GM crops' acreage declined, but will rebound

Apr 13, 2016, 11:59 AM EDT
GM "Golden Rice."
(Source: IRRI Photos/flickr)

A report released on Wednesday showed that the global acreage of genetically modified (GM) crops declined by 1% in 2015, the first decrease since they became commercially available in 1996. Although consumers and activists stand against GM crops in many countries, their opposition did not cause the downturn. Rather, low commodity prices led farmers to plant less corn, soybeans, and canola of all types, GM and conventional.

India’s major GM crop is cotton, which is not as controversial because it is not food. However, India is on the frontlines of the global debate over GM crops. Despite objections from many groups, the country’s environment ministry has cleared 40 out of 51 proposed GM crop field trials since the current government took office in May 2014. Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar has said that research and confined field trials for generating biosafety data with all due precautions should be allowed to continue in the national interest.

But on April 1 the Central Information Commission ordered the environment ministry to release biosafety data on all GM crops by the end of the month under the Right to Information (RTI) Act. For example, regulators and the ministry had declined RTI requests for the dossier on GM mustard, but they will have to divulge it now.

Extensive testing should be done prior to releasing any GM crop on the market, no matter where. But opposition to all GM crops even in the face of demonstrated safety is unfair. First off, there is a spectrum of GM -- i.e,, mixing genes from different strains of rice should not be as controversial as doing so from very different organisms, like seaweed and corn.

Secondly, in a warming world with more extreme weather, GM crops promise to be more resilient and deliver better yields than conventional crops. (See our previous coverage: Is Peru’s ban on GMOs misguided? and Miracle rice will survive climate change.) It’s the right of consumers to choose non-GM or organic foods if they can afford it, but many of the world’s poor face chronic food insecurity and resulting health problems. It’s hardly surprising that they would opt for a more reliable, nutritious GM-enhanced diet over a non-engineered diet resulting in malnutrition.

And apart from more severe droughts and floods, the rise of CO2 in the air and warmer temperatures threatens the proper functioning of two critical molecules involved in plants’ photosynthesis. That will not only mean lower crop yields, but also less CO2 taken from the air and less oxygen released in turn -- exactly what we don’t want to happen. Scientists are researching how to genetically improve those molecules’ functionality under higher temperatures and concentrations of CO2, with early success.

The bottom line: GM crops deserve a fair chance.