Creating Hunger With GM Crops (1/5/2004)

Following on from Patrick Mulvany's important Open Democracy article on GM food aid dumping*, here's Robert Vint's excellent and well-referenced contribution to the Open Democracy Forum on GM and hunger.

*www.opendemocracy.net/debates/article-4-64-1876.jsp --- Creating Hunger With GM Crops

Gordon Conway argues that biotechnology will "immeasurably improve" the lives of African farmers, yet his own article contains clear evidence that it is likely to further impoverish them.

As he rightly points out:

"In Africa, poverty is essentially rural and the only way out of poverty is through development based on agricultural and other rural resources. *  70% of African employment is on small-scale farms *  40% of all African export earnings are from agriculture *  Around 30% of African gross national product (GNP) is based on agriculture - and for most Africans there is really not a choice of employment. Either your farm succeeds or you are jobless."

What these facts clearly indicate is that the majority of Africans need to be successfully employed on small-scale farms to avoid poverty and hunger. The  replacement of such 'production by the masses' with mass-production of crops on a small number of vast high-tech monocultural plantations would mean that  the farms of all but a tiny minority of the population fail and they become  jobless - and so go hungry. Even if overall productivity increased the result  would only be food insecurity and hunger in a land of plenty.

This is exactly what has happened in Argentina - the only southern nation to cultivate a substantial quantity of GM crops. A nation that used to offer a high quality of life and food to a large rural population now offers nothing but unemployment, hunger and famine to the majority of the rural population. As half the total landmass of Argentina has been carpeted in vast GM soya plantations to feed the farm animals of the USA and Europe, thousands of ex-farmers and their wives and children have starved to death and their homes  have been bulldozed to make way for the crops. [1, 2]

A similar development plan for cultivating GM cotton in the State of Andhra Pradesh in India, funded by the UK Government, will involve clearing 20 million cotton smallholders off their land to make way for vast GM cotton plantations that will hardly employ anyone [3]. Whilst the GNP of the State may be increased, the majority of the population may have less food security than ever before.

Plans to develop a 'controlled ripening' GM coffee have been opposed by ActionAid because it is designed to enable coffee plantation owners to do away with the need for 60 million coffee pickers and replace them with mechanical pickers. These 60 million coffee pickers in 50 of the world's poorest nations would have no alternative source of income.

This picture of hunger in a world of plenty is reflected globally. All the leading development charities point out that hunger is not a problem of production but one of distribution - and that GM crops will not solve this or will even exacerbate the problem. The global distribution of agricultural land has become ever more unequal and an increasing proportion of the global population are now totally landless. They starve as the world produces 50% more food than it needs. This estimate of overproduction is, in fact, a wild underestimate as it takes for granted the use of edible crops from southern nations to feed the farm animals of northern nations. As up to ten kilogrammes of edible plant protein is needed to produce one kilogramme of animal protein it is clear that the world produces vastly more food than it needs.

Whilst the western-backed promotion of corporate monoculture and corporately-controlled agricultural technologies is one reason for the decline of food security for the majority of Africans, Conway virtually ignores several other important reasons:

The massive subsidisation of agricultural exports by the USA and European Governments has made it virtually impossible for African farmers to compete. African nations now import subsidised crops whilst their own farmers lose their jobs. The situation has been greatly exacerbated by the US practice of dumping unsellable grain as free "food aid" - which eliminates any hope of African farmers making a living. The recent USAID ultimatum to African nations of "GM aid or no aid" is a further abuse of its grain dumping strategy [4]. All this makes a mockery of western calls for "free market" solutions for African agriculture. Despite prioritisation of Genetic Engineering in "aid" programmes there is as yet no evidence that any of the GM crops being promoted has increased overall food yields.

When African nations have tried to defend their self-reliance and their agriculture by restricting imports they have been punished by the WTO and IMF. The WTO has even banned the traditional practice of storing grain from good years to provide food for bad years. The grain must be sold on the international market (usually for animal feed) at artificially low prices and foreign grain must then be imported when the harvest is poor.

Conway is right when he says that Africans, not western campaigners for or against GM crops, should choose how their food is produced. But, when he talks about Africans choosing, is he talking about the right of the wealthiest African landowners to adopt a technology that will enrich them at the expense of the vast majority of the rural poor - or does he mean African Governments democratically choosing an agricultural development strategy that will help the majority of the population? If the WTO action being taken by the USA against the EU succeeds then African Governments will not have a right to reject GM crops for socio-economic reasons, nor will they be allowed to label GM foods to give their citizens a choice about whether or not to eat them.

Western "agricultural aid" also tends to undermine freedom of choice of African nations. The IMF and World Bank only offer loans for capital-intensive export-oriented agriculture and provide little assistance for smallholders and local food security schemes. Increasingly western aid is being restricted to promotion of GM crops - a policy now being adopted by USAID and the Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation.

 Conway rightly criticises the polarisation of the biotechnology debate. He says:

"Biotechnology is not just about genetically-modified (GM) crops. It spansthe full range of applications of the extraordinary discoveries of moderncellular and molecular biology - the fruits of a revolution that beganover sixty years ago. Tissue culture, one of the key applications, hasalready produced crops that are in the hands of African farmers."

Probably the most (or only) promising use of biotechnology for African smallholders is genomically-assisted breeding. This allows precise knowledge about the role of individual genes to be used to guide the conventional breeding of new crop varieties. This could enhance traditional breeding techniques and maintain crop diversity whilst limiting corporate control of seeds and avoiding the use of viral promoter sequences, bacterial antibiotic resistance genes and 'terminator genes'. "Golden Rice", the biotech industry's leading PR stunt, is genetically modified to contain genes from daffodils to produce beta-carotene. Despite investment of over $100 million, it is still many years from commercial cultivation. But it has now been revealed that several rare and wild varieties of rice naturally contain genes to produce beta-carotene [5]. How much cheaper (and less controversial) would it have been to use genomically-assisted breeding to develop a natural "Golden Rice"?

----------------------------- REFERENCES:

1. Empty promises http://www.thestar.com.my/lifestyle/story.asp?file=/2004/2/27/features/7407388&sec=features

2. ARGENTINA: The catastrophe of GM soya http://www.greenleft.org.au/current/561p20.htm

3. Overseas aid programme attacked in GM crops row http://www.guardian.co.uk/gmdebate/Story/0,2763,518190,00.html

4. Force-Feeding the World www.ukabc.org/forcefeeding.htm

5. 'Mirage' of GMs' golden promise http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/3122923.stm


Robert Vint, Director, Genetic Food Alert UK Hope House, 75a, High Street, Totnes,Devon TQ9 5PB UK +44 (0)1803 868523 <[email protected]>


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