GM crops are needed to feed the world’s growing population
GM crops are irrelevant to feeding the world
“We strongly object that the image of the 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 do not believe that such companies or gene technologies will help our farmers to produce the food that is needed in the 21st century. On the contrary, 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.”
– Statement signed by 24 delegates from 18 African countries to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, 1998
“If anyone tells you that GM is going to feed the world, tell them that it is not… To feed the world takes political and financial will.”
– Steve Smith, head of GM company Novartis Seeds UK (now Syngenta), public meeting on proposed local GM farm scale trial, Tittleshall, Norfolk, UK, 29 March 2000
GM crops are promoted as a way of solving world hunger at a time when the population is expected to increase. But it is difficult to see how GM can contribute to solving world hunger when there are no GM crops available that increase intrinsic yield (see Section 5). Nor are there any GM crops that are better than non-GM crops at tolerating poor soils or challenging climate conditions.
Instead, most currently available GM crops are engineered for herbicide tolerance or to contain a pesticide, or both. The two major GM crops, soy and maize, mostly go into animal feed, biofuels to power cars, and processed human food – products for developed nations that have nothing to do with meeting the basic food needs of the poor and hungry. GM corporations are answerable to their shareholders and thus are interested in profitable commodity markets, not in feeding the poor and hungry.
Even if a GM crop did appear that gave higher yields than non-GM crops, this would not impact the problem of hunger. This is because the root cause of hunger is not a lack of food, but a lack of access to food. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, we already produce more than enough food to feed the world’s population and could produce enough with existing agricultural methods to feed 12 billion people.1 The problem is that the poor have no money to buy food and increasingly, no access to land on which to grow it. Hunger is a social, political, and economic problem, which GM technology cannot address. GM is a dangerous distraction from real solutions and claims that GM can help feed the world can be viewed as exploitation of the suffering of the hungry.
7.1.2. GM crops for Africa: Catalogue of failure
A handful of GM crops have been promoted as helping small-scale and poor farmers in Africa. However, the results were the opposite of what was promised.
GM sweet potato yielded poorly, lost virus resistance
The virus-resistant sweet potato has been a GM showcase project for Africa, generating global media coverage. Florence Wambugu, the Monsanto-trained scientist fronting the project, has been proclaimed an African heroine and the saviour of millions, based on her claims that the GM sweet potato doubled output in Kenya. Forbes magazine even declared her one of a tiny handful of people around the globe who would “reinvent the future”.2
But it eventually emerged that the claims being made for the GM sweet potato were untrue, with field trial results showing it to be a failure. The GM sweet potato was out-yielded by the non-GM control and succumbed to the virus it was designed to resist.3,4
In contrast, a conventional breeding programme in Uganda produced a new high-yielding variety that was virus-resistant and raised yields by roughly 100%. The Ugandan project achieved its goal in a fraction of the time and cost of the GM project. The GM sweet potato project, over 12 years, consumed funding from Monsanto, the World Bank, and USAID to the tune of $6 million.5
GM cassava lost virus resistance
The potential of genetic engineering to boost the production of cassava – one of Africa’s staple foods – by defeating a devastating virus has been heavily promoted since the mid-1990s. It was even claimed that GM cassava could solve hunger in Africa by increasing yields as much as tenfold.6
But almost nothing appears to have been achieved. Even after it became clear that the GM cassava had suffered a major technical failure, losing resistance to the virus,7 media stories continued to appear about its curing hunger in Africa.8,9
Meanwhile, conventional (non-GM) plant breeding has quietly produced a virus resistant cassava that is already proving successful in farmers’ field, even under drought conditions.10
Bt cotton failed in Makhatini
“The [GM cotton] seed itself is doing poorly. Without irrigation, and with increasingly unpredictable rain, it has been impossible to plant the cotton. In 2005 T. J. Buthelezi, the man whose progress was hymned by Monsanto’s vice-president not three years before, had this to say: ‘My head is full – I don’t know what I’m going to do. I haven’t planted a single seed this season. I have paid Rand 6,000 (USD 820, GBP 420) for ploughing, and I’m now in deep debt.’ T. J. is one of the faces trucked around the world by Monsanto to prove that African farmers are benefiting from GM technology.”
