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GM Foods & World Hunger

Introduction

Are GM foods the solution to world hunger? This is the big one. GM corporations know that if they can come up with a convincing argument, it will go along way in softening public opinion against GM Food.

The argument put forward to support the proposal that the genetic modification of food will help solve the world hunger problem is simple: Millions of people around the world are starving. They do not get enough to eat. By genetically modifying crops so that more food is produced, the problem of world hunger can be solved.

On the surface, the above argument is convincing. More food, less hunger. It certainly seems to ring true. And we all want starvation to be eliminated. So what is wrong with using gene technology to produce more food and solve the problem?

Some Basics

The argument that people are starving due to a global lack of food production is flawed. We currently have enough food to feed everyone on the planet, yet millions are deprived of food and go hungry. The reason why people go hungry is therefore not because there is not enough food. It is because of barriers, such as political and economic, that prevent certain groups of people from being able to eat the food that is already there, or barriers preventing people from having access to land on which to grow food. In these instances, resolving the sociopolitical issues will make far more sense, and will also lead to a wider range of benefits.

To further highlight that food quantity is largely a red herring, it is clear that many people go hungry simply because they do not have enough money to buy food. After all, people even go hungry in North America and in Europe where there is clearly food that can be bought. The reasons for starvation will depend on the circumstances of the individual or group e.g. illegal immigrants, no job and no income support and so forth.

The problem is less the quantity of food, but more where it ends up. Take, for instance, the example of Ethiopia, where at the height of its famine in the 1980’s, a significant quantity of food grown there was actually exported to the USA for animal feed!

One must also question the intention of biotechnology companies. Are they really spending billions of pounds and dollars on developing and advertising GM crops in order to supply so much of it to people who cannot afford it? Since when did they take up this charitable role? Or is each biotechnology company a business that wants to sell its product at a price that will give them the maximum possible return for their investment?

 

Feeding who?: The Journey of the GM Crop

“With regards to GM crops being used to produce biofuels, instead of this solving hunger, it is more likely to do the exact opposite. The more land we use to produce fuel for cars for the rich, the less we have for food for the starving.”

Additionally one must ask, where exactly do GM crops end up? Most GM crops are either used as animal feed or are used to produce biofuels. (See here for more info).

There are two problems channeling large quantities of food into animal feed, if the intention is to solve world hunger:

A) It is culturally insensitive towards the millions of starving people in places like India who are actually vegetarian.

B) It is an inefficient way to feed large numbers of people, and can increase hunger rather than reduce it.

With regards to GM crops being used to produce biofuels, instead of this solving hunger, it is more likely to do the exact opposite. The more land we use to produce fuel for cars for the rich, the less we have for food for the starving, and the higher the price of food (See paper by D. Mitchell).

Some GM crops also end up in processed foods such as biscuits, cakes, pizzas, crisps etc. Yet these are not the sort of food products we need more of in order to solve world hunger.

The closer one examines the proposal that GM companies are aiming to eradicate world hunger, the more clear it is that they are not.

 

The Yields Perspective

 

Regarding food quantity, let’s assess whether genetic modification is a reliable way to increase yields, or not. Here are findings from a major review of studies:

1) A report by the Union of Concerned Scientists evaluated the effect of GM on yields of the two primary GM crops, GM soya and GM corn. Using the most reliable and best-controlled studies over more than 20 years of research and 13 years of commercialisation in the US, their findings were that…

  • …most of the substantial gains in yields for these crop are due to traditional breeding or improvement in other agricultural practices, not GM!
  • They found that GM soya beans have not increased yields, and GM corn has only done so marginally. Benefits have essentially been for GM insect resistant corn, and only when insect infestations are high. Additionally, corn that is GM herbicide tolerant has not increased yields.
  • The report also pointed out that low-external-input methods, such as organic can more than double yield in poorer countries, and these methods are often more accessible to poorer farmers.
  • The researchers also highlighted the fact that the transfer of genes can cause multiple effects, some of which can be detrimental to other forms of life.

Their recommendations included:

  • Redirecting funding away from GM, towards approaches showing more promise for improving yields that also have other societal benefits;
  • Stronger regulations to detect harmful effects of GM crops.

2) Another paper (GMO Myths and Truths, p. 108), pointed out that:

  • certain GM crops promoted as helping small scale farmers in Africa, in fact had results the opposite to what was promised; and gave specific examples of non-GM methods that were more successful.

