production, we are unsure about their long-term effects! In either way we are sure to make considerable impacts!
A common feature between the pro and anti-GM propaganda is the artificial dichotomy: the idea that either a crop is GM or it is non-GM. All GM means is we spliced in some different proteins. So I could splice some toxic compound into corn to produce corn that it is fatal to consume. This would be an example of a non-safe GM product. Likewise, I could splice something that increases the vitamin C content into corn, which would be very unlikely to be dangerous. We need to stop dealing with this on a BS vested interest level and start looking into the details of the issue: some crops are safe, some aren't and most are unclear. If we splice a pesticide directly into a crop, that doesn't make it safe. There are also more complex cases: what if we splice resistance to a pesticide into a crop, which then increases pesticide use, indirectly making it less safe? All that said, this piece reads like a few pages of Monsanto press release.
Alex, Mountain View, CA
Being from the USA where GM foods are almost all we have, we are facing serious problems from mono-cultures and the "trademarking" of these wonderful GM seeds as companies like Monsanto seek to eliminate any non-trademarked seeds so all farmers are indebted to them. This topic is not about picky eaters it is about global corporate take-over. I spent years in the farmland of the midwest USA where farmers were permanently in debt to Monsanto....WTO anyone?!?!? This was a misleading article BBC!!
Lisa Anthony, Seattle, USA
It's not the supposed health issues which GM food may or may not pose to humans that most are worried about. It's detrimental affects to the encompassing environment (soil and water from applied pesticides, and threat to native plants). We need to keep a variety of species to assure food security.
Harmony Farnsworth, Reno, USA
Cows may need 18 lb plant food for 1 lb beef, pork 8 lb for 1 lb, Chickens 4 lb for 1 lb. If we eat the plant food, that means agricultural production can feed 4 or 8 or more times as many people. We don't need livestock or milk or eggs for health. As is becoming very clear in Asia, "Diseases of Affluence" heart disease, diabetes, cancer, dementia, ... directly follow the heavily animal food based "Diet of Affluence". Read "The China Study" by T. Colin Campbell, phd, Cornell nutrition researcher, Jane Plant CBE's many books, ... Global warming from global livestock production has been calculated to exceed global warming from all of transportation.
Jerry Amos, Hollis, NH U.S.A.
Quite apart from the dubious benefits of GM food, is no-one concerned about handing over monopoly rights to the production of food to a handful of multinational corporations? GM food is patented food; the patent holder has an exclusive monopoly on the production of that food. That's the whole point of GM food as far as the corporation is concerned. Despite being patented the crops will spread into non-GM areas whereupon the corporation will sue the pants off any anyone unfortunate enough to find the stuff growing on their land (yes, Monsanto, I'm talking about you.) You do have to admit it is genius: develop a food which gives you a monopoly right to sell AND spreads itself to non-customers who are then forced to become customers.
William Wybourne, Wellington, New Zealand
How about making GM food/crops non-propietary for individuals or small farmers and only applying IP rules for companies/groups motivated by greed and not need? That is, develop non-terminal, stress tolerant GM seeds for the hungry but hardworking folks of the developing world but at the same time ensure that the greedy business folks of the same developing world as well as the developed nations don't infringe upon the GM patents through unique seed markers? As a scientist, this appears feasible to me and the big GM companies certainly could use some good 'karma' in their business practices -- do each of their well-intentioned presidents, scientists and inspectors really want to keep increasing the exorbitance of their meals at the expense of millions of the famished poor at the brink of death?
GS, Merced, California, USA
There is not a food shortage. There is a surplus of food actually. Unfortunately, all the food resources are concentrated in the wealthier nations and the people that are starving don't see any of it. Producing more food is definitely not the answer and even further from the answer is resorting to GM foods. GM corn and soy products have been shown to cause cancer and kidney failure in rats. Imagine what it is doing to us which will likely not show up for generations. The FDA does not take the responsibility of regulating GM foods seriously and they are the ones supposed to ensure safety of the general population. At least in the UK they regulate GM foods. In the US we are all lab rats for the machine.
Cortney, Indianapolis, IN, USA
GM technology simply represents an intensification of agricultural practices and associated environmental and socio-economic problems. Environmental problems include biodiversity loss, soil erosion and pollution of water bodies. Of particular concern is the potential for gene transfer between crops and non crop species, resulting in super-weeds that are more difficult to control. Unfortunately, the potential long term environmental effects of GM crops have been poorly studied due to the short term nature of research grants (Typically 3-5 years). On a socio-economic level, GM technology is unlikely to result in an end to world hunger. The post war 'green revolution' was also promoted as a means to ending world hunger, but has instead resulted in a population boom (also thanks to advances in healthcare). Food inequality remains, and and many of the poorest and hungriest nations continue to have high levels of population growth. Continuous population growth is unsustainable and impossible due to limited natural resources. Ironically GM technology could result in greater food insecurity, as world agriculture becomes dominated by a small number of varieties offered by large multinationals. The idea of deregulation of GM is to me wholly irresponsible, particularly when the technology is so new. Promotion of the technology has generally been by those that have the most to gain from it financially such as Prof. Jones.
