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Genetic Engineering and World Hunger:
Food? Health? Hope?
"Ensuring food security worldwide requires an approach that is the opposite of that promoted by Biotechnology companies"
From:The CornerHouse: Briefing No 10, October 1998*
Genetic engineering companies have been taken aback this year by the strength of public reaction in Europe against their recent attempts to grow and trade in genetically-engineered crops.
In response, the US company Monsanto, one of those at the forefront of these developments, launched an extraordinary public relations campaign. The most visible arm of the campaign was full-page advertisements placed week after week in British newspapers and magazines promoting the purported benefits of genetically-engineered food.
The headline across one of these adverts boldly stated that "worrying about starving future generations won't feed them. Food biotechnology will". Other PR material, destined for a European audience, maintains that slowing the acceptance of biotechnology is "a luxury our hungry world cannot afford".
The key planks of Monsanto's PR campaign are perhaps best summed up in the three words of the newly-crafted company slogan which appeared in restrained lettering at the bottom of the advertisements: "Food • Health • Hope". Genetic engineering is key to feeding the world's increasing numbers of people. It will help to restore a healthy environment and prevent further degradation. And it will provide farmers and consumers worldwide with more choices and opportunities.
Close analysis, however, suggests that the widespread adoption of genetic engineering in agriculture would have precisely the opposite effects.
• Far from staving off world starvation, genetic engineering is set to threaten crop yields; to force farmers to pay for their rights to fertile seed; to undercut foreign demand for some Third World produce: and to undermine poorer farmers' access to land on which to grow food. Its cruelly deceptive promise of a technical fix for many people's lack of food not only conceals the unjust distribution of land and of economic and political power which underpin world hunger today: if adopted widely, genetic engineering technologies in agriculture would also entrench and extend these forces.
•Far from relieving modern agriculture of the need to douse the soil with damaging petrochemicals, agricultural genetic engineering is tailored to reinforce farmer dependence on chemical herbicides and fertilizers. Like the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, it is guaranteed to set in train the further evolution of plants and insects resistant to the chemicals, resulting in unprecedented pest outbreaks and weed problems. At the same time, it is likely to reduce crop biodiversity still further and to trigger crop failures. Genetic engineering builds new health risks into an agricultural system already crowded with dangers for both farmers and consumers.
•Far from opening up new opportunities for farmers and consumers, a gene revolution in agriculture is part of a wider package encompassing international legislation and trade restrictions designed to tighten corporate control over food production. Instead of encouraging smallholder independence and farmer-friendly innovations in multiple cropping, non-chemical farming and agricultural diversity, companies promoting genetic engineering (and their allies in governments, trade bodies and research institutions) are working full-time - in accordance with sound business principles - to increase poor peoples' dependence on the corporate sector for seeds, agricultural inputs and produce, to restrict agricultural research to a single narrow channel compatible with corporate profit-taking, and to increase debt among those who can least afford it.
In what follows, the claims made by promoters of genetic engineering in agriculture to provide the world with food, health and hope are examined and rebutted one by one.
PART I: DENYING FOOD TO THE HUNGRY
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"The starving are starving because they are denied access to food - not because there is not enough food"
To a public confronted with television images of the starving in Sudan and elsewhere, the claim that genetically-engineered crops will feed growing numbers of people in the Third World has great moral appeal. Its proponents seem highly responsible, even altruistic.
Yet the claim is deeply misleading. It seems plausible only if one overlooks the real causes of malnutrition, hunger, starvation and famine, and erroneously assumes that the hungry must be hungry because there is not enough food.
Responding to a British scientist's claim that those who want to ban genetically-engineered crops are undermining the position of starving people in Ethiopia, Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher, Ethiopia's representative at the ongoing negotiations to draw up a biosafety protocol as part of the Convention on Biological Diversity,1 recently stated:
"There are still hungry people in Ethiopia, but they are hungry because they have no money, no longer because there is no food to buy . . . We strongly resent the abuse of our poverty to sway the interests of the European public."2
While few doubt that more food will have to be grown in future if the increasing numbers of people in the world are to be adequately fed, those who starve or go hungry today (whether in Ethiopia or in the United States or in Britain) do so primarily because they are denied access to food. A whole range of unjust and inequitable political and economic structures, especially those relating to land and trade, in combination with ecological degradation, marginalise poorer people and deprive them of the means to eat. (See Box: Increased Yields?)
