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Global production of GM soybean and GM cotton are declining; GM oilseed rape and GM maize hectarage have stagnated

Angelika Hilbeck*
Genetically engineered (GE) crops were introduced to the world almost three decades ago with great fanfare and the first crops commercialized over two decades ago. We were promised no more nor less than the abolishment of hunger and malnutrition and the creation of plants with higher yields and adapted to the challenges caused by the changing climate.
Despite the rhetoric, GE plants never were designed for the small scale farmer in the first place. However, overall yields of GE crops did not rise beyond those of non-GM crops in countries that chose not to grow GE crops, like in most of Europe.

A sobering reality check of 20 years of GE crop production

Since the first commercial release of GE crops over 20 years ago, four commodity crops containing two types of GE traits produced in the same six countries (called the 'six founder biotech crop countries' by ISAAA 2016) - USA, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, India, China - are making up over 90% of all commercial GE plants grown worldwide to this day. The four countries located in the Americas are by far biggest producer countries growing 85% of all GM crops.
Likewise nothing changed regarding the four commodity crops, soybean, maize, cotton and oilseed rape making up 99% of all GM crops grown globally. There are basically two traits: one based on insecticidal proteins taken from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), endowing these GE crops with a defense compound against some pest species, and the other a built-in resistance against broad-spectrum herbicides, mostly Glyphosate-based herbicides like Roundup.
Global production of GM soybean and GM cotton are declining and GM oilseed rape and GM maize hectarage have stagnated since years on a lower level, <25% or <30% of global production, respectively (ISAAA 2016).

No benefits for small scale farmers but many misleading claims

Deeper analyses show that it benefited 'small holders' at the upper end of the scale, meaning those with larger land holdings, irrigation systems and better education but failed the poorest of the poor and most vulnerable small scale producers on the lower end of the scale with very small holdings and rainfed cotton systems.
Despite the rethoric, the 'engineering' process does not work in biology as it does in electronic, mechanical engineering and as the 'engineers', often not biologists, had hoped. Organisms are no computers. The DNA 'code' is neither a machine code nor a language with words, sentences and grammar that does have a consistent meaning no matter on what paper you print it.
Burkinabe cotton varieties are world famous and highly valued for their long length lint but cross-breeding the Bt toxin transgene from American cotton varieties into local Burkinabe cotton varieties led to shortened lint length and lower quality of the cotton, bringing down sales and profits of Burkinabe cotton. Since the Burkina Faso government was forced to ban the production of Bt cotton, sales and profits have recovered.

Genetic engineering builds on outdated concepts of genetics

The idea of 'genetic engineering' hinges on the now outdated notion of a deterministic and linearly constructed 'Central Dogma' postulating that a sequence of nucleotides, DNA, acts as hard-wired instruction (a 'gene') for a particular product under all environmental circumstances in the donor and the recipient organims - as it would be for a computer. While many active researchers recognize the outdated status of Central Dogma understanding of inheritance, there is little if any critical evaluation of the scientific basis of genetic engineering in the biotechnology field.
Moreover, not only do the biotechnologists and vocal pro-GM molecular biologists avoid (self)critical reflection and have lost 'organized skepticism', as Prof. Stone puts it, but reflexively attack unfavorable published findings and critical analyses of GM products whose failure to deliver are meanwhile almost impossible to ignore, like the Golden Rice.

Limitations of new genetic engineering technologies

The novelty consists of techniques or tools developed in adapting and redesigning the bacterial CRISPR/Cas9 mechanism for the use in the bioengineering world. In contrast to the older genetic engineering tools, the new ones now allow to guide enzymatic "scissors" to specific DNA sequences (so-called target sites) where they will cut the DNA, mostly with claimed 'increased accuracy'.
Claiming that these tools entail less risk because of increased target efficiency ('precision') is naive at best. Unsafe things can be made with great precision! But it could even turn out more risky at worst.

The world will not be saved with point mutations

The newer genetic engineering techniques suffer from the same limitations as the older ones, since they still can only handle small DNA sequences, presenting at best single-gene solutions. By contrast, the problems that we face in agriculture are always complex, and will not be solved with point mutations.

Issues with India:

1. Small Farms are more prone to contamination.
2. More toxins through Bt crops and HT crops (Due to increased Herbicide)
3. Weeds are useful in many ways and provide rural employment especially to the women.
4. Illegal Introduction: Bt cotton, HT cotton and HT soyabean proves regulatory failure.
5. Implications on trade as no body prefers GM crops
6. Organic Farming is difficult to practice due to contamination threat.
7. Loss of biodiversity and threat of monoculture.
8. Risk to human health.
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*ETH Zurich, Institute of Integrative Biology, Agroecology & Environmental Biosafety Group

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