Why GMOs Won’t Feed the World (Despite What You Read in the New York Times)

With all due respect, Nina Federoff’s New York Times op-ed reads like it was written two decades ago when the jury was still out about the potential of the biotech industry to reduce hunger, increase nutritional quality in foods, and decrease agriculture’s reliance on toxic chemicals and other expensive inputs that most of the world’s farmers can’t afford.

With more than 15 years of commercialized GMOs behind us, we know not to believe these promises any longer.

Around the world, from the Government Office of Science in the UK to the National Research Council in the United States, to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, there is consensus: in order to address the roots of hunger today and build a food system that will feed the future, we must invest in “sustainable intensification”—not expensive GMO technology that threatens biodiversity and locks us into dependence on fossil fuels, fossil water, and agrochemicals. And that’s never proven its superiority, even in yields.

By definition, sustainable intensification means producing abundant food while reducing agriculture’s negative impacts on the environment. Water pollution from pesticide run-off, soil degradation from synthetic fertilizer use, are just two examples of the cost of industrial agriculture. (And, mind you, nearly all of the GMO crops planted today rely on synthetic fertilizer and pesticides.)

Sustainable farming has many other co-benefits as well, including improving the natural environment by increasing soil carbon content, protecting watersheds and biodiversity, and decreasing the human health risks from exposures to toxic chemicals. In its policymaker’s guide to sustainable intensification, the FAO states clearly that the “present paradigm” in agriculture–of which Federoff’s beloved GMOs play a starring role–“cannot meet the challenges of the new millennium.”

So while we hear from GMO proponents about the wonders of these crops, the proof is in the fields. Says the FAO: sustainable practices have helped to “reduce crops’ water needs by 30 percent and the energy costs of production by up to 60 percent.” In one of the largest studies [pdf] of ecological farming in 57 countries, researchers found an average yield increase of 80 percent. In East African countries, yields shot up 128 percent.

What about the specific claims that GMOs confer much-desired benefits: nutritional improvements, drought-resilience, or fewer pesticides?

A much-touted effort in Kenya to develop a genetically-engineered virus-resistant sweet potato failed after 10 years, millions of dollars, and countless hours of effort. Not only did it fail, but researchers in Uganda [pdf] have developed varieties of sweet potatoes resistant to the same virus and with greater levels of beta carotene (Vitamin A)—not with genetic engineering’s tinkering, but with conventional breeding.

Federoff boasts that GMOs reduce pesticide usage, but an analysis of 13 years of commercialized GMOs in the United States actually found a dramatic increase in the volume of herbicides used on these crops that swamped the relatively small reduction in insecticide use attributable to GMO corn and cotton during that same period. On the other hand, an FAO ecological farming program in six countries in West Africa helped farmers reduce chemical pesticide use as much as 92 percent, while increasing their net value of production by as much as 61 percent.

Perhaps most gravely, Federoff’s message that GMOs are the key to addressing our planet’s food needs ignores the political and economic context of agricultural interventions.

What’s unique to sustainable interventions is that they build farmer and community capacity, they strengthen social networks. “Social capital”—as development wonks would say—is created. In a study of sustainable farming projects involving 10 million farmers across the African continent, researchers found that adopting sustainable intensification techniques not only upped production significantly, but more importantly increased the overall wealth of farming communities, encouraged women’s participation and education, and built strong social bonds that have helped these communities strengthen their economies and continue to learn, develop, and adapt their farming practices.

In a world rocked with volatile markets, a volatile climate, and diminishing natural resources, we need to turn our attention to investing in the proven sustainable intensification techniques that create resilient communities not to the still-hollow promises of GMO promoters.

24 thoughts on “Why GMOs Won’t Feed the World (Despite What You Read in the New York Times)

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  4. From The One Straw Revolution, by Masanobu Fukuoka:

    “If we do have a food crisis it will not be caused by the insufficiency of nature’s productive power, but by the extravagance of human desire.”