More than enough food is already being produced to provide everyone in the world with a nutritious and adequate diet3 - according to the United Nations' World Food Programme, one-and-a-half times the amount required. Yet at least one-seventh of the world's people - some 800 million people - go hungry. About one-quarter of these are children. They starve because they do not have access to land on which to grow food, or do not have the money to buy food, or do not live in a country with a state welfare system.
Genetic engineering in agriculture will do nothing to address these underlying structural causes of hunger. On the contrary, it is likely to do much to exacerbate them. Few of the foods currently being researched and developed are foods which the hungry can afford. Moreover, the high costs of genetically-engineered crops are likely to squeeze many small and medium-sized farmers out of business, with the result that still more people will be unable to grow or pay for the food they need. And, far from diminishing the adverse impacts of modern agriculture on the environment, genetically-engineered crops threaten further ecological degradation, thereby exacerbating food security for the poor.
As long as access to food depends upon money, and poorer people are excluded from food markets or land, significant numbers of people will be malnourished, hungry and starving - whatever happens to the global food supply and whatever happens to the number of people in the world.
Feeding Animals, Not People
"Much of the genetically engineered soya and maize being grown in the United States will be eaten by animals, not people"
The biotech industry's claim that its research is motivated by a need to feed the hungry is not substantiated. Few of the foods it has produced so far are likely to benefit poorer people in the South.4
The two main genetically-engineered crops being grown commercially in the United States, for example, are soybeans and maize (corn). Some 90-95 per cent of soybean harvests and 60 per cent of traded maize are not consumed by humans but by livestock.5
Animal feed is likely to continue to be an important focus of genetic research. In 1998, for example, Monsanto announced a joint venture with the world's largest grain merchant, Cargill, to create and market new grain processing and animal feed products "enhanced though biotechnology".6
The development of genetically-engineered feed crops will do little to relieve hunger in countries such as India where many people do not eat meat. Worldwide, it is estimated that two out of every three human beings have a primarily vegetarian diet.7
"Meat is consumed by people who are already well-fed and who have money to buy it"
Even in countries where meat is more widely eaten, feed crops do little to alleviate hunger. In the first place, converting animal feed to meat is a singularly inefficient means of supplying people with protein.8 World hunger could be lessened if people ate the plant protein directly rather than eating meat. An acre of cereal is estimated to produce five times more protein than an acre devoted to meat production; an acre of legumes (such as beans, peas, lentils) ten times more; and of leafy vegetables, fifteen times more.9
Second, meat tends to be consumed by people who are already well-fed and who have the money to buy it. A 1987 survey of consumption patterns in over 50 countries found that higher income groups consistently derived more of their fat, proteins and calories from animal sources than lower income groups.10
Moreover, livestock production in many Southern countries has often been at the direct expense of poorer people's diets. Egypt is a case in point. Encouraged by the US government's Agency for International Development (USAID) and other development agencies, the Egyptian government invested heavily in livestock. From 1970 to 1980, crop production rose by 17 per cent in real terms, but livestock production grew almost twice as much, by 32 per cent. In the following seven years, crop production increased by 10 per cent, while livestock production leapt by almost 50 per cent.
"Egypt now grows more food for animals than for people"
Feeding the country's expanding population of animals required an enormous and costly diversion of staple food supplies from humans to animals. Human consumption of domestically-grown maize and other coarse grains dropped from 53 per cent of production in 1966 to just 6 per cent in 1988. Egypt now grows more food for animals than for humans - almost 40 per cent of the total agricultural land is under animal fodder crops. Human supplies of grain have been made up through US imports which contributed to Egypt's external debt; in 1988, the country's debt was five times the value of its exports. The consistent beneficiaries of Egypt's switch to livestock production have been large US grain merchants such as Cargill which have exported US grains at hugely subsidised prices to Egypt11 (see Box: Dumping Food on the South).
Engineering for Retail Convenience
Much genetic engineering research in food has been directed at meeting the commercial needs of food processors rather than the nutritional needs of poorer consumers.
