Genetically Engineered Crops Negatively Impact Global Food Security

By Glenn Ashton · 21 Nov 2008

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The recent sharp increases in food prices around the world have resulted in a siren call from the pro-biotech cheer-leaders that genetically modified (GM) crops must be more widely adopted if we are to reduce food prices and increase the availability of food for a burgeoning global population.

News stories have abounded since food prices spiked hailing the benefits of GM technology being able to feed us all. Although most of these stories emanate directly from public relations sources, they have insinuated their way into the mainstream media. 

Against this clear effort to project the GM industry as a saviour, we need to consider some facts in order to make informed, objective decisions.

Firstly we need to consider; do GM crops actually produce improved yields, reduce water demand, reduce fertiliser inputs or make food better, safer or improve it in any way?

It is remarkable, despite the spin to the contrary, that all GM crops on the market were devised not to do any of these things. They are simply tools to manage industrial farming systems. 

It is enlightening to examine the most widely grown GM crop in the world, GM soya. This plant has been genetically engineered to withstand the weed killer (herbicide) Roundup, developed by the plant's originators, Monsanto. 

As long ago as 1999, Professor Charles Benbrook showed a reduced yield for GM soy of between 6 and 10 percent, as well as increased application levels of between 2 and 10 times for Roundup. Benbrook's study has since been repeated and validated by Dr Elmore of Nebraska University who showed a similar 6% yield decrease for GM soy and by Dr Barney Gordon of Kansas State University who showed a 9% reduction in yield. Other studies have shown the same. Even the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation 1994 report stated that GM crops can have reduced yields.

While more than 80% of soy in the USA was GM by 2003, overall yields have remained static, costing farmers a potential US$1.24 billion dollars. GM soy has been widely adopted simply because it makes farming easier – instead of proper field husbandry farmers can simply spray their way out of trouble, something that Monsanto loves. Its income from Roundup more than doubled its gross profit in 2008. 

In Argentina, where GM soy has also been actively promoted, the use of Roundup increased from 5.4 million litres in 1994, to over 54 million litres in 1998. This is a ten fold increase in four years. Its use reached 100 million litres in 2002 and is estimated to be 50% above that level at present. Unsurprisingly Monsanto is building a new factory to make more Roundup.

Far from solving agricultural problems, the increased reliance on chemicals spells trouble. Numerous weeds have developed resistance to this toxic onslaught, resulting in the increased use other yet more dangerous herbicides. This pesticide treadmill has dire consequences for surrounding farmers, the ecosystem (Roundup is toxic to fish, earthworms, Amphibia and is linked to several negative health effects in humans) and society.

These events in Argentina have displaced small farmers whose land has been polluted  and whose diverse crops fall prey to this toxic legacy. Between 1994 and 2004 over 160, 000 farming families were thus displaced. These otherwise unskilled farmers end up in urban slums, creating an increased load on social systems and urban infrastructure, not to mention the state. To solve problems of urban malnutrition, soy derived foods with dire health implications are doled out. Similar events have played out in Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay.

The increased demand for soy, mainly used as animal feed, has seen a massive increase in the areas planted to this crop, including Brazil's threatened Cerrado and Amazon ecosystems. These extensive industrial farms require only 3 workers per 1000 hectares of farmed land, creating further social dislocation. 

This spread of the green desert of soy across South America has created what locals now call “La Republica Soya”, the soy republic, echoing the banana republics of yesteryear. This thrust is similarly controlled by large corporate interests, based in Brazil, Argentina and the North. Even environmental groups like WWF have climbed onto the bandwagon, promoting a supposedly 'sustainable soy' system, which is nothing of the sort; it is greenwash of the ugliest hue.

In Paraguay, where less than 1% of the population owns most of the arable land, the soy republic has instigated an incipient revolution. The recent ousting of the old (paramilitary) order and ushering in of a populist president has encouraged landless peasants to simply seize foreign owned soy plantations to force land redistribution. This event, given enough impetus, could echo across the region. 

Industrial GM driven agricultural models are precisely the wrong model for sustainable agriculture. Satellite observations track the cancerous spread of the green tide across the region, unlocking bound CO2 and methane from the soil, increasing global warming gases. Reliance on petrochemical based pesticides like Roundup decimate biodiversity, from the microscopic to entire ecosystems. It is worth bearing in mind that the pro-GM spinmeisters promised GM technology would reduce chemical use in farming!

No GM drought resistant crops exist, despite lots of rhetoric. Neither do they require less fertiliser, provide improved nutritional value nor increased yield. While GM has been promoted as a solution to global hunger it has done nothing of the sort.

A powerful argument can in fact be made that the focus on GM crops has been central in increasing food prices. Instead of shifting toward modern, innovative agro-ecological approaches, coupled to enlightened agricultural policies which have been demonstrated as being far more capable of providing food security for the broadest possible spectrum of society, we have had genetically engineered solutions shoved down our collective throats for the past 15 years. 

This has actively diverted funding away from more beneficial solutions offering lower returns for speculative investment of the hyped 'biotech revolution'. The only revolutionary thing was the manner in which its proponents actively pursued a goal of controlling as much of the global food system as possible, from farm to plate.

 Hopefully the potential knock-out combination of the global food crisis, coupled to the financial system meltdown, will create popular pressure - driven by social movements and political realignment – that can propel us toward sustainability and food security, by putting people and food before profit. 

Monsanto, originally a chemical company has now become the worlds biggest seed company and is aggressively pursuing further acquisitions in this field. Monsanto recently increased the cost of its GM seed - in the midst of a food crisis -  by 50%. Farmers complain that this industrial agricultural system renders them little more than operators in a production system that has trimmed margins to the bone. Monsanto and its subsidiaries control the lions share of South Africa's wheat, barley, soy, cotton and maize seed markets.

Perhaps the changes being ushered in the midst of la republica soya in Paraguay are a harbinger for changes across that region. Governments across the globe must carefully consider the wisdom of inadvertent reliance on corporate controlled agricultural models. Instead they need to focus on prioritising food security as a matter of national security . India and Russia have done so and the obscene levels of market distorting agricultural subsidisation of US agriculture indicates an even more radical and protectionist policy there. We cannot afford to do otherwise.

Africa cannot allow itself to be bullied by financial and political interests, underwritten by multilateral and bilateral agreements that already threaten already marginal levels of food security. 

Further pressures are applied to African governments through US and corporate influenced pro-biotech interests, obscured by compradors* like AfricaBio, A New Harvest and the African Biotechnology Stakeholders Forum, which misinform poorly briefed politicians by telling exaggerating benefits and downplaying the risks.

Even ignoring the numerous health and ecological dangers of GM crops, they have clearly become part of the problem rather than the solution to food security. In South Africa where GM crops have been grown for over a decade, no improvement in food security has occurred. The introduction of public/ private partnerships such as the massive food production system in the Eastern Cape, where Monsanto has teamed up with that province's department of agriculture to push its agenda, actively undermines traditional systems that could be enhanced to far greater benefit in other more creative ways. 

We need to fundamentally change how we produce our food and feed our people. Failure to do so will result in increased social disruption, hunger, malnutrition and misery. GM crops are not a solution, they are the problem. 

*comprador – local agent working for the benefit of colonial interests.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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