Will GE Food Feed the World's Hungry?

By: Tom Campbell, Lecturer in Environmental Studies, Development Studies
Centre, Kimmage Manor. Dublin. Republic of Ireland.

One of the biggest myths perpetuated by the biotechnology industry is that
genetically engineered crops are likely to provide a solution to world
hunger. Companies like ICI Seeds, Britain's largest seeds merchant, proclaim
that biotechnology will be the most reliable and environmentally acceptable
way to secure the world's food supplies .

Elsewhere, executives from the Monsanto Corporation have gone as far as to
promote themselves as part of the solution to the world's food and
environmental problems: "sustainable agriculture is only possible only with
biotechnology and imaginative chemistry" , they claim in a 1990 article
entitled 'Planetary Patriotism' Similarly, a recent advertisement from
Monsanto depicts maize growing in the desert with the caption: "Will it take
a miracle to solve the worlds hunger problems?". Implicit in these
messages is that to oppose biotechnology is to reject the best hope for a
solution to world hunger and to perpetuate the suffering of starving

Despite the evidence that genetically engineered crops may provide higher
yields in the short term (it remains to be seen whether they do so in the
long term) there are a number of good reasons why these arguments simply do
not stand up to analysis. On the contrary there is plenty of evidence to
suggest that biotechnology will more than likely reduce food and livelihood
security for the world's poor. Here are six reasons why biotechnology and
food security can never be compatible:

1) Biotechnology can never be a cure for hunger - Famines are not caused by
lack of food but by lack of access to food and alternative sources of income
in times of crisis. There are ample reserves of food in the world today yet
the numbers of malnourished run into hundreds of millions. Increasing
agricultural production (even assuming that this is possible through
biotechnology) whilst leaving the structural causes of poverty and hunger
unaddressed is a recipe not for feeding the world but for continuing to
starve sizeable numbers within it.

2) Biotechnology creates dependency - Biotechnology goes hand in hand with
intensive agriculture, with single crops in large fields. The majority of
Third World farmers are small-scale, farming a variety of crops. By switching
to genetically engineered seeds they have to change their practices and
become dependent on the companies which provide the 'package' of seeds,
herbicides, fertilisers, irrigation systems, etc. In India, farmers using
Monsanto's genetically engineered seeds pay an extra $50 - $65 per acre as a
'technical fee' over and above the price of seed. Farmers who do business
with Monsanto must sign a contract stating that they will not buy chemicals
from any one else.

3) Biotech Companies can not be trusted - There is nothing in the
environmental record of Corporations like Du Pont or Monsanto, who are
leading proponents of biotechnology, to suggest that they should be trusted
now. These same companies have always promoted non-sustainable, industrial,
socially inequitable agriculture. Monsanto remains one of the largest
polluters in the United States. The company was responsible for 5% of the 5.7
billion pounds of toxic chemicals released in to the US environment in 1992

4) Biotechnology reduces diversity - Biotechnology reduces diversity by
promoting certain species over others, so reducing the genetic pool even
further. We are already massively over-dependent on a handful of food crop
varieties. Genuine sustainable agriculture on the other hand promotes
multi-cropping and companion planting as the best resistance to pests,
viruses and changes in climate. Traditional varieties of subsistence food
crops are often more nutritious than the high-yield varieties promoted by the
agro-chemical and seed companies.

5) Biotechnology encourages 'Biopiracy' - Business interests and chemical
companies use research into unusual genes from plant, animal and even human
genes, as a means of getting control over local genetic resources - once
they have manipulated that gene they reinforce control, and earn massive
profits, by 'patenting'. Many developing countries were opposed to this at
GATT/World Trade Organisation negotiations and continue to express concern
at the way 'trade related intellectual property rights' (TRIPS) work in
favour of the industrialised countries. The creation of monopoly rights to
biodiversity utilisation can have serious implications for erosion of
national and community rights to biodiversity and devalue indigenous
knowledge systems . Sustainable food and livelihood security in the Third
World is likely to be weakened rather than strengthened as a result .

6) The world's starving do not make good customers - What evidence is there
to show that 20 years of biotechnology research, a billion dollars of
expenditure and countless hours of scientific labour has benefited the
worlds hungry or resource poor farmers in the South? Science-based
biotechnology research has so far tended to benefit the high external input
agriculture of the North. Most biotech products have been aimed at consumer
niche markets in the North - Calgene's $25 million 'Flavr Savr' tomatoes
for example, whose only advantage over competitors is three - five days'
extra shelf life. A fraction of the money that has been poured into
biotechnology research could have a far greater impact if it was invested in
strengthening and promoting the huge variety of sustainable and alternative
agriculture possibilities that already exist in the world.

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