The introduction of genetic modification of plants has had major repercussions for global agriculture, asserts Michel Haring, professor of Plant Physiology at the University of Amsterdam. ‘It leads to monocultures where farmers continuously raise the same crop. Contrary to initial fears when genetically modified crops were introduced, there is no evidence that these new crops are a cause for health concerns. And so far, there have been no ecological disasters. But something we didn’t foresee was that it would change the face of agriculture on a global scale and have a serious impact on the environment.’
The amount of land where genetically modified crops are raised has increased fifteen-fold over the last 15 years to more than 160 million hectares. In countries like Brazil and Argentina, genetically modified soya is being cultivated and exported on a massive scale. ‘This has an enormous impact on the environment; worldwide transport of these crops alone creates huge amounts of pollution. Forests are razed to make way for plantations. Furthermore, even though genetically modified soya plants are disease-resistant, pesticides are used to suppress weeds. These weeds become resistant necessitating the use of stronger pesticides.’
According to Haring, little has changed with regard to technology since the introduction of genetically modified crops. The most commonly grown crops are modified soya, corn and cotton. Soya and corn are primarily used as animal feed in the livestock industry. It seems that modifying the more useful characteristics of other vegetables has turned out to be more difficult than anticipated. We have the knowledge about genes but the mechanism and how to manipulate it remains very difficult. Genetic modification is still an experimental technique.
Haring sees more potential in modern selective plant breeding where plants with different characteristics are combined to create a hybrid. ‘Using selective plant breeding, you can often attain the same results as with genetic modification. You also avoid the gene patenting issue that limits the exchange of plants for selective breeding. New insights into genetic mechanisms and knowledge about DNA are used in this technique to determine which plants can be used to create the most promising plant hybrids.’
The future of genetic modification
‘Genetic modification offers options that are not possible when selectively cross-breeding plants, such as combining plant and animal material. In the medical world, plants are being developed that can rapidly produce vaccines to fight cancer tumors’, adds Haring. ‘But many future applications, such as genetically modified corn that is drought-resistant or able to grow in soil where salinization has occurred, are chiefly intended for increasing seed sales. While this is logical from an economic point of view, it is not a sustainable development. We are shrinking the genetic foundation of our food crops and at some point we will pay the price for global monocultures and genetically modified crops. We are living on borrowed time.’