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  6. I would love to know where the funding for Nina Federoff’s research comes from. Probably agribusiness.

  7. GMO seeds are also for farmer’s suicide.

    When crops fail and farmers cannot pay for the funds borrowed for seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and water. In country like India, there is practically no crop subsidy and no crop insurance.

    I would have liked a balaced view of Prof. Nina Fedoroff and not just how beneficial is GM seeds. I would have liked if Professor had mentioned the funding support for her article.

  8. For Professor Nina Fedoroff’s balanced opinion on GM seeds

    GM seeds effect after crop failures and debt of small farmers
    Indian Farmer Suicides After GMO BT Cotton Crop Failures

    There have been 125,000+ small farmer suicides in the past decade, and about 4000+/year *REPORTED* in India. In 2006, 1,044 suicides were reported in Vidarbha alone – that’s one suicide every eight hours.
    Some struggles facing Indian farmers are detailed in the article “Seeds of Suicide: India’s Desperate Farmers” on Frontline. The transition to using the latest pest-resistant seeds and the necessary herbicides has been difficult. Farmers have used genetically modified seeds promoted by Cargill and Monsanto hoping for greater yields. Resulting debts from such gambles with genetically modified seeds have led some farmers into the equivalent of indentured servitude. More than 125,000+ farmers have committed suicide, which some claim is mostly due to mounting debt caused by the poor yields, increased need for pesticides, and the higher cost of the Bt cotton seed sold by Monsanto.
    Shankara, like millions of other Indian farmers, had been promised previously unheard of harvests and income if he switched from farming with traditional [ORGANIC REUSABLE] seeds to planting GM [GENETICALLY MODIFIED STERILE CARCINOGENIC NON-ORGANIC] seeds instead. Beguiled by the promise of future riches, he borrowed money in order to buy the GM seeds.
    But when the harvests failed, Shankara was left with spiralling debts – and no income. So Shankara became one of an estimated 125,000+ farmers to take their own life as a result of the ruthless drive to use India as a testing ground for genetically modified crops…. ‘We are ruined now,’ said [another farmer's] 38-year-old wife. ‘We bought 100 grams of BT Cotton. Our crop failed twice. My husband had become depressed. He went out to his field, lay down in the [GMO BT] cotton and swallowed insecticide [MONSANTO's ROUNDUP]“.
    A report released by the International Food Policy Research Institute in October 2008 provided evidence that the cause of farmer suicide in India was due to several causes and that the introduction of Bt cotton was not a major factor. It argues that the suicides predate the introduction of the cotton in 2002 and has been fairly consistent since 1997. Other studies also suggest the increase in farmer suicides is due to a combination of various socio-economic factors. These include debt, the difficulty of farming semi-arid regions, poor agricultural income, absence of alternative income opportunities, the downturn in the urban economy forcing non-farmers into farming, and the absence of suitable counseling services.
    1. Child Labour and Trans-National Seed Companies in Hybrid Cotton Seed Production in Andhra Pradesh from India Committee of the Netherlands
    2. Seeds of Suicide: India’s desperate farmers from the Public Broadcasting Service
    3. “Farmer’s Suicides”. Z Magazine.
    4. “Indian Farmer’s Final Solution”. countercurrents.org.
    5. “Rough Cut Seeds of Suicide India’s desperate farmers”. PBS Frontline. July 26, 2005. Retrieved 3 October 2010.
    6. P. Sainath (August 2004). “Seeds of Suicide II “. InfoChange News and Features.
    7. Guillaume P. Gruère, Purvi Mehta-Bhatt and Debdatta Sengupta (2008). “Bt Cotton and Farmer Suicides in India: Reviewing the Evidence”. International Food Policy Research Institute.
    8. Sheridan, C. (2009). “Doubts surround link between Bt cotton failure and farmer suicide.”.
    9. Nagraj, K. (2008). “Farmers suicide in India: magnitudes, trends and spatial patterns”.
    10. Mishra, Srijit (2007). “Risks, Farmers’ Suicides and Agrarian Crisis in India: Is There A Way Out?”. Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research (IGIDR).