Monsanto's high-starch potato, for example, has been developed to make commercially-grown potatoes more suitable for the deep-fry vats of Northern fast food outlets, not to be a better or cheaper food.
Flavr Savr tomatoes were engineered by Calgene (now part of Monsanto) for delayed ripening so that they would have a longer supermarket shelf life. In the US, they had to be withdrawn from sale because the texture and taste did not meet with public approval and because they bruised during transport. (The tomatoes are now processed into tomato purees.
"Much of the research has been directed at meeting the commercial wishes of food processors rather than the nutritional needs of poorer consumers"
The European Union has funded research into engineering the leaves of cauliflowers to stay green for longer so that the vegetables appear fresher - even though people don't usually eat the leaves.12
Much of the soya that is not used for animal feed, meanwhile, goes into processed foods; an estimated 60 per cent of processed foods, ranging from bread, ready-meals and sauces to biscuits, cakes and chocolate, now contain substances derived from genetically-engineered soya.
Such processed foods cannot provide many of the health benefits associated with eating fresh foods. Recent research in Britain, for example, found that:
"daily consumption of fresh fruit was associated with a 24 per cent reduction in mortality from ischemic heart disease, a 32 per cent reduction in mortality from cerebrovascular disease, and a 21 per cent reduction in all-cause mortality when compared with less frequent fruit consumption."13
The fact that the average consumption of fresh fruit is declining amongst low-income groups stems partly from the retailing systems associated with the long-distance transport of foods that genetic engineering will facilitate. More and more food in Northern countries is now transported further and further away from its point of production by road - trucks effectively becoming mobile warehouses. Supermarket chains have built new out-of-town stores as close as possible to major roads. Poorer people who do not have cars are left to buy food at corner shops, convenience stores or independent small supermarkets where prices are on average 23 per cent higher than those in large supermarket chains and discount stores - and where food may be even less fresh than in out-of-town stores. Significantly, a 1996 study of malnutrition among poorer families in Britain points out that "by far the most energetic action" to address the problem of expensive low-quality food has come "from within deprived communities, which have set up projects to improve access to healthier food, for instance, food-buying cooperatives, bartering projects and subsistence agriculture."14
A report by the US Biotechnology Industry Organization, meanwhile, suggests that effort in future will be devoted to genetic techniques for delaying ripening or rotting of fruits and vegetables and for improving their appearance, thereby allowing them to be transported over ever longer distances and kept on supermarket shelves for longer.15
These technologies may allow some fruits and vegetables grown by commercial producers in the South, such as mangoes, papayas and Charentais melons, to reach Northern niche consumers more easily. But the establishment and extension of trade between high-tech producers in the South and well-off Northern consumers is unlikely to contribute much to the nutritional health of hungry people in either South or North. Maintaining a system whereby food has to travel such long distances may be good news for oil companies, airlines and motor manufacturers, but it is nonetheless an energy- and resource-intensive system which is highly polluting.
The interests of all consumers would be better served not by promoting genetically-engineered food but by encouraging food to be grown and consumed as close as possible to the point of production, giving consumers and growers, not transnationals, greater control over their markets.
"The interests of consumers and growers would be better served by giving them, rather than transnationals, greater control over their food and markets"
Substituting Tropical Cash Crops
"Genetically-engineered substitutes for tropical cash crops are likely to destroy the livelihoods of many rural poor people and aggravate poverty and hunger"
Several applications of biotechnology are aimed at growing tropical cash crops in the North, or at producing in laboratories the substances currently derived from such crops. If these applications work, they could have a severe impact on the national incomes of many Southern countries and on the incomes and employment opportunities for many individuals and communities in those countries.16
Approximately 70,000 vanilla farmers in Madagascar, for instance, face ruin because the market for vanilla is being undermined by the growing of vanilla under tissue culture in biotech labs.17 Vanilla accounts for 10 per cent of Madagascar's export earnings.