Colm, Dublin, Ireland
There is really only one thing to say. It is obviously Monsanto propaganda since the author, Jonanthan Jones, works for Mendel Biotechnology. A quote from the Mendel website, "Mendel's most important customer and collaborator for our technology business is Monsanto". Come on BBC and professor Jones!
Michael Eck, Richmond,Va.
We're always being told how GM crops "will" help poor people in the developing world. But how can this be when the seeds cost money? If people can't buy food, which they can consume immediately, how the heck are they going to be able to pay for GM seeds? Maybe in Utopia they will be free, but not here on planet earth. Two things that will help the developing world out of poverty: contraception and education, especially about appropriate agriculture.
North, London, UK
Great article. I wonder, in a world without media hype what people would think about the food they eat and other household products they use. I stagger when smoking friends start a tirade against "GM" saying they only eat organic (with all those nice fungal toxins) while pumping their kids lungs full of the great pesticide nicotine. On question does pop to mind though. The statement related to Monsanto; "because unlike their rivals (who also sell nylon or agrichemicals) they had nothing else to fall back on" doesn't quite fit. Glyphosate was held by Monsanto patent until 2000 and we all know it's most famous trade name- Roundup (a Monsanto product). Whatever the motive for development of transgenic crops I for one welcome their use.
For those asking for the source of Jones' funding, he is involved with Mendel Biotechnology, which has close ties to Monsanto. From Mendel: "The interests of Mendel and Monsanto are highly aligned and the companies have established very effective mechanisms of collaboration" - I would certainly agree! Jones seems to be helping quite a bit! It's a pity that he can't be more creative than reciting the same list of refuted arguments we have seen from Monsanto.
LOL,Obviously greased by the mentioned companies that fund his research be it indirectly and can this prof really be so baised, if not naive? GM is commercial and clearly for the benefit of these companies. The problem is distribution, logistics, always has been. Better farming Techniques and metereological accuracy are whats needed, just to mention a couple.
Feeding humans directly instead of animals will dramatically increase the world food supply, as will reducing food wastage - GM is a risk like a lit match in a dry field - easier to ignite than to put out. An infection that could kill the world's grain crops is a risk too far. It is totally unnecessary.
Malcolm Hunter, Vancouver, BC, Canada
The problem with GM foods is that we don't have long-term studies done as to what the changes in the food does. It has been shown that after three generations of eating only GM food, hamsters go completely sterile. This is a problem. Not today, not tomorrow, but the day after that. If the companies that made GM grain seeds didn't also make the plants sterile, you would see many more people using them. As it goes right now, farmers can't use the seeds they gather from their own plants for next year's crop. They have to turn around and buy new seeds from the supplier. GM foods have a good potential, but they need more study done, and the companies that create them would need to take a checkbook hit by providing plants that can grow again next year.
Daren, Ottawa, Canada
I remember a few years ago a frozen food company was calling it Frankenstein food and handing out cards saying how bad it was. The only reason i could come up with is if things have a longer shelf life then it would remove the need to buy a lot of frozen food point been its not just the general populace that needs to be convinced. Plus people will never understand the problems unless it is actually happening to them how quickly would they change there minds about gm foods if we had rationing for some reason i wonder?
GM won't solve the issue of food security. All that will happen is that populations will expand even further and we'll be in an even more unsustainable position than we are now. For a species like humans, who are generally incapable of self regulation, famine is a good thing.
Luke Forbes, Leicester, Uk
Research is not conclusive that GM is safe in the long term-there are some serious questions. You do not state who funds the professor's research-it sounds like Monsanto propaganda. Monsanto's claim to infamy was the production of agent orange. If the safety of GM is so self-evident then why is Monsanto so paranoid about not labelling foods GM and why irradiate the foods so the seeds can not be used used but must be purchased each year-what is the point of theis practice if not profit. If there is a strong suspicion that something may be harmful then it should be stopped until proven safe or not(compare the tobacco industry's decades of lies) and not continued with immense propaganda campaigns to tout its safety while serious questions remain. If GM is detrimental to the gene pool of humans-in long term- then we are in 'grave' trouble.Experiments with animals show that this may be so. When you get govt. monisters swearing on a stack of bibles that something is safe, I am immediately suspicious that the opposite may be true.
