Temps de lecture :7 minutes
There are many different types of genetically modified organisms (animals, plants, bacteria and yeast) and various types of transformation technologies and objectives (medical, scientific, industrial, etc.) but the debate has often been centred on GM foods. These are the only ones examined in this summary which outlines the main points of this complex debate.
Since the first GM plant was marketed in 1996 – a tomato -, the surface area of GM crops has continiously increased. In 2007, there were 114 million hectares of transgenic plants being cultivated worldwide. There are now 23 countries growing them. The United States produces the most GMOs in the world with 57,7 millions hectares (50% of the world surface area cultivated with GMOs). It is followed by Argentina, Brazil, Canada, India and China. In Europe, Spain is the country with the most GM crops 50 000 hectares of GM crops grown in 2007. (1)
Two main types
Some of these GMOs are more resistant to the cold, others are more resistant to droughts and others are more resistant to soil salinity. However there are 2 main types : herbicide-tolerant GMOs and those resistant to devastating insects.
With the first ones, farmers can totally spray their fields with herbicide which will destroy the weeds but not the genetically modified crop. This is the case of Roundup-ready soy or soya-RR : it was developed by Monsanto, which also marketed the related herbicide, Roundup or glyphosate. The second main type of GM crops is made up of plants which are resistant to devastating insects , such as corn-Bt. Here, ‘Bt’ refers to a bacterial gene which allows the plant to resist an insect : the corn borer.
In the world, 73% of cultivated transgenic plants are tolerant of certain herbicides (mainly soy), 18% are resistant to certain devastating insects (corn, cotton and rape seed) and 8% have both properties. (2)
It should be noted that there are so-called second generation GMOs that are not yet very common. They have genes which are of nutritional or health interest.. (See box)
Farmers who choose to grow to GM crops do so because they think it will be in their interest : to make more money or make their work easier . According to ISAAA (a pro-GMO lobby) figures, there are over 50 million farmers in the world who have chosen to do this. In certain cases, the farmers were so sure it was in their interest that they bought seeds illegally– when GM crops were still forbidden in their country. This was the case in Argentina, Brazil and India for example. (3)
However, public debates focus more on matters of general interest than on farmers’ particular interests.
One of the arguments often put forward in favour of GM crops is that they help increase farm produce and thus help feed the planet. However, there is no consensus on the productivity of modified seeds. The results vary a lot from one year to the next, from one plant to another and from one country to another ; some studies show increases and others show decreases. In a summary on BT cotton, researchers defended the idea that the increase was low in Western countries because they already have widespread access to phytosanitaries, but it can be high in countries where there is limited access to these and where there are many more devastating insects (4) Moreover, solving food crises has more to do with distribution than agricultural production. [see food summary]
Anlother advantage which is often put forward is that less pesticides and herbicides are necessary which means GM crops are better for the environment (and less costly for the farmer). This point is also hard to determine as there is missing and contradictory data. (5) It indeed seems that it is effectively the case but farmers who keep spraying large amounts of herbicides and pesticides neutralise and even contradict this potentially positive aspect. (6)
GM crops pose several problems that have not been solved. The first is the scattering of genes. Wind-borne pollen and pollen carried by insects can travel long distances. It can pollinate non-GM plants; its descendants could carry the modified genes even further. Here again, the problem varies depending on the plant : it is more worrying for rape seed than for cotton for example.
In 2001, genetically modified corn from the United States was thus identified in conventional Mexican corn, at the heart of this plant’s historical cradle. It was difficult but researchers went back on their claims and in 2005, new studies showed the absence of this contamination. (7)
Be that as it may, we do not know how to ensure the coexistence of GM plants and conventional plants. Some specialists suggest creating spaces between crops but it is now impossible to rule out contamination. This is why a lot of GMOs opponents are asking for them to be stopped and for trials and crops in the field to be forbidden. This coexistence is even more problematic for organic farmers who can lose their label if their crops are contaminated by neighbouring fields. (8)
What effect would a scattering of genes transferred to GMOs have on the environment? This question is also subject to debate. These genes could make devastating insects and weeds resistant and they could disturb certain organisms such as bees etc. For the moment, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that this is true but no evidence does not mean that there is nothing there. (9)
The health risks that GM foods could cause are also much-discussed. Some studies show an increase in allergy risks. Thus, a type of soy which carries a nut gene known to cause allergies has never been marketed. (10) But if we set this aside, researchers have not yet produced any real evidence to show that GMOs pose a health threat.
