Gates Money for GM Nitrogen Fixing No Silver Bullet
Immediate release (16 Oct 2012)
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GM nitrogen fixing cereals are a mirage says a new publication from GM Freeze. The complex genetics involved are proving an obstacle to success, and even if it does work the technology is likely to result in lower yields. 
In Summer 2012 the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced a US$10 million grant for the UK’s John Innes Centre to try to develop GM maize that can fix nitrogen in the same way legumes do. Nitrogen fixing helps plants acquire nutrients critical to their development that otherwise must be applied artificially. Legumes, (eg, clover, beans and peas) fix nitrogen naturally and are key components of rotations – a critical part of good farming practice. However nitrogen fixation has not evolved naturally in grasses from which cereal crops (eg, wheat, maize) were originally bred, so it is often claimed that attempting to produce GM nitrogen fixing cereals would aid farmers in areas with poor soil or who cannot afford chemical fertilizers.
Today’s report explains why several major problems stand in the way of researchers being able to genetically modify cereals to fix nitrogen, including:
- It involves genetically modifying two organisms, the plant and a bacterium, to work symbiotically together. No successful GM has involved getting two separate species to work symbiotically, and the unpredictability of the technology makes it unlikely to work.
- It involves multiple genetic changes in the plant and the bacteria, escalating the chances of failure or unintended outcomes.
- Fixing nitrogen draws a lot of energy from the plant that would otherwise be used to grow leaves or fill grain, so may affect yields.
In addition GM nitrogen fixing crops could result in greater reliance on industrial monocultures and short crop rotations, which could in turn cause further problems, including exhaustion of other soil nutrients, reduced overall soil fertility and increases in weeds, pests and diseases.
GM Freeze says that if helping farmers worldwide is really the goal there are better ways to spend US$10 million. These include better use of existing crops that can already fix nitrogen from the air and developing means to maximise the recovery of nitrogen from waste, which would also help lighten the global pollution load on water and soil systems while lessening reliance on artificial fertilisers.
Commenting Pete Riley of GM Freeze said:
The complexities of the genetics involved, coupled with the unpredictability of the technology, make it highly unlikely GM nitrogen fixing will work. This paper exposes how badly misjudged this funding is.
Pursuing the nitrogen fixing mirage will be very expensive and time consuming. The money would be better spent rolling out proven technologies and following more promising lines of research.
We simply don’t need GM to feed the world – there is already more than enough food available to feed everyone and more. The same lack of political will that prevents the changes needed to feed everyone is propping up the quest for silver bullet technofixes like GM cereals the industry claims will fix nitrogen. They sound good, but if they are unlikely to work the money should be spent on things that will. Farmers have had enough of the GM industry’s empty promises.
GM Freeze, 16 October 2012. GM Nitrogen Fixing Cereals: No silver bullet