Most GM isn't grown for food
GM doesn't lead to better yields
GM research wastes public funds
GM 'solutions' ignore the real causes of hunger
A joint statement by the Food and Agriculture representatives of every African state (except South Africa), written in response to a Monsanto PR campaign: "We strongly object that the image of poor and hungry from our countries is being used by giant multinational corporations to push a technology that is neither safe, environmentally friendly, nor economically beneficial to us…We think it will destroy the diversity, the local knowledge and the sustainable agricultural systems that our farmers have developed for millennia, and that it will thus undermine our capacity to feed ourselves."
Increasingly often we hear how GM is necessary to create enough food for the world's increasing population, how anyone who objects to it is selfish and spoilt, prioritising exaggerated fears for their own safety over the needs of the 'starving millions of the third world'.
Yet none of the GM crops that are in cultivation now have led to increased yields, and even the CEO of a leading GM company has admitted that GM will not solve problems of food shortages for many, many years. By contrast, other methods such as organic agriculture have been proved to be highly productive, and every penny that is spent on GM cannot be spent on promoting and developing these alternatives.
Finally, claiming that GM is necessary to feed the world ignores the real reasons why people are hungry: the problem now is not a lack of food, but the fact that many people don't have access to it. Even if the GM industry were successful in increasing the total amount of food, there is no reason to believe it would reach the people who needed it.
"[Playing the hunger card] was a very cheap ploy playing on the guilty feelings of the Europeans, who originally colonised Africa and ensalved its peoples. Our Africa Group decided by its own free will that, as it stands, GM technology is not good for us. And, contrary to the claims of the GM lobby, these crops would not have fed or freed us by giving us greater control over our production, but rather enslaved Africa once more - particularly because of the patenting aspect."
Tewolde Berhan, 2009, famous as spokesperson for the Africa Group in the negociations surrounding the Cartagena Protocal on trade in GM, and also director of the Environmental Protection Authority in Ethiopia.
Most GM is not grown for food
A large majority of GM crops are grown for animal feed, agrofuels and cotton rather than for food crops. For example, somewhere between 60% and 90% of the GM soya harvest is used for producing high protein soya meal for animal feed, and vegetable oil (MVO, 2009). Some oil is used for cooking, but in Argentina, Brazil and the US significant amounts are converted into bio-diesel. A lot of the GM that does get used as food goes into making highly processed products that are too expensive for most hungry people in the global south. 1
GM doesn't lead to better yields
The GM crops currently in cultivation are virtually all engineered for herbicide tolerance and insect resistance. 2 Herbicide resistant GM plants, which represent 82% of GM acreage 3 , are shown to produce a yield decrease, while claims for yield increases in insect resistant cotton have been wildly exaggerated and in most cases are simply untrue. 4
In 2010 cotton harvests in India in particular have been disastrous, and reportedly linked to farmer suicides. 5
For example, the industry claims, and has been claiming for years, that a new generation of socially responsible GM is on its way: food crops that will be drought resistant, saline tolerant, or nutritionally enhanced, but there are serious doubts that these promises will ever be fulfilled, 78 and if they are, such crops are likely to pose yet more food safety and cross contamination risks. 9
Another issue is the time delay: even while the media and members of the government are calling for GM to solve the current food crisis, the chairman of Syngenta, a major player in biotechnology and the world's third biggest seed company, 10 acknowledges that the technology simply won't deliver, and that it would be at least 20 years before crops could emerge that were "designed to address the problems of the developing world." 11
In the US, all the new GM research being undertaken is following very much along the old tracks - newer and better herbicide tolerance and not much else. 12 There are some trials taking place, in various African countries for example, which involve non-commercial crops, and which are presented as poverty alleviation programmes. However, these tend to be initiated with much blazing of fanfares, discovered to fail and allowed to quietly be forgotten, having already done their job of providing an entry point for GM corporations, creating a context in which to pass lax biosafety legislation and stringent intellectual property laws, ultimately paving the way for the same old cash crops. 13
A waste of money and resources
GM research is swallowing up public funds which could be used on developing technologies which work, which don't pose the same health risks, and which don't need such lengthy safety-testing procedures. The UK government alone invested £50 million on agricultural biotechnology in the year from 2007-8, in contrast to the £1.6 million invested in organic agriculture in the same period. 14 Despite this, UK sales of organic products in 2008 stood at £2.1 billion, while GM foods are widely rejected.
