Are GM Crops Really a Panacea for Africa and the Developing World?

By Glenn Ashton · 22 May 2009

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Picture: World Bank
Picture: World Bank

We are more than a decade into the global experiment to utilise biotechnology to genetically engineer some of our major food crops, yet the facts around this supposed agricultural revolution remain as disputed as ever.

We were told there were two primary motivations to promote genetically modified (GM) crops. The first was that they would be able to increase agricultural productivity in order to feed a burgeoning global population on less land. The second was that we would be able to do so using less chemicals and pesticides. Neither of these claims stand up to independent scrutiny.

The most widely grown GM food crop is soya, genetically altered for resistance to herbicide. Around 80% of the GM crops grown globally are herbicide resistant. GM soy is mainly grown in the United States and Argentina. This genetic alteration allows farmers to apply chemical weed killers without damaging crops, while simultaneously wiping out weeds that compete for nutrients and water. 

In Argentina the use of the herbicide glyphosate has increased from 13.7 million litres in 1997 to around 190 million litres in 2007. Similarly, in the USA the amount increased 15 fold between 1994 and 2005. It is not co-incidental that the sale of the patented GM seed is contractually linked to the sale of the herbicide, manufactured by the same company, Monsanto. Monsanto has also recently become the worlds biggest seed company, shifting from its roots as a chemical company. 

The fact is that GM crops do not reduce chemical demand, they encourage it. GM crop supporters insist that glyphosate is not a dangerous chemical. While it may not be as toxic as some other herbicides it is by no means benign, being particularly dangerous to Amphibia and soil organisms, notably those that fix nitrogen, a critical aid to sustainable agriculture.

But what is most notable about this soya crop is that it has not increased yields over the past decade. Instead yields of soy have stagnated and even fallen in areas where GM soy has been grown. In Brazil's Mato Grosso state, soya farmer Jeferson Bif was quoted by Reuters as saying "We're seeing less and less planting of GMO soy around here. It doesn't give consistent performance.” His conventional soy yielded 3.4 tonnes per hectare while GM soy yielded 2.8. Clearly this is a long way from the success story we have been told about. Because of increased demand for soy to feed livestock, the Amazon and other sensitive ecosystems are rapidly being destroyed.

The second most popular variety of GM crop is maize that has insecticidal properties. This is so called Bt maize, because it has sections of the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) gene attached, rendering it toxic to caterpillars. Bt maize and cotton accounts for around 20% of GM plantings and it too has not significantly increased yields. Perhaps more importantly, pests are starting to exhibit resistance to Bt. This has long been predicted by experts in the field. 

If these crops have performed below expectations, why are they so strongly supported by policy-makers? There has been active dissemination of faux news by public relations practitioners allied to the GM industry. These agents have salted mainstream news outlets with a steady litany of buoyant, cherry picked data. We are constantly informed that GM crops are being more widely grown than ever before, while the reality is that most are grown in only three countries, the USA, Argentina and Brazil. GM crop plantings occupy only a total of 2.8% of global agricultural land, with the US alone accounting for half of that. Hardly the international success story we are led to believe. 

Blatant falsifications have been inserted into the public consciousness in a massive PR putsch. We constantly hear how GM crops require less water or are drought resistant, that they yield more than conventional plants, that they are  disease resistant and require less chemicals and even that they have better nutritional qualities. The facts are that each and every one of these claims is bogus. 

Recently one of our provincial ministers for agriculture was heard to trot out these claims in a radio interview. She should know better but is happily led astray by the GM industry, which fails to publicly correct these false assertions while aggressively countering any negative reporting on their industry. In South Africa the GM industry even has a PR agent, Hans Lombard, who specialises in rebutting critical media while concealing links to his corporate paymasters.

More dangerous still is the projection of a powerful message that GM crops offer solutions to feed the world. In a study funded by the World Bank, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation amongst many others, undertaken by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, GM crops were excluded as a solution to world hunger, as was the industrial farming model. Instead small scale, ecological farming was found to offer superior promise.

These mendacious claims by the GM industry have actively diverted attention away from alternative agricultural interventions. Historically, agricultural projects in developing nations have pursued short-term research, usually on a three year cycle. Once complete, projects often collapse. While it is easiest to blame this malaise on local ineptitude, this hides the real reasons, such as failure to follow through and provide long-term assistance to providing solutions and strategies to shortcomings. 

The GM industry has spawned numerous proxy organisations, such as Africa-Bio, which continue to actively promote GM crops as a solution to Africa's agricultural shortcomings. With partner organisations like the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (an industry front group) and Crop life (a pesticide industry affiliated organisation), Africa-Bio has used these well funded allies to dangerously skew the democratic debate around the use of these crops.

The influence of these pedlars of proxy information has continental reach. It is part and parcel of a neo-colonial thrust by first world corporate interests that wish to ensure that African agriculture is not, and does not become, independent. The aim is instead to promote a dependence on high cost, imported and intellectually protected products. 

Monsanto, the worlds biggest seed company, holds patents on most of the worlds GM crops, the first living organisms to be patented and marketed on this scale. It controls more than 95% of GM crops in South Africa. It is the worlds fifth biggest plant chemical firm and its herbicide linked to its GM crops is the worlds biggest selling agricultural chemical.

Why are farmers using GM crops if they are not what they are made out to be? The short answer is that the four major GM crops grown at present, soy, maize, cotton and canola are all designed to assist industrial agricultural practices and to reduce the costs of intensive monoculture farming. For instance it is simpler, cheaper and less labour intensive for farmers to spray weed killer on their fields than to hoe the weeds, or control them through integrated farming practices. 

GM crops are simply an extension of the dominant industrial agricultural model that has caused massive damage to global ecosystems, while impoverishing farm workers and rural communities, driving increased social dislocation and urbanisation. Instead of being a solution, GM crops are part of the problem.

While GM crops may ease the burden of industrial farmers, it has transformed them into little more than agents who apply patented seed and chemicals in order to reap their crops. Furthermore, the costs of these GM related inputs have sharply increased recently. In the USA, Monsantos GM soya seed has increased in price by more than 50% over the past two years, while its herbicide shot up by 134%. Farmers become little more than agro-junkies, putting the farm in hock to pay for the next seasons fix.

Africa needs to carefully evaluate the failed promises of more than a decade of GM crops around the world. If we really wish to pursue a new green revolution it would be far preferable to rely on solutions suited to our needs and demands. Africa cannot be compromised by the same vested interests that have destroyed our struggling agricultural sector through the inequitable promotion of farm subsidies amongst developed nations. 

The choice is simple. We either go the neo-colonial route of continued and deepening dependence on first world technology as the cheerleaders of the GM movement would have us do, or we draw on our own strengths while simultaneously improving our transport, storage and distribution channels for our produce. The choice of dependence or independence is ours to make.

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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