The right answer to the question I (somewhat provocatively) posed above is: this is the wrong question. Alas, most of the debate around genetically engineered crops (particularly GE foods) is based on this flawed formulation. In what follows, I shall try to show why the right question should be: “Can agriculture that is based on (or includes) transgenic crops be sustainable?”, and that the right answer is a conditional “It depends”.
First of all, I should clarify that my opinion on GE crops has changed. In my previous two posts on this subject, I presented arguments against GE crops which, as I realized recently through more thorough inquiry, either have been straightforwardly wrong, or it was wrong to generalize them. So, this piece is a try to start from scratch.
As I stated above, it is wrong to ask whether transgenic crops can be sustainable. No crops are sustainable (or unsustainable) per se. Neither transgenic, nor traditionally bred, nor mutagenic varieties are. An often invoked argument against transgenic crops is that they are in some sense “unnatural”. But, even if we leave out crops developed by mutagenesis, it hardly can be said of any agricultural crop that it is in any way “natural”. Conventional crops have all been developed through breeding by generations of farmers and, more recently, professional breeders. They have little in common with their wild cousins (consider the picture right hand comparing teosinte, the wild ancestor of maize, with maize itself). And, even more importantly – most (if not all) of them are not able to survive without human support. That is the price we have to pay for good taste, high nutritional value, agroeconomic tractability and high yields. In fact, agriculture is per se a heavy interference with natural ecosystems – and this to a large extent independently of how the respective crop was developed.
But before we turn to the latter theme in more detail, let us first consider the evidence that helps us to decide whether GE crops are that much different from others. Every newly bred (or engineered) variety possesses new traits that have to be tested for. The difference here is that when we use the tools of biotechnology, we know exactly which genes we induce into the crop’s DNA (or which we silence). On the other hand, when we use traditional breeding techniques (not to mention mutagenesis), we change whole (unknown) parts of the DNA – which makes the process of testing which traits had been changed relatively more time-consuming and uncertain.
What about the safety of GE crops? First, there is no scientific reason to expect them to be more problematic than any newly bred crop – in the end, in either case they just produce new proteins they didn’t produce before. These may be allergenic or toxic, so tests should be conducted before admission for commercial use. For GE crops of the second generation, engineered with the aim to make crops more resilient or to increase their nutritional value, the additional risk as compared with traditionally bred crops is particularly implausible. As for the first generation (mainly various “bt” and “Roundup-Ready” crops that either – in the former case – produce a toxin that kills some of the pests or – in the latter – are resistant to a potent weed-killer), years of research suggest that they are not toxic to humans, other mammals or beneficial organisms (see, e.g., here). Remember that, after more than 15 years of commercial use, there have been not a single case of harm that could be attributed directly to a GE crop. Second, GE crops are extensively safety-tested before being admitted for commercial use – indeed, the safety-testing requirements are much more stringent in most countries than for any other crops, including those developed through mutagenesis (see, e.g., here).
You might say, even though this is not directly a question of sustainability, that most GE varieties are produced and sold by large corporations (Monsanto, Syngenta, BASF, DuPont, Bayer…) whose quasi-monopoly status allows them e.g. to force farmers to buy seeds every season (they are in the most cases prohibited to sow anything they saved from the previous harvest), which is clearly unsustainable (since seeds are additionally produced and trasported that actually aren’t needed). This is an important point, but not one that could be used as an argument against GE crops in general. Indeed, there are examples of potentially beneficial GE crops not controlled by these corporations (e.g., the so-called Golden Rice or various disease resistant or otherwise resilient varieties). So, why I believe it is legitimate to call for limiting Monsanto & Co.’s economic and political power, there is no reason here to oppose transgenic crops per se. Furthermore, reports have found that despite the power of the corporations, GE crops are in most cases increasing farmers’ incomes, particularly in poor countries (see here).
Let us now turn to the actual question of this post: can agriculture that is based on or includes transgenic crops be sustainable? I already gave the answer – that it depends -, so let me explain it.
It has been shown that, in many cases, even first-generation GE crops have beneficial environmental effects, as compared with conventional agriculture, including substantial reductions in pesticide use (see, e.g., here), need for tillage (and therefore soil erosion), or even greenhouse gas emissions (because farmers don’t have to till and spray pesticides as often as those using conventional crops). Generally, however, GE crop based agriculture still is environmentally problematic, since it more often than not relies on monocultures, pesticides, chemical fertilization etc. This shows that it is not sustainable per se. But nor is conventional agriculture that doesn’t include GE crops.
In their powerful book, Tomorrow’s Table, Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamtchak, a married couple of a geneticist and an organic farmer, acknowledge the environmental problems related to conventional agricultural practices on the one hand, and the need to feed an increasing world population sustainably, on the other. They also acknowledge the limitations of organic agriculture, particularly those regarding some pests that cannot yet be controlled effectively and the problem of nitrogen (it has been shown by scientists that it is impossible to feed the world using current organic practices because of a lack of nitrogen sources). Of course, there are other strategies that might help to relieve hunger and malnutrition – including wastage reduction (both on the supply and demand side), reduction in the production of biofuels (probably limiting it to aviation, as argued by Mark Lynas), changes in the structure of agricultural subsidies in the EU and U.S. etc. Still, there is no reason to exclude genetic engineering from this effort. Therefore, Ronald and Adamtchak call for an inclusion of GE crops in organic agriculture, which could solve some of the prevailing problems of the latter. This also may have the unexpected effect to make organic agriculture more widespread, since many farmers who haven’t embrace it yet fear exactly those problems that genetic engineering has a potential to solve.
GE crops neither can save the world, nor are they per se a bad thing. However, if used properly, in combination with organic farming practices, they can help us to produce our food truly sustainably on a scale that really matters.