On top of this, many 'low-tech' agricultural solutions are not only cheaper and easier to access, they are also more successful. A recent UN report showed that a switch to organic agriculture increased yields in all cases investigated. A team of scientists led by Catherine Badgely at the University of Michigan in the US reviewed 293 studies comparing organic farming methods with conventional ones, and concluded that organic agriculture can, in the long term, be significantly more productive than non-organic, so that there is a potential to feed a much larger population than the world currently holds. 15 Jules Pretty, Director of the Centre for Environment and Society at the University of Essex, notes that the introduction of sustainable techniques such as planting green manures or using water conservation strategies have led to major increases in yields in areas that had previously missed out on Green Revolution agricultural methods. For those farmers who had been working with intensive chemicals the difference was more moderate, but he still reported yield increases of around 10% in these cases. 16
Ignoring the real causes of hunger
Talking about yield increases is allowing the GM industry to set the terms of the debate. Hunger is not caused by a lack of food. The planet produces more than enough food to keep us all alive, and yet there are approximately 963 million hungry people, 17 80% of whom are small farmers. 18 In Asia, the so-called 'Green Revolution' saw total food production rise by 9%, but the number of hungry people also rise by 9%, while in South America, even more starkly, food produced rose by 8% while the number of hungry people went up by 19% 19 . Recent sharp rises in the numbers of hungry people happened in spite of bumper harvests 20 : ultimately hunger is not about how much food there is, but about who has access to it.
GM technology is expensive, and the vast majority of GM crops currently in cultivation have led to increased use of expensive chemicals. 21 To date, and there is no evidence that this is likely to change, it has mostly involved highly industrialised, monocrop plantations which generate maximum profits for the seed and agro-chemical companies. 22
When communities have control over the land they live on, and can make their own choices about what to grow there and how to do it, they are much more likely to grow a diverse range of crops and so have some to fall back if one fails. When farmers are dependent on one crop only, and reliant upon international markets to give them the money that will translate that crop into food for their family; when they need to pay for increasing amounts of oil based chemicals just to keep their crops alive, and at the same time have to pay premiums for their branded seeds, the result has never been greater food security.
Climate change, population growth and declining oil reserves make it even more urgent that we sort out the problem of how to feed the world, but more of the policies that got us into this mess is not the answer.
1: 'Who benefits from GM crops?', Friends of the Earth International, Full Report, February 2010, p1, p6
2: 'Who benefits from gm crops? The rise in pesticide use', Friends of the Earth International, Executive Summary, January 2009, p4
3: 'Who benefits from GM crops?', Friends of the Earth International, Full Report, February 2009, p5
4: 'Who benefits from gm crops? The rise in pesticide use', Friends of the Earth International, Executive Summary, January 2008, p9
5: 'Farmer suicides and Bt cotton nightmare unfolding in India', Institute of Science in Society, 06.01.10, http://www.i-sis.org.uk/farmersSuicidesBtCottonIndia.php, last viewed 16.09.10
6: 'Who benefits from gm crops? The rise in pesticide use', Friends of the Earth International, Executive Summary, January 2008, p5
7: Heinemann, Jack, 'Desert Grain', The Ecologist, Volume 38, Issue 9, November 2008, pp23-4.
8: 'Patenting the "climate genes" ... and capturing the climate agenda', ETC group communique, Issue 99, May/June 2008, p6
9: 'Patenting the "climate genes" ... and capturing the climate agenda', ETC group communique, Issue 99, May/June 2008, p11
10: 'Patenting the "climate genes" ... and capturing the climate agenda', ETC group communique, Issue 99, May/June 2008, p7
11: Adam, David, 'GM will not solve current food crisis, says industry boss', The Guardian, 27.06.08, available at
http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/jun/27/gmcrops.food, last viewed 30.04.09
12: 'Who benefits from gm crops? The rise in pesticide use', Friends of the Earth International, Executive Summary, January 2008, p 4
13: 'USAID: making the world hungry for GM crops', Grain, 2005, available at http://www.grain.org/briefings/?id=191, last viewed 27.04.09
14: Lean, Geoffrey, 'GM: the Secret Files', The Independent, available at http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/green-living/gm-the-secret-files-395453.html, last viewed 26.04.09
15: 'Scientists find organic agriculture can feed the world better than conventional agriculture', http://www.i-sis.org.uk/foodWithoutFossilFuels.php, last viewed 13.04.09
16: Pretty, Jules, 'Feeding the world?' taken from 'SPLICE', August/September 1998 Volume 4 Issue 6, available at http://ngin.tripod.com/article2.htm, last viewed 28.04.09
17: UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, Newsroom, 'Number of hungry people rises to 963 million', http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/8836/, last viewed 09.05.09
18: 'Making a killing from Hunger', April 2008 http://www.grain.org/articles/?id=39, last viewed 24.04.09
19: 'Lessons for the Green revolution', 08.04.00, http://www.foodfirst.org/media/opeds/2000/ 4-greenrev.html, last viewed 24.04.09
20: Lean, Geoffrey, 'Year of the hungry: 1 000 000 000 afflicted', The Independent, 28.12.08, available at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/politics/year-of-the-hungry-1000000000- afflicted-1213843.html, last viewed 08.05.09
21: 'Who benefits from gm crops? The rise in pesticide use', Friends of the Earth International, Executive Summary, January 2008, pp4-6
22: 'Who benefits from gm crops? The rise in pesticide use', Friends of the Earth International, Executive Summary, January 2008, p5