“Genetic engineering” (GE) / “Genetic modification” (GM)

The Decadal Plan on Australian Agriculture (NCAFF 2017) describes genetic engineering as a “key research tool” which will “revolutionise progress”, yet suffers “ethical and consumer acceptance issues”. It is described as a “disruptive technology” encouraging “novel approaches” with “virtually unlimited” extent of possible change (p18-19). The Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council praises GE crops for their “better efficiency” and the “potential to better manage environmental challenges” (p47).

Yet, observation and reality prove them wrong. The issues faced by these “exiting developments” (NCAFF 2017 p18) are primarily economic, ecological, and scientific. Benbrook (2012) and Heinemann et al. (2014) have shown that glyphosate-resistant GE crops have increased the use of glyphosate, and created resistant weeds. The other widely adopted GE crop, Bt cotton, which kills certain insects, has resulted in a substantial increase in secondary pests (Zhao et al. 2010, Lu et al. 2010, Benbrook 2012, Zhang et al. 2012). Additionally, it has not decreased pesticide use ahead of traditional crops, and in some cases has increased pesticide use (Heinemann et al. 2014). Sixty percent of Zhao’s respondents also found that production costs increased since the adoption of Bt cotton, and the authors note that “various researchers have pointed to the potential environmental risks of Bt cotton”. GE seeds are controlled by a monopoly (Shiva 2014, Heinemann et al. 2014, Jacobsen et al. 2013), are increasing in price (Heinemann et al. 2014), have forced farmers into irreparable debt (Shiva 2014) their adoption correlates with the highest rates of farmer suicide in India (Shiva et al. 2017).

Furthermore, contrary to the claims of biotech companies, a comparison of European (traditional) and American (GE) crops has shown that yields decrease with the adoption of GE (Heinemann et al. 2014, Jacobsen et al. 2013). Heinemann et al. conclude, “GM crops are not a solution … On-farm diversity should be encouraged … Innovation strategies that promote long-term sustainability and yields, rather than peak quantity, should be introduced.” Jacobsen et al. (2013) assert that GE “has no scientific support, but is rather a reflection of corporate interests”, and conclude that “An objective review of current knowledge places GM crops far down the list of potential solutions in the coming decades … much of the research funding currently available for the development of GM crops would be much better spent in other research areas of plant science”.

Benbrook, CM 2012, ‘Impacts of genetically engineered crops on pesticide use in the U.S. – the first sixteen years’, Environmental Sciences Europe, vol. December 2012.

Heinemann, JA, Massaro, M, Coray, DS, Agapito-Tenfen, SZ & Wene, JD 2014, ‘Sustainability and innovation in staple crop production in the US Midwest’, International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability,, vol. 12, no. 1, pp. 71-88.

Lu, Y, Wu, K, Jiang, Y, Xia, B, Li, P, Feng, H, Wyckhuys, KaG & Guo, Y 2010, ‘Mirid Bug Outbreaks in Multiple Crops Correlated with Wide-Scale Adoption of Bt Cotton in China’, Science, vol. 328, no. 5982, pp. 1151-1154.

National Committee for Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries 2017, Grow. Make. Prosper. The decadal plan for Australian Agricultural Sciences 2017–26, Canberra.

Shiva, V 2014, ‘The GMO emperor has no Clothes: Genetic engineering is a Failed Technology’, The Vandana Shiva Reader, University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky.

Shiva, V, Bhatt, V, Panigrahi, A, Mishra, K, Tarafdar & Singh, V 2017, Seeds of hope, seeds of resilience, Navdanya, New Delhi.

Zhang, C 2015, ‘Sustainable Development of Agriculture from the Perspective of Rural Urbanization’, Asian Agricultural Research, vol. 7, no. 3, pp. 8-10.

Zhao, JH, Ho, P & Azadi, H 2010, ‘Benefits of Bt cotton counterbalanced by secondary pests? Perceptions of ecological change in China’, Environmental Monitoring and Assessment, vol. 173, no. 1-4, pp. 985–994.