A Global Analysis: Is Biotechnology Really the Only Way to Solve Hunger?


The World Summit on Food Security convened in Rome this week, where world leaders discussed how best to combat worsening worldwide hunger and escalating food prices. Biotechnology has historically been a part of the debate.

As a polarizing subject, biotechnology has no peer.

On the one hand, it has potential to raise crop yields, increase the nutrient value in food and speed up traditional plant breeding through marker-assisted selection, a biotechnology that does not mix genes of different species.

On the other hand, biotechnology is generally funded and controlled by large corporations. The corporations then patent the products produced through the technology and sell them to farmers to make a profit.

In the past, agricultural knowledge and seeds have been owned by everyone for the common good and shared freely among gardeners and farmers. This new system is a departure from how food has traditionally been raised. By turning knowledge into private property, it effectively removes the control over food production from the communities engaged in it.

There are many other problems with biotechnology, as well, including potential loss of biodiversity, environmental degradation caused by indiscriminate spraying of pesticides and herbicides on crops that have been bioengineered to withstand heavy doses of chemicals, and the unknown impacts on our health we may experience from consuming genetically modified organisms.

Another problem is with the companies that develop and promote this technology. Monsanto in particular is known for spying on farmers and suing them if Monsanto-patented crops are found in the farmers’ fields – whether or not the farmers planted these crops or they ended up their via “drift.” Further, Monsanto is known for using strong-armed tactics to gain new markets in countries around the world.

Monsanto has also been devoting significant resources to an advertising campaign aimed at thought leaders who read publications like The New Yorker, or listen to NPR stations. To influence a public that is wary of biotechnology, the campaign asserts that we need biotechnology to “feed the world.” The ads imply that if you care about starving people around the world, you’ll support biotechnology.

This advertising is disingenuous because most crops patented by Monsanto are engineered to withstand the pesticides and herbicides the company also sells. In reality, developing these crops and selling them to farmers is another way to sell more chemicals.

Furthermore, the most widely-planted GMO crops don’t feed the people in the countries where the crops are grown; they are export crops for the global marketplace. Most are not used for food at all.

Soybeans, the most-planted GMO-crop worldwide, go mostly to feed animals or for biofuel; GMO corn is used in animal feed and industrial products; rapeseed is used to make canola oil; cotton, of course, is not even a food crop.

All of these crops favor large landholders, not the people we think of when talking about hunger.

With GMO development being framed as the only way to combat hunger, let’s take a look at some of the global hotspots around the world.

Africa

The Bill and Melinda Gates and Rockefeller Foundations are currently funding what’s touted as a Second Green Revolution in Africa. Unlike the first Green Revolution in Asia and South Asia, which promoted a fossil-fuel dependent form of heavy input agriculture, this new, improved Green Revolution is supposed to benefit smallholders, use genetic engineering to reduce the need for pesticides and fertilizers and utilize the extensive knowledge of the farmers on the ground.

According to an article in Seed Magazine, seven out of every 10 Africans make their livelihoods through farming. They produce the majority of Africa’s food but with minimal resources and little support. Agriculture receives, on average, just 4 to 5 percent of national budgets.

This article asserts that the main problem is not lack of technology. It is that national governments have not invested enough in basic programs that will turn smallholder farming into a viable economic enterprise.

The Gates Foundation funding is being distributed to AGRA, Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. According to AGRA’s website, AGRA “works to achieve a food secure and prosperous Africa through the promotion of rapid, sustainable agricultural growth based on smallholder farmers.”

That all sounds good, but in an article in The Nation this past September, it was revealed that though the Gates Foundation appears to have learned something from the first Green Revolution, much of what is being funded looks like business as usual.

The Gates project is doing some work engaging small farmers and sharing technology with African scientists, but researchers at the Community Alliance for Global Justice have found that a hefty portion of the Gates money is going to organizations connected to Monsanto.

Some farmers that have been working on their own sustainable, ecologically based farming systems to increase yields say they have been ignored. For their part, The Gates Foundation responded to these charges in a letter to the editor in The Nation. That letter (and others) can be read here.

According to Africa Files, “a network of people committed to Africa through its promotion of human rights, economic justice, African perspectives and alternative analyses,” AGRA is a “hoax.”

Africa Files accuses AGRA of promoting monoculture type farming that relies on heavy irrigation and ignoring the possibilities of economic gains when smallholders engage in organic farming.

According to Annie Shattuck, Policy Analyst for Food First, The Institute for Food and Development Policy, and co-author of the article in The Nation cited above,

“The pattern of the Green Revolution is to reduce agriculture systems to a monoculture crop that responds well to a highly limited set of circumstances and inputs. Trying to engineer genetic resistance to one more circumstance is not going to cut it for the agriculture of the future. We need systems that provide resilience to multiple hazards, and to do that we need diverse sustainable systems that also provide a decent living for the people who work them.”