  9. Anna Lappé writes “we must invest in “sustainable intensification”—not expensive GMO technology.” This makes it appear that the two are incompatible. They are not. The most complete recent review of sustainable intensification (the FAO’s “Save and Grow” document) stresses that there is a critical need for the development of new crop varieties to meet the challenges of population increase and changing climate. The orgnization’s incoming leader says, “the science of genetically modifying crops should not be discarded.” I admire Ms. Lappe’s passion, but do not share her “us vs. them” thinking on this critical subject. We need to carefully consider and use all available tools for meeting our food needs — including case-by-case adoption of GMO crops.

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  12. In referring to the UK Govt ‘Foresight’ report (http://www.bis.gov.uk/assets/bispartners/foresight/docs/food-and-farming/11-546-future-of-food-and-farming-report.pdf) Ms Lappe seems to have overlooked comments which don’t correspond to her view of food production systems. The report actually states (on page 88) that “Views on the way that food production is carried out have become more polarised over the past decade. This is particularly the case for some forms of modern technology, such as cloning and genetic modification. However, evidence from a wide range of studies indicates that no single approach is capable of delivering sustainable, resilient high levels of productivity, and value. “A broad perspective that encompasses the whole food system is needed and a careful blend of approaches will therefore be required. This should include biotechnology, but also areas of science such as agronomy and agroecology that have received less recent investment.”

    Page 170 of the same report also makes the following statement: “No single technology or intervention is a panacea, but there are real sustainable gains to be made combining bio-technological, agronomic and agro-ecological approaches.”

  13. It’s very important to recognise the distinction between the views of those who believe that GM will be the panacea for increasing sustainable food production and those who believe that they offer the potential to contribute – alongside a range of other approaches – to the concept of ‘sustainable intensification.’

    Adopting a polarised approach and being either ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ is unhelpful and strangles constructive agricultural development and debate. This kind of approach has typified UK organic food discussions between farmers and campaigners in both camps for many years (things are changing now) and fails to recognise that a range of agricultural approaches and systems can work alongside each other to deliver what society, the environment and viable farm businesses need to prosper.

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  15. I love how she purposely mischaracterizes genetic modification, as if it’s the same as plant breeding. I think this is the biggest problem when educating the public about gmo’s. These plants are not in a situation where they are naturally picking up genes from this plant or that plant and in effect “deciding” whether or not to pass them on. Genetic modification many times involves selecting genes from other species, not necessarily plant, and forcing the existing plant to co-exist with the alien gene. During conventional plant breeding, the breeder may be picking what plants to select from, but he/she is picking from plants first and foremost of the same species and allowing “nature to take it’s course”. I’m sorry, nature on planet earth has about 4 billion years on Nina Federoff, I’m pretty sure it knows best.

  16. Also, you have to wonder who’s producing those seed, pesticides, fertilizers and equipment to maintain those crops. It’s not poor farmers in third world countries. Just like any street level drug dealer, they get you hooked on the first free sample and charge you more and more as time goes on and you’re less likely to become a repeat customer. Bah, humbug!

  17. I don’t think anyone should have to prove any harmful effects to have this stuff labelled. In this article Fedoroff seems to say that harm “must” be proved to keep something off the market. I think that safety needs to be proved. She also leads you to believe that a GMO seed that makes pesticide unnecessary is safer. These seeds generate the pesticide and continue to do so in your gut. BT toxin has been found in the blood of pregnant women and the placenta of babies in utero. Knowing this, I question Feroff’s judgements and think that she is hopelessly biased on this issue.

  18. “Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse.” – Sophocles, 496-406 B.C.

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  20. Eating organic food is a great step towards a healthy lifestyle. Unfortunately, many organic fruits and vegetables are a bit more costly. To combat the increased cost, and to ensure that the food you are eating is 100% organic, you may want to start your own organic garden.