February 27, 2021

The answer is not in the genes

The debate over GM crops raises passions 25 years after the first genetically modified crops began to be planted. The controversy continues to revolve around their safety for the environment and human health and the role they play in the face of the challenges facing agriculture in the world. In this time technology has changed with the appearance of new techniques such as genetic editing, and on the other hand, the pressing evidence of climate change and the collapse of ecosystems have greatly accelerated the urgency to transform our way of production and consumption. However, the discussion around GM crops remains a crossfire of scientific data and articles that prevents us from looking at the issue in perspective and asking ourselves the right questions. It is important to remember some figures and facts of the crops to put us in context: what are the main GM crops, where are they, who grows them and what for.

According to the latest data provided by the industry itself (ISAAA, International Service for Acquisition of Agrobiotechnology Applications), a total of 191.7 million hectares of transgenic crops are cultivated in the world. Two more data help us to understand this figure. On the one hand, this area represents just 0.11% of the total cultivated land in the world, which indicates that, although the controversy is great, the area is certainly insignificant. Only in five countries of the world do GM crops occupy a relevant area. By order: United States, Brazil, Argentina, Canada and India.

These countries, the only ones where transgenic crops really predominate, have an agricultural model based on monocultures for export, we are basically talking about soy, rapeseed and cotton. None of these productions is intended to feed people but the industry, in all cases it is merchandise (commodities) that are sold to the highest bidder on the Chicago Stock Exchange and whose destination is the manufacture of feed, biodiesel, oil and cheap clothing. The ultimate destination of these crops is to feed a lifestyle based on the overconsumption of meat, clothing, and vehicles, which we know is not compatible with the limits of the planet and that it is urgently and urgently necessary to transform. From the probiotechnological positions, these arguments are rejected, as they are not problems intrinsic to the technology in question but rather to the model. It is true that soybean that devastates the Amazon jungle is a problem in itself, and that it deforests genetically modified soybeans as well as conventional soybeans, but it does not seem reasonable to debate GMOs as a theoretical entelechy (a “scientific” debate) and close the eyes to this overwhelming reality that is its current and real application.

In addition to a scarce area and very specific crops, the genetic modifications themselves on the market are also very significant in terms of the scope and usefulness of this technology. Basically, crops with two genetic modifications are marketed: herbicide tolerance and insect resistance. Herbicide tolerance gives modified plants the ability to survive the roundup, the herbicide whose main component is the also controversial glyphosate. This has increased the amount of herbicide applied per hectare. The US Academy of Sciences itself, in its 2016 report, which was published as the definitive proof on the safety of transgenics, recognized that from the agronomic point of view its usefulness is very limited. American farmers fighting superweeds, weeds that have become resistant to glyphosate, confidently confirm this.

Aragon thinks about it

As for insect-resistant crops, let’s see, for example, what has happened on the peninsula after two decades of cultivation of drill-resistant corn, the only GMO whose cultivation is authorized in the EU. The main growing areas on our borders are in Aragon and Catalonia. These two territories cover 70% of the transgenic surface. Its destination is the manufacture of feed to feed an industrial livestock that, remember, grows totally runaway (in Spain more than 40 million pigs are slaughtered each year). The benefits for the agrarian sector remain to be seen, the Government of Aragon, after years of field trials and verifying that it does not increase yield, warned of the need for deep reflection on its usefulness.

It is a fact that transgenic agriculture is part of a specific agri-food model, and also unfair, because while it continues to feed the markets, the industry and the profits of large companies, in the world more than 800 million people go hungry. Paradoxically, 75% of these people live in rural areas and are dedicated to food production, they are farmers, fishermen, pastoralists and gatherers. Undoubtedly, the main factors that limit their food production are not found in access to sophisticated technologies such as GMOs, but rather to more basic resources such as fertile land or water. Competition for these resources increases, so it is worth asking what role biotechnology plays in a context of increasing pressure for resources and in which the true protagonists of agriculture, the peasantry, the 2 billion people in the world who are dedicated to food production, they fight not to be expelled from their territory by the extractive dynamics and the advance of mining or monocultures.


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