– Raj Patel, “Making up Makhatini”, in Stuffed and Starved11
Makhatini in South Africa was home to a showcase GM Bt cotton project for small-scale farmers. The project began with 3000 smallholder farmers cultivating Monsanto’s Bt cotton between 1998 and 2001,12 with over 100,000 hectares planted. By 2002, the area planted had crashed to 22,500 hectares, an 80% reduction in four years.13,11
A 2003 report on the project calculated that crop failures left the farmers who had adopted the expensive Bt cotton with debts of $1.2 million.5 A separate study concluded that the project did not generate sufficient income to generate a “tangible and sustainable socioeconomic improvement”.14
By 2004, 85% of farmers who used to grow Bt cotton had given up. The farmers found pest problems and no increase in yield. Those farmers who still grew the crop did so at a loss. They continued only because the South African government subsidised the project from public funds; the company that sold the cottonseed and bought the cotton was their only source of credit; and there was a guaranteed market for the cotton.13,11
A 2012 review reported that by the 2010/11 growing season, the area planted to Bt cotton had shrunk to a minuscule 500 hectares – a decline of more than 90% from the area under cultivation during the period of Bt cotton’s claimed success (1998–2000). Yields continued to vary widely according to rainfall levels, hovering within 10% of what they were before Bt cotton was introduced. Overall pest control costs remained significantly higher with Bt cotton (65% of total input costs) than with non-Bt cotton (42% of total input costs).
The review concluded that the main value of Makhatini project appears to have been as a public relations exercise for GM proponents, providing “crucial ammunition to help convince other African nations to adopt GM crops” and that there was a “disconnect” between how the project was represented and “the realities faced by its cotton growers”.12
GM soy and maize project ends in ruin for poor farmers
A GM soy and maize farming project ended in disaster for poor black farmers in South Africa. The Eastern Cape government was criticised for its support of this so-called “Green Revolution” project, which was launched in 2003–2004. A research study by the Masifunde Education and Development Project Trust, together with Rhodes University, found that the programme had disastrous results for farmers.
“We saw a deepening of poverty and people returning to the land for survival,” said Masifunde researcher, Mercia Andrews. The study raised concerns about feeding schemes conducted on animals with “alarming results”, including damage to internal organs. It presented evidence of weed and pest problems, contamination of crops with GM pollen, and the control exercised by big companies over local and global food systems as a result of patented seeds.15
We conclude from these examples that it is irresponsible to pressure poor farmers in the Global South into gambling their farms and livelihoods on risky GM crops when proven effective alternatives exist.
7.1.3. The biofuels boom and the food crisis
“The agribusiness giants who have developed and patented genetically modified crops have long argued that their mission is to feed the world, rarely missing an opportunity to mention starving Africans. Their mission is, in fact, to make a profit.
“Land rights for small farmers, political stability, fairer markets, education and investment hold the key to feeding Africa but offer little prospect of increased profits.
“The climate crisis was used to boost biofuels, helping to create the food crisis; and now the food crisis is being used to revive the fortunes of the GM industry.”
– Daniel Howden, Africa correspondent, The Independent (UK)16
“The cynic in me thinks that they’re just using the current food crisis and the fuel crisis as a springboard to push GM crops back on to the public agenda. I understand why they’re doing it, but the danger is that if they’re making these claims about GM crops solving the problem of drought or feeding the world, that’s bullshit.”
– Denis Murphy, head of biotechnology, University of Glamorgan, Wales17
The 2007–2008 global food crisis led to food riots around the world, as the escalating price of staple crops pushed food out of reach of the poor and hungry. The crisis is ongoing – in early 2011 global food prices remained close to their 2008 peak.18 They declined 8% between September and December 2011, though the World Bank reported that they were still high, with the 2011 annual food price index exceeding the 2010 annual index by 24%.18
GM proponents have used the food crisis to claim that anti-GM activists in the Global North are keeping the Global South hungry by creating unfounded fears about GM crops. These high-technology GM crops, they claimed, could help solve the hunger problem, if only the activists in affluent countries would stop interfering. But the World Bank and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation identified the biofuels boom – not a lack of GM foods – as the main cause of the 2007–2008 food crisis.19,20
Biofuels are crops used for fuel. Vast tracts of cropland have been taken out of food production to grow biofuels for cars, funded by generous government subsidies. This has made food scarcer, pushing up costs.
An added factor is that the growth of the biofuels industry has created a link between agriculture and fuel that never existed before. Previously, agricultural markets were driven only by food demands and were not linked to petroleum markets. But now they are tightly linked, because agriculture provides the crops that are used to make the biofuels alternative to petrochemical fuels. Four major food and feed crops – sugarcane, maize, wheat, and soy – are now used for biofuels feedstock. So the biofuels boom has coupled food prices to fossil fuel prices,18 with the result that food prices will continue to spiral as petroleum becomes scarcer and more expensive.
The same companies that produce GM seeds also produce feedstocks for biofuels. This shows that these companies are not motivated by a desire to feed the world but by a desire to make a profit.
7.1.4 Food speculation and hunger
An additional cause of the 2007–2008 food crisis (apart from the rush to biofuels) was financial speculation in food commodity markets. This ongoing trend drives up prices for the crops that are traded internationally on a large scale, namely maize, wheat, and soy. One report on the topic concluded, “Food markets should serve the interests of people and not those of financial investors… Given that hunger still exists in the world, even small price increases that are driven by financial investment are scandalous. We must not allow food to become a purely financial asset.”21
GM crops do not provide a solution to the problem of financial speculation in food markets.