Could climate change move the needle on GM technology?

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/vchal
Image: Getty/vchal

Related tags crop health climate change precision agriculture

To say that genetically modified (GM) crops have met past resistance from campaigners is an understatement. Might the potential environmental benefits of GM crops prove a tipping point?

Climate-resistance crops were a hot topic at the recent World Agri-Tech summit in Dubai. Experts discussed technologies, like AI and genomics, seen as key in helping plants grow better in tough conditions​​ expected to worsen with climate change.

This brought up the contentious issue of GM​ crops. Many scientists believe these are also key to making food crops more resilient (and also more nutritious) in the face of climate change and human health challenges caused by micronutrient deficiencies.

But scientists often complain that many food safety authorities around the world – with perhaps the exception of the US – have historically been too resistant to GM crops to the point of being a bottleneck to innovation.

GM foods have often been met with scepticism from the public too, even in places where they are authorised. About half of people in 20 countries around the world believe these foods are unsafe to eat, according to a Pew Research Center survey in 2020. In the US – where genetically modified tomatoes were first sold 30 years ago and where GMO seeds are used to plant over 90% of all maize, cotton, and soy grown – 38% said GM foods were unsafe. That’s little more than 31% who said the same thing in the UK – where there has been a de facto ban on these crops over the past 20 years. Despite being an early adopter of GM crops, commercialisation in China has also stalled​, partly due to public opposition to GM foods and food safety concerns.

The environmental benefits of GM crops

At the aforementioned World Agri-Tech Dubai summit, Mark Tester, professor of plant science at the Centre for Desert Agriculture (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia, described historic resistance from various food regulatory bodies and NGOs towards GM crops as a “tragedy”.  

Speaking with AgTechNavigator, he elaborated on the case for GM technology. For example, in 2020 Argentina green-lit HB4, the first GM wheat strain in the world to receive such approval. This is bred with an extra gene edited in from the sunflower plant to better tolerate a lack of water. It can reportedly improve crop yields by 20% compared to regular wheat in warm climates.

HB4 is “big news”, Tester said, although he anticipates hurdles going forward.​ “How they are going to get it through the commercialisation stage, best of luck to them. But they have developed the work and the material, it looks good, and it's been approved.”

The innovation is a “good thing and remarkable scientifically,” he stressed. “The woman who led the development of this [the Argentinian scientist Raque Chan​] is a good person whose spent her life trying to do this. There's a lot of hardcore science behind it and she's just ground through and done it.”

Tester is particularly impassioned about GM’s prospects for solving nutritional challenges in the developing world. "You can definitely improve the nutrition of plants with GM by increasing the amount of minerals and vitamins in the grains,” he told us. “The world's biggest heath problem isn't diabetes or malaria: it's micronutrient deficiencies and it's easily addressed with biotechnology if only we were allowed to."

For example, Golden Rice – developed in Europe – uses genetic engineering to boost its vitamin A content. It has been approved for roll out in the Philippines, where micronutrient undernutrition is highly prevalent, but where protests from activists and farmers​ threaten to slow its commercialisation.

Greenpeace, for example, has claimed Golden Rice is  “highly likely to contaminate” non-genetically engineered rice. It added that “genetically engineered crops are prone to unexpected effects which can pose a risk to environmental and food safety”.

This type of opposition to Golden Rice is based not on science, but on “an intuitive discomfort”, and almost “neo-religious reasons”, lamented Tester. “Micronutrient deficiency is a tragedy,” he stressed. “Biotechnology can genuinely, sincerely help with this and it's being stopped by rich wealthy westerners.” 

Extreme weather events are accelerating the need for new perspectives on food sourcing

Going back to HB4, a key benefit is its ability to boost the ability of wheat to grow in low water supply. With problems of water scarcity expected to worsen, might consumer attitudes to GM crops shift as climate fears grow – particularly among younger generations?

According to research from Mintel last year, younger Europeans aged 16-24 are generally more supportive​ than their older peers to GM foods thanks to both the possible health and environmental benefits.  

“Mintel data suggests that younger people are quite pragmatic about GM,” said Alex Beckett, Mintel Food & Drink Director. “Compared with older generations, they are more willing to try new solutions and have an inherent trust in tech’s ability to make the world better.”

Young European adults, he added, “are clued up about the various ramifications of the climate crisis and know that increasingly frequent extreme weather events only accelerate the need for new perspectives on food sourcing. The GM issue is controversial but regulation-wise things are moving fast, so it’s essential to know what consumers think.”

Looser rules on gene editing

Beckett is referring to moves in the UK and European Union – areas traditionally hostile to GMs – to revise the rules on GMOs to free up the use of gene editing – particularly the gene editing tool CRISPR-Cas9, seen as the fastest, cheapest and most accurate genome editing methods. 

Last year in the UK the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act​ passed into law, enabling the development and marketing of gene edited crops in England. Similarly, the European Commission has officially proposed to loosen rules on certain new genetic techniques (NGTs) which could pave the way for gene-edited crops. The likes of Argentina, the US, Australia and Japan also passed similar legislation to regulate precision bred plants too.

What’s the difference between gene editing and genetic modification? According to the John Innes Centre, gene editing allows specific edit to DNA in a targeted way, without (like GM) adding new genetic sequences or genes. “With gene editing, specific genes can be removed, switched off, or ‘edited’ with small, targeted changes at a known location in the genome. This allows us to reach the same end point as traditional breeding more efficiently, potentially shortening the time it takes to bring new innovations to market.”

Will gene editing be a stepping stone to GM?

It begs another question: could CRISPR pave the way for more ‘classic’ GM crops. “Quite possibly,” said Tester. “Even just having gene editing is a wonderful opportunity in its own right. I would hope it's a stepping stone, yes - because there's a lot of fancy technology in gene edited crops. If people are willing to take that on, then they are going to be much more open to taking on GM too."

But other GM fellow travellers disagree. “We are seeing more of a situation where GM research is on the back foot because of the gene editing bill,” said Dr Julian Smith, science director at Rothamsted Research, a pioneer of GM crop trials since the 1990s. He stressed that the “game-changing solutions that are spoken about with GM will not apply to gene editing in its current form”. That’s because distinct traits are not being moved between species. Gene editing, he said, “is effectively the same as traditional crop breeding, but quicker”.

Greenpeace, meanwhile, fears the European move to allow the use of gene editing is simply GMs via the back door. It complains that if adopted, the legislative proposal would seriously weaken or entirely remove safety checks and labelling requirements, based on “unproven claims by biotech companies”. Greenpeace GMO and glyphosate campaigner Eva Corral said: “People have the right to know what they eat and what is being released into our shared environment. Whether you think GM plants are a good idea or not, any new modified organism needs to be fully safety checked before it ends up in a field and into the food chain. This proposal is clearly the result of pressure from multinationals who are desperate to avoid transparency and scientific scrutiny and have a record of baseless claims.”

Citing the flop of Calyxt’s gene-edited soybean in the US, it says these types of crops have so far failed to deliver sustainability benefits. The NGO adds that the intended and unintended mutations would not be possible with conventional breeding, even if NGTs do not necessarily require the permanent insertion of foreign DNA into the plant’s genome (unlike for traditional GMOs). Citing the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation, it said both intended and unintended mutations carry risks​.  

But according to Tester, the horrors of GM simply haven't raised their ugly head. “Over the years the evidence for the low risk of GM keeps increasing. It's not a 'Frankenfood'. They've had GM crops in the US for 25 years. Empirically we live a longer, healthier life now than we ever have in human history. The science just piles up. The risks of GM are low and if gene editing can be a stepping stone too, that’s fine.”

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