7.2 MYTH:

GM crops are vital to achieve food security


Agroecological farming is the key to food security

“Agroecology mimics nature not industrial processes. It replaces the external inputs like fertilizer with knowledge of how a combination of plants, trees and animals can enhance productivity of the land. Yields went up 214% in 44 projects in 20 countries in sub-Saharan Africa using agroecological farming techniques over a period of 3 to 10 years… far more than any GM crop has ever done.”
– Olivier De Schutter, UN special rapporteur on the right to food22

In 2008 the World Bank and four United Nations agencies completed a four-year study on the future of farming. Conducted by over 400 scientists and experts from 80 countries and endorsed by 62 governments, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) report did not endorse GM crops as a solution to world hunger. The report pointed out that yields of GM crops were “highly variable”, providing “yield gains in some places and yield declines in others”.23

The IAASTD identified agroecological farming as the key to future food security. The report called for more cooperation between farmers and interdisciplinary teams of scientists to build culturally acceptable and sustainable food production systems.23 Examples of such systems documented in IAASTD and other sources include:

  • Low-input, energy-saving practices that preserve and build soil, conserve water, and enhance natural pest resistance and resilience in crops
  • Innovative farming methods that minimize or eliminate costly chemical pesticides and fertilizers
  • Use of thousands of traditional varieties of major food crops which are naturally adapted to stresses such as drought, heat, harsh weather conditions, flooding, salinity, poor soil, and pests and diseases24
  • Programmes that enable farmers to cooperatively preserve and improve traditional seeds
  • Use of existing crops and their wild relatives in traditional breeding programmes to develop varieties with useful traits
  • Use of safe techniques of modern biotechnology, such as marker assisted selection (MAS), to speed up traditional breeding. Unlike GM technology, MAS can produce new varieties of crops with valuable genetically complex properties such as enhanced nutrition, taste, high yield, resistance to pests and diseases, and tolerance to drought, heat, salinity, and flooding.25

Sustainable agriculture projects in the Global South have produced dramatic increases in yields and food security.26,27,28,29,30,31 A 2008 United Nations report looked at 114 farming projects in 24 African countries and found that organic or near-organic practices resulted in yield increases averaging over 100%. In East Africa, a yield increase of 128% was found. The report concluded that organic agriculture can be more conducive to food security in Africa than chemically-based production systems, and that it is more likely to be sustainable in the long term.29

These results serve as a reminder that plant genetics are only a part of the answer to food security. The other part is how crops are grown. Sustainable farming methods that preserve soil and water and minimize external inputs not only ensure that there is enough food for the current population, but that the land stays productive for future generations.

7.2.1. Small farms are more efficient

Research confirms that future food security lies in the hands of small farmers. Small farms are more efficient than large ones, producing more crops per hectare of land.34,35,36,37

7.2.2. Sustainable agriculture can reduce poverty

Studies based in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean have found that organic and agroecological farming can combat poverty in an environmentally sustainable way:

  • Farmers growing organic crops for export and domestic markets in Latin America and the Caribbean had higher incomes than a control group of farmers using chemically-based methods. Reasons included the lower cost of organic technologies; the substitution of labour and organic inputs for more expensive chemical inputs that often require access to credit; premiums paid for organic products; and the strong long-term relationships that organic farmers developed with buyers, which resulted in better prices. As a bonus, organic production was associated with positive effects on the health of farm workers. Concern about pesticide poisoning was an important factor in farmers’ adoption of organic farming.38
  • The income of farmers in China and India improved after they switched to organic systems and was greater than that of farmers using chemically-based methods. The study concluded that the promotion of organic agriculture among small farmers can contribute to poverty alleviation.39
  • Certified organic farms in tropical Africa involved in production for export were more profitable than those involved in chemically-based export production. The result was decreased poverty and increased food security for farming communities, as people had more money to buy food. Also, organic conversion brought increases in yield.40
  • Organic systems in Africa were found to raise farm incomes as well as agricultural productivity. Reasons for the higher incomes included lower input costs, as expensive synthetic pesticides and fertilizers were not used; and use of local, inexpensive, and readily available technologies.29
  • The agroecological “integrated rice-duck” system of using ducks and fish to control pests in rice paddies in Japan, China, India, the Philippines, and Bangladesh has cut labour costs for weeding, reduced pesticide costs, increased yields by up to 20%, and boosted farm incomes by up to 80%.41,42

7.2.3.  Who owns food?

Traditionally, most food crop seeds have not been owned by anyone. Farmers have been free to save seeds from one year’s crop for the next year’s crop. Around 1.4 billion farmers in the Global South rely on such farm-saved seed for their livelihoods.44

But this ancient practice is being undermined. The transgenes used in creating GM crops are patented and owned by GM companies. The patents forbid farmers from saving seed to plant the following year. They have to buy new seed each year.

While an increasing number of non-GM seeds are also being patented (in many cases by the big GM companies such as Monsanto, Dupont, and Syngenta), GM seeds are easier to patent as the artificial genetic constructs can be more clearly identified and there are fewer legal “grey areas”.45 So for the time being, at least, GM will remain the technology of choice for the seed multinationals.

In the United States and Canada, the presence of a company’s patented GM genes in a farmer’s harvest has been used by GM companies, particularly Monsanto, as the basis for litigation against the farmer. Contamination from cross-pollination happens readily, so the harvests of many farmers who have not planted Monsanto seed have tested positive for GM genes and Monsanto has sued them for patent infringement. This has pushed many farmers into switching to buying Monsanto’s seed, because then they are safer from litigation. Farmers’ claims that they have not intentionally planted GM crops have not protected them from having to pay large cash settlements or damages as a result of civil lawsuits.46

Patented GM seeds transfer control of food production from farmers to seed companies. GM companies co-opt centuries of farmer knowledge that went into creating locally adapted and genetically diverse seed stocks by adding one GM gene on top of the collective creation of generations of farmers.

Patents also transfer control of the food supply from the Global South to developed countries in the Global North. This is because most of the world’s genetic resources for food crops are in the South, whereas most patents are held in the North.47 There is widespread concern in the Global South about the “biopiracy” of its genetic resources by the Global North, involving seed patenting and the loss of farmers’ rights to save seed.

Some GM proponents have called for GM crops to be developed through public funds for the benefit of humanity.48 But it is difficult to justify gambling taxpayer funds on speculative GM “solutions” to problems that can be solved using methods that are simpler, cheaper, and available now. Nor would any public or private entity have an incentive to fund the lengthy and expensive process of GM crop development unless they owned a patent that would enable them to recoup their expenses and make a profit.

Patents have no place in the agricultural system. To protect the security of the food supply and to ensure food sovereignty for each nation, governments must establish policies that ensure that the control of food production remains in the hands of farmers.

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