It thus seems clear that even if we leave aside the sociopolitical context of hunger, and focus only on yields, genetic modification shows little promise. Indeed, as described above, experts are in fact recommending research funds to be diverted to better proven methods that also carry less risk.

 

Control of World Food Market; & Voice of 20 African Countries

“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.”

Voices of delegates of 20 African countries

Already, the world seed market has been falling into the hands of big biotechnology companies, and these companies themselves are consolidating into fewer numbers, giving more power to an already powerful few.

Additionally, GM crops are patented, and the patent is held by the GM company who stipulates that farmers do not save seed from the crop for sowing. Thus, if the farmer wants to grow the same crop next year, they cannot use seed from their existing crop, but are forced to buy it from the GM company again. In other words the system is structured, not to empower food growers, nor to feed the hungry, but to put more money into the pockets of large corporations whose aim is to control the very food we eat.

Let us now take a listen to the voices of delegates of 20 African countries regarding the claim that biotechnology will help solve world hunger:

“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.”

Landmark Study: A Call for an Agricultural Shift…

 

It is important to note that calls for a different approach to food security have also come from a landmark document, the IAASTD report: this is a remarkable, inclusive, comprehensive, three-year project focussing on agricultural knowledge, science and technology. It was initiated by the World Bank and involved five UN agencies, the Global Environment Facility and approximately 400 scientists, as well as representatives of governments, civil society, private sector and scientific institutions from around the world. The study recognised the different needs of different regions and communities. (See their FAQ’s)

Biotech companies Monsanto and Syngenta, and CropLife international also participated in the project but withdrew shortly before completion, with Croplife explaining this to be “because of [the report’s] failure to recognize the role modern plant sciences, including plant biotechnology and crop protection, can play in increasing agricultural crop productivity.” (AgBioView & CropLife).

The assessment was a significant global scientific undertaking akin to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and was conducted to provide information to guide decision makers on agricultural research and development.

Some of the relevant statements and assertions made by the report (See Synthesis Report: P. 4-5) are as follows:

  • …the need to “give increasing importance to the multifunctionality of agriculture” (multifunctionality = “the inescapable interconnectedness of agriculture’s different roles and functions.”)
  • “Success would require… revalorisation [restoring the value] of traditional and local knowledge, and an interdisciplinary, holistic and systems based approach to knowledge, production and sharing.”

 

Noting the often detrimental impacts of high-input agriculture, the report states that:

“increased attention needs to be directed towards new and successful existing approaches to maintain and restore soil fertility and to maintain sustainable production through practices such as low input resource-conserving technologies based on integrated management systems and an understanding of agroecology and soil science (e.g., agroforestry, conservation agriculture, organic agriculture and permaculture). These technologies minimize the need for high levels of inputs and are socially appropriate approaches to small-scale agriculture.”

(See ‘Towards Multifunctional Agriculture for Social, Environmental and Economic Sustainability’ P 1-2)

Although the IAASTD report is a nonbinding document, its executive summary was signed by over 50 nations, including the UK (IAASTD, 2008). The US, Canada, and Australia approved a short statement by governments that cited the importance of the report, but did not sign the executive summary which recommends policy directions mentioned above.

 

Some Final Comments

 

World hunger is a real issue; there is no denying that. However it is becoming very clear that it will not be eradicated by GM food. Indeed, depending on technologies driven primarily by a desire for profit, is a big risk however noble we are told the cause is. Rather than solving genuine problems, such an approach can contribute to further imbalances and instability as a result of fundamental imbalances being left unaddressed. Furthermore, it is clear from the case of biofuels as one example, that the push for GM crops can be a cause of hunger rather than a solution for it.

There is much to be said for small communities having more autonomy, and directly owning decisions that affect them. An overconcentration of power and centralised food production forgets the less privileged majority and mostly remembers only those already with power, such as multinationals – the concentration of profit becomes more important than the freedom and needs of millions of smaller groups, including that of other species. Such a paradigm is one in which GM foods gain hold.

What is needed is the turning of our attention to more basic problems, so that we can see what is there. As we unravel these problems, more holistic, community-owned strategies appropriate to local needs will need to be implemented; these strategies, by being appropriate to their locality will naturally be more creative, diverse and beautiful, with a tendency to produce ripples of benefits, and not harmful side-effects.