Most GM food plants are meant for stockers (particularly soybean). This is also the case in France. The genes carried by these plants are not likely to be found in human food as the plants are digested and there is no reason to think that the genes of these plants will be found in the animals’ muscles. However, some GMOs normally meant for animal consumption can accidentally be found in food meant for human consumption. This is the case of Starlink corn which was found in certain tacos for example. (11)
Since 2002, products which contain more than 0.9% GMOs have to mention this. This threshold is meant – amongst other things- to take possible accidental contaminations into account. Many environmentalists consider it to be unacceptably high.
Seeds are also part of the economical stake of GM foods. Western farmers have not planted the same grains from one year to the next for a long time. They buy seeds (GM or not) which are continuously improved. As these seeds have a patent, they are not allowed to sow them again. Monsanto even tried to make this impossible with so-called « terminator » seeds which produced sterile plants. But the project was abandoned in 2000 due to widespread protest.
However, farmers in developing countries still – well, at least, they do so more often – replant seeds. If they buy GMOs they will no longer be allowed to do this. And from the moment they do this, it will be very hard for them to go back. In addition, the economic model of GMOs encourages monoculture.
A precaution principle
Considering the uncertainties about GMOs and the few advantages they bring, one can wonder whether it is worth going into GM farming. Because of this, most opponents want us to wait as a matter of principle.
The problem is that precautions require that the risks be evaluated but GMOs are protected by patents and trade secrets. This makes research difficult. Moreover, these studies need tests to be carried out on open fields: thus, measuring the risks represents a danger in itself.
Labelling and traceability are indispensable elements for choosing whether or not to buy products made from GMOs as they help inform consumers.
Citizens and GMOs
In Western Europe, opinion is strongly against GMOs. Greece, Ireland and France are amongst the most reluctant. In 2004, according to a TNS Sofres survey, 76% of French people were against GM foods. (12)
Despite this, there are GM crops in France, even small ones, including on open fields. Those against GM foods consider these decisions to be anti-democratic. They claim that large companies –including Monsanto, the one which is the most known – put pressure on the authorities or use lobbies. This makes the debate biased.
The fight against GMOs has been embodied by the alterglobalist leader José Bové since 1998. Since 2003, he has taken part in the « volunteer reapers » movement which aims to destroy parcels of GM crops on open fields. This movement is in line with a civil disobedience approach which therefore breaks the law in the name of general principles but in a peaceful manner. The reapers including José Bové were sentenced to prison for their actions.
Whilst the creation of first generation GMOs aimed at improving their agronomical properties, second generation GMOs have been modified according to other parameters.
Golden rice, for example, which is enriched with beta-carotene (a precursor of vitamin A, hence its colour) was developed in 2000 to reduce the risks of blindness in developing countries. Indeed, every year, between 250 000 and 500 000 children go blind due to a lack of Vitamin A. In 2005, a new variety of Golden rice, with even more beta-carotene was created. Yet, neither one was marketed. Environmentalists like Vandana Shiva have indeed made it clear that they are against this and have argued that there are better ways to solve food deficiency.
Other vegetables used to make biofuel have been modified or could be in the future to improve their energy properties.
(4) Yield Effects of Genetically Modified Crops in Developing Countries (Qaim et Zilberman, Science, 2003)
(5) Gm crops increase pesticide use and fail to alleviate poverty, Friends of the Earth
(9) Weighing the GMO arguments: against, FAO
See also :
– OGM le vrai débat, Gilles-Eric Séralini, Pour La Science et éditions Flammarion, 2000
– Le monde selon Monsanto, Marie-Monique Robin, Éditions La Découverte/Arte, 2008