Euro Exim Bank

Facts not fiction about GMOs and their benefits


Most of us have an opinion about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), but is it based on facts or hear-say? Let’s take a look at some surprising facts.

Biotechnology is already part of your daily life

When you are reading these lines, you are most likely wearing clothes made from GM cotton, and your fridge is probably full of foods derived from animals fed with GM crops, whether it is meat, milk or eggs. Biotechnology is also used to produce the enzymes used to make many processed foods including cheese, bread, pastries, chocolates, juice and wine amongst other products. Insulin and many other modern pharmaceuticals are equally produced with genetically modified micro-organisms.

The imported GM raw materials weigh as much as we do

There is in fact a huge demand for GM commodities in the EU, which is why we import millions of tons of them, totalling more than 60 kg for each of its 500 million citizens per year. Our GM soybean imports alone are over 30 million tons. alt

We are all “genetically modified”

Did you know that we human beings carry numerous genes from other species? According to a recent study by Crisp and Boschetti of Cambridge University, 145 of our genes are not from apes but from bacteria, fungi and algae. Plant breeding has always been about adapting the genome to have plants better suited for farmers’ use and for human consumption, and almost all farmed crops we eat today have little in common with their wild ancestors of some centuries ago. The rapid advances in molecular biology enable us to work with genes in a precise way, taking on from what Mother Nature has been doing less precisely.

GM crop cultivation dwarfs EU crop farming

In 2014, 18 million farmers planted over 180 million hectares of biotech crops in 28 countries. These are more farmers than all EU farmers (ca. 12 million), and they grow GMOs on an area much larger than the entire EU arable land (ca. 104 million hectares). The area farmed with GM crops amounts to about 15% of the world’s arable land – despite the fact that the majority of farmers in Europe are still forbidden the choice of growing biotech.

It’s successful because farmers like it

Farmers carefully consider before each growing season which seeds to buy, as this is a major investment. And they will think even harder before investing in more expensive biotech seeds. The fact is that despite some limitation of choice and other barriers, GMO seeds have become the fastest adopted crop technology since the first commercial cultivation almost 20 years ago. This means millions of conscious decisions by individual farmers and most of them buy GMO seeds again the following season. Can 18 million farmers have been wrong year after year?

GMOs have been benefiting the environment

With the help of technology, farming has become more efficient in its use of inputs such as plant protection products, water, fertilisers and energy. GM technology has contributed significantly to optimising pesticide application (by up to 37%) and increasing yields on the same amount of land by up to 22%. Reduced ploughing and tilling are probably the most important solutions to combat soil degradation and erosion, and are facilitated by herbicide tolerant GM crops. These practices are widespread and increasing in countries where GM crops are cultivated, while still very rare in the EU. In 2013 alone, GM crops helped to save greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to taking 12.4 million cars off the roads for one year. alt

GMOs are at least as safe as conventional crops

All biotech crops on the market are scientifically proven to be at least as safe as conventional crops, both for human and animal consumption as well as for the environment, as confirmed by renowned organizations including the European Academies of Science, the European Food Safety Authority, the World Health Organisation and the European Commission. After 19 years of large scale GMO cultivation and some 3 trillion meals containing GM ingredients having been eaten, not a single substantiated safety concern has been reported. Scare stories have regularly turned out to be untrue and based on flawed studies, when checked by independent scientists and competent public authorities.

Sometimes even safer

Maize plants can be infested by pests which make holes in the plant when they eat into the crop. These holes are often entry points for natural fungi that produce toxic substances such as mycotoxins, known to cause cancer. In Europe there are thresholds for mycotoxin levels in food products and some countries like Italy have had to destroy large percentages of milk production, due to the presence of mycotoxins originating from the animal feed. Insect resistant GM maize – such as the only GM crop currently authorized for cultivation in the EU – fends off these pests by producing the same proteins widely sprayed in organic farming and in so doing produces much safer harvests.

Europe was where GM began

In the 1980s, Van Montagu and Schell were the first scientists to develop and test genetically engineered plants at the University of Ghent in Belgium. Europe was the cradle of GM invention but now risks becoming the world’s farming museum: we are lagging behind all other continents, because our farmers are still being denied the freedom to choose which safe products to grow.

Dozens of GM crops from public research

GM is frequently portrayed as the exclusive domain of large companies. But many public research groups are also developing and testing GM crops, some in Europe and many elsewhere. For example, the Spanish National Research Council has developed wheat that could be suitable for most gluten intolerances, and the Flemish Institute of Biotechnology is field testing GM poplar trees for the bio-economy. In Africa, GM projects on crops such as cassava and banana aim to help resolve subsistence challenges for small resource-poor farmers. alt

The second generation is already thriving

Most of the currently grown GM crops are herbicide tolerant, insect resistant, or both – and these traits have delivered enormous benefits to farmers and the environment. “Golden Rice” which can help fight vitamin A deficiency in Asia is being tested in field trials. Other new products like drought tolerant maize and soybeans modified to produce healthier oils are now being grown – but they have been stuck in the deadlocked EU system for import authorizations. It is time to think again!