Likewise, an estimated 10 million sugar farmers throughout the South face the loss of their livelihoods as a result of genetically-engineered sugars and sweeteners being grown and processed in the North. Fructose produced by genetic engineering has already captured over 10 per cent of the world market.18
Canola (or spring rape, currently being field-tested in Britain), meanwhile, has been genetically-engineered to produce oils which would replace the use of coconut and palm oils. If the technology works, export earnings of countries such as the Philippines, the world's largest exporter of coconut oil, will be reduced. Coconut oil provides seven per cent of the Philippine's total export income and direct or indirect employment for 21 million people, about 30 per cent of the country's population.19 An estimated 10 million people in Kerala, India, who rely directly and indirectly on coconuts are also at risk from the new technology.20
The chocolate market is also vulnerable to the development of genetically-engineered cocoa butter substitutes, potentially displacing millions of small-scale producers in West Africa.21
Although some of these cash crop producers will be able to switch to growing other crops, many will not - either because they lack the money to buy the equipment needed to diversify or because they are unable to service the loans they have incurred in growing the cash crops and must therefore forfeit their land. Still others - landless labourers on commercial farms, for example - are likely to find themselves without work. With their income from export earnings slashed, few Southern countries will be in a position to compensate such workers and farmers.22 They will be left to fend for themselves: many are likely to become malnourished for lack of cash to buy food.
It is not surprising that some commentators warn that using genetic engineering to create substitutes for tropical cash crops will "destroy the livelihoods of the rural poor and aggravate conditions of poverty and hunger".23
"Genetic engineering companies are attempting to stop farmers from planting seed they have harvested"
A further threat posed by genetically-engineered crops to the livelihoods of small farmers, not only in the South but also in the North, comes from attempts by the industry to deny farmers' their ancient right to save and exchange seeds from previous harvests and to force them to buy their seeds every year at a price determined by seed companies.
Over the last 30 years, commercially-bred hybrid seeds (which farmers buy from seed merchants) have become increasingly common. In the North, almost all farmers use them, even organic farmers. In the South, although non-hybrid crops are commonly used by smallholders for growing vegetables and staple foods (such as cassava, sorghum and millet), hybrid seeds have become the norm for many grain crops (although small grain cereals, such as rice, wheat, barley, oats and rye, have defied commercial hybridisation).
Hybrids do not breed true in the second generation; they are either sterile or their seed is not uniformly like the parent seed and thus "there is a reduction in overall performance when hybrid seed is saved and replanted".24 In Northern countries, many farmers no longer use farm-saved seeds - partly because of lower yields but also because of the insistence of food processors and retailers on crop uniformity - although a substantial number continue to do so to grow wheat and barley.
"The 'Terminator Technology' threatens to extinguish farmer expertise in selecting seed and developing locally-adapted varieties -- a clear threat to food security and agricultural genetic diversity"
In the South, saving hybrid seeds is more widespread. As researchers Ricarda Steinbrecher and Pat Mooney point out:
"Resource-poor farmers in countries such as Brazil will often take second-generation seeds as a source of breeding material to be blended with their traditional varieties. In this way, skilled local breeders (mostly women) isolate useful genetic characteristics and adapt them to their immediate market."25
Seed companies have been able to develop hybrids only by appropriating plants developed and maintained by generations of farmers. Many countries in the North now have legislation requiring farmers to pay royalties to the seed companies on any "farm saved" seed that they plant out.26
Companies such as Monsanto are trying to tighten their control over "their" seeds still further by prohibiting farmers from saving any seed at all, even for their own use. When farmers buy seed engineered to be tolerant to the company's proprietary herbicide, Roundup, for example, they have to sign a contract stating that they will not save any transgenic seed for the next year's planting.27 In the United States, Monsanto has reportedly employed private detectives to identify farmers who had violated the contract so that it can sue them. Before the genetically-engineered soybean seeds were introduced, an estimated 20-30 per cent of all soybean fields in the US Midwest are typically planted with saved seed.28
Monsanto's ultimate threat comes from what has been called "terminator technology": a method of incorporating two or three novel genes into a plant which cause its seed, if planted out, to die in the early stages of germination.29 The terminator technology, if it works, would make it almost impossible for farmers to grow food from seeds they have saved. They would have no option but to go back year after year to the company to buy seeds. The technology's primary targets are, according to the original patent holders, "Second and Third World countries"30 and self-pollinated crops such as cotton, soybeans and wheat.
