Panel 7 - GMO

The main aim of this panel is not to tackle the GMO issue in the broad terms of its alleged or real hazards for biodiversity and human health. The focus will be on a specific aspect of the problem: will biotechnology ensure food security, protect the environment and reduce poverty in developing world, as some people representing vested interest in biotechnology industry claim?

The danger, in fact, is that the real problems of food security and environmental impact are neglected in view of GMO technology as a "cure-all" sort of magic, while it not only treats simply the symptoms rather than the underlying problems, but it is not even so good at treating the symptoms, as it leaves intact all the agriculture's ills.

Profit driven, not humanitarian aims

Miguel Altieri of the University of California at Berkley raises the concern that "biotechnology is being pursued to patch up the problems caused by previous agrochemical technologies (pesticide resistance, pollution, soil degradation) which were promoted by the same companies now leading the bio-revolution". [Altieri1999b]

Most innovations in agricultural biotechnology have been profit-driven rather than need-driven. The real goal of the industry is not to make third world agriculture more productive or effective, but to generate profits [Buschl990]. This is clear by examining the most widespread technologies on the market today: (1) herbicide resistant crops, such as Monsanto's "Roundup Ready" soybeans, seeds that are tolerant to Monsanto's herbicide Roundup, and (2) "Bt" (Bacillus thuringiensis) crops which are modified in order to produce their own insecticide. The result is winning a greater herbicide market-share for a patented product and, to boost seed sales at the cost of damaging the usefulness of a key pest management product (the Bacillus thuringiensis based microbial insecticide) relied upon by many farmers, including most organic ones, as a powerful alternative to insecticides. [Hobbelinkl991].

There is little evidence of pro-poor GM crops to date: fewer than 1% of the benefits from first generation GM crops are estimated to have accrued to tropical countries, where food insecurity is most prevalent, and there has been no major shift in the pattern of research investment for the second generation. [Pingali2002]

Someone holds out the examples of the so-called "Vitamin-A rice" and of edible vaccines, which are of questionable benefit to the society. Scientists have only just begun to scratch the surface of edible vaccine development, which is many years off in practical terms, and presents a number of serious known and unknown health risks.

The genetically altered rice is not the proper way to address the condition of two million children at risk of Vitamin A deficiency-induced blindness. Vitamin A deficiency is not "a problem", but rather "a symptom". It warns us of broader dietary inadequacies associated with both poverty and agricultural change from diverse cropping systems toward the rice monoculture. As stated by Altieri, "people do not present Vitamin A deficiency because rice contains too little Vitamin A, or beta-carotene, but rather because their diet has been reduced to rice and almost nothing else, and they suffer many other dietary illnesses that cannot be addressed by beta-carotene, but which could be addressed, together with Vitamin A deficiency, by a more varied diet."[Altieri1999]

Rising yields

Various experimental trials have shown that genetically engineered seeds do not increase the yield of crops, per se. A study completed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service shows that in 1998 yields were not significantly different in engineered versus non-engineered crops in 12 of 18 crop/region combinations. This was confirmed in another study examining more than 8,000 field trials, where it was found that Roundup Ready soybean seeds produced fewer bushels of soybeans than similar conventionally bred varieties [USDAl999].

From 1950 to 1990, all over the world the average productivity of the grain crops raised by a 2.1 percent per year, more than the 1.9 percent of the annual population growth. From 1990 to 2000 the crops growth plummeted to a 1.2 percent, while the population growth dropped to 1.2 percent only in 2004. Annual rise in grain yields from 2000 to 2010 is projected to drop to a 0.7 percent, far behind world population growth. [Brown2005]

Can genetic engineers boost a worldwide rise in productivity? The chances are minimal: first of all, so far (after twenty years of research) the focus in GMO crops has been on herbicide-tolerant varieties, insect resistant ones, disease resistant ones, and, more marginally, on specific agronomics properties (drought resistance or salt tolerance) or on improving crop quality (higher protein quality in corn or higher oil content in soybeans). None was bred to raise yields. In fact, this prospect is not promising, simply because plant breeders using traditional techniques have already exploited the genetic potential for increasing the share of the photosynthesis generated energy going to seed instead of being "wasted" in other plant's processes. The only option would be to increase the efficiency of the process of photosynthesis itself, which is far beyond the reach of genetic engineering techniques. The efficiency of photosynthesis, together with the land and water availability is the real limit of how much food can be produced by the planet. [Brown2005]

Worsening environmental impact

RR soybean systems are largely dependent on herbicides and hence are not likely to reduce herbicide use or reliance. Farmers growing RR soybeans used 2 to 5 times more herbicide measured in pounds applied per acre, compared to the other popular weed management systems used on most soybean fields not planted to RR varieties in 1998. The remarkable popularity of Roundup Ready soybeans, despite their cost and the significant yield drag associated with their use, is evidence of the difficulty and high cost of today's herbicide-dependent soybean weed management systems. The rapid evolution of weeds better able to withstand applications of Roundup reinforces the need for more integrated, multiple tactic weed management systems. [Benbrook1999]

Evolution of resistance can occur in the context of genetically modified crops that express an insecticidal product (e.g. B.t.), leading to insect resistance, or through overuse of herbicides on genetically modified crops, causing weed resistance. There are mandatory rules in the US to reduce the selection pressure on pests through integrated resistance management for B.t. genetically modified crops. These mandate that a proportion of the cropped area must be devoted to refuges of non-genetically modified crops, that rotations must be used, and that B.t. maize should not be grown where pest pressure is low. [Pretty2002]

Decreasing food security

Several prominent charities involved in food security issues, such as Oxfam, Christian Aid and Action Aid, have published reports stating that GM crops may exacerbate food insecurity [Sexton2003, Oxfam1999]. They maintain that GM crops would not reach the poorest farmers, who therefore would be even less able to obtain or retain food than they are now. Even if GM crops might help in exceptional cases, the above mentioned groups argue that their overall effect might therefore be to increase food insecurity.

The main problem is that companies charge a technology fee on top of seed costs; to date, this appears to capture most or all the margin in certain systems. The UK House of Lords states: "There is a concern, shared by farmers, witnesses and ourselves, that the powers of a few agrochemical/seed companies are already great, and will become greater, over the process of producing (developing and growing) GM crops". [House1999]


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Altieri M, Rosset P, "Ten reasons why biotechnology will non ensure food security, protect the environment and reduce poverty in developing world", AgBioForum 2(3-4), pp. 155-182

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Sexton, S. GM crops - going against the grain. Action Aid, London, May 2003.

United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). (1999). Genetically engineered crops for pest management. Washington DC: USDA Economic Research Service.