Brian Barnett, Tucson AZ
Monoculture extends to food crops by agribusiness suppliers simply deciding to widely offer varieties for cultivation which out perform traditional rivals. This has led for instance to local peoples of South America switching to growing few varieties instead of the wide number of types from the wilds which had been hardened with time by years of small scale cultivation. The danger of introducing genetic traits to plants so they incorporate medicine or pesticide production as part of their growth cycle is frightening. Alterations of genetic code can be applied to pathogens as well and the potential of uncontrolled reproduction in natural settings is like the oil spill that shouldn't have happened. Alterations of code can be applied to creatures including humans as well. Corporations, limited liability corporation, corporations too big to fail making decisions about what patents they hold and how to splice the sequence of life and market it with assurances it won't escape into the fabric of Nature to do harm.. Perhaps a serious topic of discussions this Fall in Cancun can be international oversight of genetic engineering with the gold standard to do no harm.
Dale Lanan, Longmont, Colorado USA
Perhaps permaculture techniques involving standard crop rotation practices combined with improved storage & reduced loss to vermin, is a safer and more effective approach? Soil health and productivity increases and is adaptable. GM suits industrial farmers, not the small holdings of the rural poor whose plight is overlooked by the same GM scientists who claim to want to feed the world. The inadvertent unleashing of any more, now seemingly unbeatable, superweeds (glyphosate-resistant) from the "round up ready" crops and should be halted.
Patrick, Vancouver Canada
I whole heartedly agree with Professor Jones. It is all very well for those in developed countries to exercise their prejudices but people in poor countries are suffering and if GM can help to alleviate that then lets do it.
Philip S Hall, Northampton England
Excellent article, well written, honest and fully grounded in reality. A great antidote to the usual disinformation peddled by dogmatic fantasists whom for some reason the BBC invariably offers a right of reply to. Why should Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace or the Soil Association be entitled to present extremist, ill-judged and poorly researched minority views at license payers expense? I have a PhD in crop science and many years of professional agronomic experience and know for a fact that Prof Jones is spot on in his observations - giving a balanced view does not mean offering equal time to pressure group spokespeople who are utterly ignorant of our subject and wish to scaremonger at the expense of humanity.
Dr Jim Dimmock, Bodelva, Par, Cornwall, Uk
We need to use every tool in the toolbox to control population growth and actually reduce the number of people on this planet. The world is already grossly overpopulated, unsustainably so. Overpopulation is the root cause of most of the worlds problems from imminent extinction of so many of the worlds plant, bird and animal species to over exploitation of resources and pollution. As with climate change ( yet another consequence of overpopulation ) we need to act, and we need to act now.
Neil Beever, Tavira, Portugal
The benefits of GM crops in terms of quantity and reliability of yield are without doubts and could indeed contribute to solving some problems.
But there is more than yields and environmental issues to the whole GM story. In fact it is the economics of GM which are the particularly obnoxious. Two questions: What about the infertility of the seeds, which requires farmers to re-order seeds year in year out from the same company? What about the exclusivity of the seeds, which requires farmers to only use specific pesticides and fertilisers, produced by you know who? GM seeds-producing companies lock farmers and countries into a monopolistic business model which is damaging for local and national economic development, particularly in the developing world, where farmers are already among the poorest workers. In other words, from a socio-economic perspective, the use of GM crops are very destructive of local livelihoods. And destroyed livelihoods are much more conducive to famines than low yield crops.
Nick S., Torino, Italy
The main argument against GM foods is that it is "unnatural". People need to remember that natural is not always better (and is frequently worse). Natural is dying of some infection at the age of 30 (on the off chance you managed to make it past infancy). It has been ages since humans lived naturally and I hope this reminds people of all the unnatural benefiets we already enjoy in our society.
Carl de Boer, Toronto, Canada
I and hundreds of thousands of EU citizens (to judge by the Avaaz EU GMO Petition ~ just search with those terms) certainly do not agree with Prof. Jones.
Siobhan Winter-Smith, Fairford, Uk
Some fear GM food is bad for health / environment. I fear a monoculture, thousands of acres of the same plant, flowering at the same time, leaving thousands of acres of barren desert once it is cropped. An annual cycle of monotony. The impact on nature and wildlife by the individual plant might not be great, but the process leads to a potentially devestating impact. As to health, in the US, everybody subsists on corn starch or animals fed on corn starch, in the UK its a fairly standard wheat variety. Again, the individual plant might not be the problem, but if that's all that is eaten - presented in many and various ways - no wonder we are so unhealthy. So, GM plant, no problem, GM crop, potential disaster! There are no data that support this view.
simon Mallett, Lenham Kent
The pro GM argument relies on the concept that somehow there is not already enough food for everyone, and forgets entirely that the problem is distribution and that few people hold the highest percentage of food, while others go hungry. There's no proof as of yet that GM foods will solve any fuel or food crisis, and since GM foods are owned by a few companies and not the people, history will show that it will remain a problem controlled by greed and not need.
GM will always be a divisive issue and the reason is clear: some people do not want to be reliant on corporations. They would rather be people-centred and promoting self-sufficiency, not profit-centred. Professor Jones states "But in agriculture, idealism does not solve problems". I can think of nothing more idealistic than market capitalism.
Nicholas Hemley, Bristol