Feeding the world

One question which has always been present in the debate over GM crops and foods, has been whether they could form an important way to address malnutrition, by increasing productivity, or will have the opposite effect through adverse effects and corporate control. GeneWatch believes that the current generation of GM crops and the context of corporate control make promises of 'feeding the world' unlikely.  GeneWatch works to help allow developing countries and their citizens make genuine choices about whether or not and under what conditions they use GM crops.

A poverty trap?

One of the main concerns about the use of GM crops in developing countries is that farmers will be locked into a 'poverty trap', where they are forced to pay more for seed price hikes and expensive chemicals as herbicide-tolerant superweeds or resistant pests develop, or as new pests move in.

GM seeds are patented and saving these seeds is regarded as theft of intellectual property, making farmers increasingly dependent on the major multinational seed companies. Some companies also continue to conduct research into so-called Terminator technology, designed to stop seeds being fertile so they cannot be saved and replanted. There is currently an international moratorium on this technology due to concerns about its potential impacts on poorer farmers.

Broken promises and wasted money?

Complex traits in plants such as salt-tolerance and the ability to fix nitrogen were first promised thirty years ago in a US Office of Technology Assessment report published in 1981. However, the only GM traits that have been commercialised are herbicide tolerance and pest resistance. More complex traits are very difficult to achieve because they depend on the effects of multiple genes and the plants interactions with its environment.

GeneWatch has welcomed the news that DuPont and Syngenta have developed new drought-tolerant corn (maize) varieties using conventional breeding. However, Syngenta plans to market the new seeds only after it has genetically modified them to include resistance to its own-brand herbicide and to pests. This will allow it to patent the seeds and sell them at a premium with its herbicide, restricting access, increasing costs and introducing the environmental problems associated with these crops.

A USDA report has suggested that Monsanto's new GM drought-tolerant corn will perform no better than conventional varieties.

GM crops with enhanced levels of vitamins and minerals to tackle 'hidden hunger' have also yet to be commercialised and raise new safety and environmental issues. Many conventionally-bred varieties are already available.

Lobbying and commercial interests

In 2011, Monsanto announced that it plans a marketing push to try to increase sales of GM seeds in developing countries. Kenya's Daily Nation has reported on US lobbying to introduce GM crops in Kenya, based on a Wikileaks cable. Another Wikileaks cable highlighted the US Agriculture Department's interest in GM crops in Africa.The Gates Foundation is also promoting GM crops in Africa.

Undermining real solutions?

Most GM corn (maize) and soya is used as animal feed or subsidised by the US Government for use in industrial-scale biofuels. The increasing consumption of grain-fed meat and use of land and food crops for biofuels are both thought to be factors in driving global hunger.

There are many important things that need to be done to tackle hunger, such as improving food distribution and tackling food waste, which have nothing to do with GM crops. Better land, soil and water management - including agro-ecological methods to improve yields, sustainability and dietary diversity - must also play a role.

Some of these alternatives have been undermined by the restructuring of the research funding system that has taken place since the 1980s in order to deliver the promised benefits of GM crops. The history of public subsidy for GM crops research in Britain and Europe is documented in the GeneWatch Bioscience for Life? report.

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