India

The first Green Revolution begun in the 1970s was touted as a success. But today, it looks more like a disaster in India. While yields did go up, hunger did not go down. The reason for this is the high input technologies promoted tended to favor large, already privileged landholders. What it really did was push a lot of rural people into cities to try their luck there.

Today, despite the Green Revolution, there are famine conditions in India caused by drought and extreme weather. Suicide among Indian farmers has been epidemic as farmers find themselves in crushing debt when technological farming fails. Recent stories profile Indian farmers going back to organic methods.

What’s clear from the stories in India is that technological solutions only work for so long. Whether you are talking about chemical fertilizers, or genetic modification, such solutions are a crude fix overlaid across nature’s elegant variability. Currently, the only GM crop grown in India is cotton, but the country recently approved the development of GM eggplant.

“The myth of “one gene, one solution” to complex problems like climate change and poverty, (the root cause of hunger), is a myopic way to look at what is a complex ecological and social problem”, says Annie Shattuck. “So far attempts to engineer drought tolerance have been a miserable failure. The crops do well in drought years, but not in a normal year. We know agriculture will have to use less water and less fossil fuel in the future. It will also have to deal with increasingly wild weather – delays in the rainy season, erratic frosts, more intense storms. Unpredictability is the name of the game.”

China

Due to concerns about food security while agricultural land is being lost to rapid industrialization, China has been engaged in state-sponsored GMO research since the early part of this century. Details of the Chinese program are sketchy but the most interesting aspect of the program is that it is owned by the Chinese government rather than being funded by Monsanto, BayerCropScience, Syngenta or any of the other large agricultural biotech companies.

According to an article in Reuters, a large budget was approved in 2008 for GMO research with a huge portion of that budget earmarked for safety research. A good thing, because unauthorized GM rice has been found in processed foods imported into the EU from China.

With consumers in Europe among the least accepting of GM foods, China would do well to be cautious.

According to Chinese officials, the Chinese program “aims to obtain genes with great potential commercial value whose intellectual property rights belong to China, and to develop high-quality, high-yield and pest-resistant genetically modified new species.” Currently China grows large amounts of transgenic cotton. Rice, wheat, corn, soybeans, and a few food crops like peppers and papaya are in the development phase.

Mexico

In October, Mexico issued the first permits to grow GM corn. Despite assurances that the corn will not be planted in the same areas as native corn, native corn in Mexico is already contaminated. In a study published in the journal Nature, in 2001, scientists reported that corn in remote fields in Oaxaca was contaminated with GM genes.

This report set off an ugly industry effort to discredit the scientists who published the study. But in spring 2009, the controversy was finally put to rest when another study confirmed the findings of the first study. At any rate, according to the story in Reuters, some Mexican farmers in the north have been planting GM corn illegally.

Turkey

In a surprising and controversial move in October, Turkey (which doesn’t grow any GM crops) put restrictions on the import of GM foods into the country. Some say the move did not go far enough toward an outright ban and will endanger Turkey’s chances in its bid to join the EU. The regulation does not restrict or ban the import or use of GMOs but rather introduced some criteria for their import. Because Turkey does not yet set rules and regulations for GMOs, the government sees this as a stopgap measure until a comprehensive law comes into effect.

Ireland

Also in October, Ireland joined a growing number of countries with an outright ban on growing GM crops or using GM feed for livestock.

The battle lines are sharply drawn.

As Europe, Japan, and some Middle Eastern countries increasingly reject GM foods, look for more action in developing countries as agricultural biotech companies muscle in. Just last week, President Obama nominated Dr. Rajiv Shah as Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Most recently, Dr. Shah served as undersecretary and Chief Scientist at the Department of Agriculture under Tom Vilsack and before that was the Director for Agricultural Development at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where he promoted the technological farming solutions of the organization.

As we debate how to feed the world, we would do well to remember that the problem is not so much lack of food. The problem is lack of food sovereignty. When control of the food system is in corporate hands rather than local ones, people who have no money to buy food on the open market starve.

For more information on the GMOs in the developing world, and other battles for food sovereignty, sign up for the Food First newsletter or check out their publications section. If you want to help, donations are always welcome.

Originally published on EcoSalon

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  1. Friday, November 20th, 2009
    This advertising is disingenuous because most crops patented by Monsanto are engineered to withstand the pesticides and herbicides the company also sells. In reality, developing these crops and selling them to farmers is another way to sell more chemicals.


    Just a minor quibble, but the only genetically engineered trait Monsanto sells that provides resistance to a chemical pesticide is Roundup Ready seeds, which are tolerant of the herbicide ghyphosate. Since glyphosate went off patent in the last couple of years, most farmers now buy cheaper generic brands from a bunch of different companies.
  2. Mary
    Friday, November 20th, 2009
    It's polarizing because foodies lie so much about the topic.

    Not a single plant biologist I've ever encountered has said that biotechnology is "the Only Way to Solve Hunger" and repeating that false claim is sure to ignite people.

    Here's a hint: plant biologists understand biology and ecosystems better than most of the people making claims around it.