"Genetically engineering plants so that their seeds do not grow is a brutal illustration of the supremacy of the profit motive in biotechnology"
Dr. Harry B. Collins, technology transfer vice president of Delta and Pine Land, the US company (now bought up by Monsanto) that developed the terminator technology together with the US Department of Agriculture, argues that the technology's:
"ability to prevent multiple use from one purchase of improved varieties of self-pollinated crops will benefit the world agricultural community by insuring that farmers in all areas of the world have an opportunity to share in the advantage of enhanced planting seed".
Is it really an "opportunity", however, if farmers have little option but to grow such seed?
Collins expands further on his idea that what is good for business must be good for farmers:
"The centuries-old practice of farmer saved seed is really a gross disadvantage to Third World farmers who inadvertently become locked into obsolete varieties because of their taking the 'easy road' and not planting newer, more productive varieties."31
The 1.4 billion resource-poor farm families whose food comes from seeds they have saved and developed from previous harvests may take a less sanguine view of this anti-life technology which could drive them out of plant breeding. Collins seems not to be aware that it is actually creative farmers who have generated and conserved productive varieties in their fields for decades. Such farmers grow 15-20 per cent of the world's food.
Moreover, if Monsanto succeeds in inserting the terminator technology into its seed varieties while maintaining its relationship with Cargill, farmers could have little choice but to buy its non-reproducing seed, given that Cargill has near-monopolies over several agricultural commodities in many parts of the developing world.
As David King of GenEthics News says, "Every now and again, something comes along that shines a light on the real interests driving genetic engineering". The terminator's "system for preventing farmers replanting seed is as pure and brutal an illustration as we are likely to get of the supremacy of the profit motive in biotechnology."32
The technology's inventors readily admit this motive. Delta Pine and Land's Collins candidly describes the "protection system" for use in self-pollinated crops as "a breakthrough that will give companies a way to receive a fair return on their investment". USDA molecular biologist Melvin J. Oliver states that "our mission is to protect US agriculture and to make us competitive in the face of foreign competition".
Increasing the Costs of Farming
"The need to buy seeds every year and the chemicals that go with them will force many more farmers into bankruptcy"
For many farmers, the need to buy seeds every year (instead of using saved ones) will lead to a steep rise in their input costs and, in many cases, bankruptcy. Without land on which to grow food, many small producers will face destitution and hunger - hardly a policy for "feeding the world".
Monsanto says that it has yet to decide on the prices for many of its genetically-engineered seeds.33 But there are already indications that its Roundup Ready seeds could cost more than conventional varieties. In the US, for example, most seed costs around $15 for a 50 pound bag, enough to plant one acre. In 1997, Roundup Ready soybean seed retailed for more than twice that;34 in addition, farmers had to pay a "technology fee" of $8.00 an acre to Monsanto. Since then, the company has dropped some of its prices because of a depression in US agriculture.
For farmers who have large amounts of well-endowed land, rises in seed costs may not be problematic. Such farmers may well be able to use their buying power to obtain substantial discounts. Roundup Ready seeds may also bring larger farmers substantial "herbicide-driven" economies of scale, either by reducing the number of times a crop requires spraying to get rid of weeds or by reducing labour costs. For smaller farmers, however, the increased costs of seeds could prove ruinous.
Growers in the South, whose economic survival relies on being able to save seed from one year to the next, are also likely to be ruined by the added input costs. Not only will they have to pay for their seeds every year: they will also have to buy chemical herbicides and fertilizers. Herbicide use in Southern countries, particularly on smaller farms, is low because it is cheaper to employ people to get rid of weeds. Many small farmers, who are already hard pressed by competition from heavily-subsidised food imports from the EU and the US35 (see Box: Dumping Food on the South) and by the removal of subsidies on water and energy due to structural adjustment programmes, will slide into debt.
