Why GM food and crops won't feed the world
It is often claimed GM crops will help to feed the world’s growing population in the 21st century by increasing yields and fighting crop diseases. But GM technology is driven by big corporations for profit, not for the benefit or the world’s poor.
The root cause of hunger is poverty. Most of the people in the world who suffer from malnutrition and hunger do so because they cannot afford to buy food, not because it is unavailable.
Complex social, political and economic forces affect peoples' access to land, money and resources. Factors like unequal landownership, the oppression of women, and low agricultural prices, much more than the level of food production, determine who gets to eat, and who does not.
It is not just a simple case of "more people = more food should be grown". There is more than enough food to feed everyone very well at present, yet hundreds of millions of people go hungry and nearly two billion are malnourished. Even in the United States , one of the richest countries in the world, 36 million people go hungry every year.
One of the main rationales for the production of GE food is that it will feed the hungry in developing countries. The home page of Monsanto has the picture below on its webpage, and Syngenta (sales in 2005 were approximately $8.1 billion and employing more than 19,000 people in over 90 countries) has a link to 'sustainable agriculture in Africa on its page'. So will GE food help the developing world feed itself?
Producing more food is not going to help feed people. Poor people are hungry not because there isn't enough food, but because they don't have access to that food, usually because they don't have the money to buy it or don't have the land to grow it. In his 1981 book Poverty and Famines, the Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen examined three famines and showed in each case that there was adequate food available during the famine to feed all the undernourished. It's usual to see food exports going on during famines.
In 2005 the UN Development Programme announced that for the first time there were now more over than under-nourished people in the world 1.1 billion as opposed to 820 million. Obesity is a major health problem in India where about 300 million of those hungry people live. The British Medical Journal reported in 2003 that: 'Changes in diet couple with increasingly inactive lifestyles have sparked off epidemics of obesity in several Asian countries…The risk of obesity in India is highest in the 20% of the population that consumes 80% of visible dietary fat.'
Markets Most GM crops being grown at the moment are destined for markets in developed Western countries. Soya and maize are used mainly for animal feed and for adding to processed food in the West. Such products will not help to feed the poor and hungry of the developing world. Another major focus for research has been GM cotton and tobacco, neither of which will help to increase food supplies.
Did the green revolution, starting in the 1960s, help feed the world? Availability has gone up since the 1960s, as can be seen in the Table below:
|Region ||1964 - 1966 ||1974 - 1976 ||1984 - 1986 ||1997 - 1999 |
|World ||2358 ||2435 ||2655 ||2803|
|Developing countries ||2054 ||2152 ||2450 ||2681|
|Industrialized countries ||2947||3065 ||3206 ||3380 |
| || || || || |
Global availability of calories has increased by about 15 per cent since the 1960s, and the proportion of hungry people in developing countries decreased from about 37% to 17% of the total population in those countries between the present and now. But this average is deceptive, and mainly depends on a massive decrease in hunger in China . And with adequate calories available to feed everyone (about 2500-2800 calories per day are needed to feed an average male), there are still 800 million hungry people around.
The green revolution did bring some benefits to the poor from a second crop and returns to sharecroppers, agricultural labourers and marginal farmers (the poor) from extra employment. These gains were offset by widespread environmental pollution caused by inputs needed for high yielding varieties as opposed to local varieties (it is now increasingly difficult to find local varieties), which has meant that benefits have not been sustainable. Further, the green revolution mainly focused on rice and wheat, rather than crops which the very poor eat, such as millet. The green revolution was an industrial agricultural model relying on monocultures similar increases in yields can be achieved through improved indigenous farming practices that promote biodiversity.
GM technology relies heavily on intensive agriculture and large scale cash crops - pushing out small farmers in the Developing World who rely on traditional and locally adapted crops to survive. The majority of GM crops at present are herbicide tolerant, designed for use in intensive farming systems, with single crops in large fields requiring heavy use of chemicals. Most farming in developing countries is small scale, growing many different crops and they often cannot afford expensive herbicides anyway.
The India case. Because India has so many hungry people (about 25% of its population, and about three eights of the world's hungry), it's a good case to look at in terms of the relation of food production and hunger. Up until the last couple of years, India has been producing about 200 million tonnes of grain a year (in comparison a total of 30 million tonnes each of wheat and rice are traded globally annually, and food aid is 5 million tonnes), more than enough to feed its population. Until recently, India has been stockpiling about 3050 million tonnes a year. The problem is not production but distribution; many poor people are too poor to buy food; access to common property resources which in the past ensured a balanced diet added about 25% to very poor women's income have been eroded, mainly due to the green revolution; because of lack of a balanced diet and the introduction of mono-cropping, micronutrient deficiency is as big a problem as under-nutrition; and corruption sees about 50% of food targeted at the poor being stolen in food programmes involving 40 million tonnes of food a year.
GM seeds are the property of the biotechnology company that developed them, which means if a farmer saves the seed from one harvest to grow the next year then they are infringing the company's patent. This directly threatens the ancient farming practice of saving a part of the harvest to plant as seed for next year’s crop. Over one billion of the world’s poorest people rely on farm-saved seed for their food. GM seeds could end this practice, reducing the self-reliance of farmers and forcing them to spend money each year on new seeds. Farmers unable to afford this technology may end up in debt, or even poorer.
Can GE crops feed the world? Even if GE crops were to increase food production, this is unlikely to make much difference to poor people, who won't be able to buy the food, or will see it stolen by corrupt bureaucrats. Most GE crops in North America are used not for human consumption, but for cattle feed, particularly corn and soy, and the same is likely to be the case for developing countries, further adding to obesity and a widening gap between rich and poor. Almost all patents issued in the last several years for new GE crops have not been intended for human food but for animal feed. Even if strains like 'golden rice' which include vitamin A succeed, vitamin deficiency is better met by a balanced diet than externally supported and largely untested scientific experiments which have unknown health and environmental effects.
Over the long term GE crops are almost certain to have a negative effect on hunger. Like the green revolution, they are based on a monoculture philosophy, whereas the only sustainable food systems are built on biodiversity, a biodiversity which GE crops are likely to destroy.
James Botham, Friends of the Earth; http://www.birminghamfoe.org.uk/newslet/news0603/STORY_7.HTM
Tony Beck, GEFree BC , http://www.gefreebc.org/gefree_tmpl.php?content=feed_world