Just as with the Green Revolution, the result is likely to be a new wave of farm bankruptcies, leading to landlessness for poorer farmers and an increased concentration of land as wealthier farmers and speculators buy up bankrupted farms. (see Box: Increasing Landlessness) In South Korea, the number of rural households in debt rose from 76 per cent in 1971 to 90 per cent in 1983 and to 98 per cent in 1985, following implementation of the Green Revolution.36 As a result, farmers left the land in droves: 34,000 migrated to the cities in 1986, 41,000 in 1987 and 50,000 in 1988. In the Indian Punjab, the high input costs of Green Revolution technologies led to the number of smallholdings declining by nearly a quarter between 1970 and 1980. Many were left destitute - a prospect that the Gene Revolution now threatens for many of those who survived the turmoil of the Green Revolution. (see Box: Haven't We Been Here Before? The Green Revolution)
Promoting Inefficient Farming
"The overall result of displacing 'inefficient' small growers is likely to be increased famine and malnutrition -- not a redution in hunger as the proponents of genetic engineering claim"
Proponents of genetic engineering in agriculture may argue that such farm bankruptcies are a regrettable but necessary price of greater efficiency in agriculture.37
In terms of output per unit of labour, small farms do tend to be less "efficient" than large modernised ones. But in terms of gross output per unit of land, smaller farms often outdo larger ones. Reports from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization repeatedly show that small farms in the Third World are more productive than large holdings. In Thailand, holdings under one hectare have been found to be almost twice as productive as holdings over 40 hectares; in Sudan, holdings of less than half a hectare are four times as productive as those of 15 hectares; and, in Bangladesh, holdings of just 0.3-0.4 hectares are six times more productive than those of three hectares.38
Arguments for replacing "inefficient" small producers with "efficient" large producers also fail to take account of the key role that small farms (particularly household gardens) play in efficiently supplying informal household networks with food, particularly in rural areas of the South - food which never reaches the market and thus tends to be omitted from official figures of production. To displace such networks would almost certainly result in a dramatic fall in the amount of unmarketed food available to poorer people.39 It would also mean that many households would have to buy their food. How much food and what kind of food people get to eat would depend on their ability to earn money or on the state's willingness to support them (see Box: Politics of Hunger).
If vulnerable smallholder producers are displaced as a result of growing genetically-engineered crops, there is the threat of more poverty and food insecurity. Many of those displaced would probably find themselves in a saturated labour market. If they could get jobs, they would no doubt be low-paid, insecure ones in the cities or on larger farms where workers are generally paid piece rates.40 Real wages for labourers have been rapidly declining in many Third World countries. As writer and researcher Jon Bennet remarks of the estimated 1.75 million seasonal labourers who compete for work in the cotton growing areas of Sudan:
"Stripped of their traditional means of support, farmworkers [have] become simply components of production. . . . increasingly vulnerable to the shifting fortunes of an economy outside their control. As a seemingly limitless resource with minimal bargaining power, they [can] now be hired or fired at will."41
Those working as labourers in export crop plantations have been particularly vulnerable to exploitative wages and working conditions. Because exporters rely on markets abroad rather than at home for the sale of their crops, low wages are not "necessarily so bad for business" since "profits do not necessarily significantly depend on the ability to sell domestic products to wage earners or peasants".42
The overall result of displacing "inefficient" small farmers is thus likely to be increased famine and malnutrition - not a reduction in hunger as the proponents of genetic engineering promise.
PART II: UNSUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE
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"Genetic engineering in agriculture is likely to have adverse environmental impacts which would undermine the ecological basis of food production"
Genetic engineering in agriculture is likely to have adverse environmental impacts which are in turn likely to undermine the ecological basis of food production. Genetically-engineered crops will stimulate the evolution of "superweeds" and "superbugs" which will necessitate higher doses of chemicals and make food supplies more vulnerable to pest damage. The outcrossing of engineered traits to other plants also poses a major threat to food production. In addition, the adoption of genetically-engineered crops is likely to reduce genetic diversity, resulting in fewer and fewer types of food crops; the narrowing of the genetic base of food adds to the likelihood of pest and disease epidemics. Many of these problems stem from the fact that genetically-engineered crops will be grown in industrial monocultures. Other forms of agriculture offer far safer, proven and ecologically-benign means of protecting crops against pest damage. (See Box: Monocultures, Pests & Genetically-engineered Crops)
Increasing Chemical Use and Soil Degradation
Proponents of genetically-engineered food argue that genetically-engineered crops will enable farmers to reduce the use of chemicals on the land, chemicals which the industry used to promote as "safe" despite evidence to the contrary but now acknowledges to be detrimental to the environment in general and to the health of soils in particular.43 In reality, however, genetic engineering offers little prospect for reducing chemical use.
About two-thirds of the genetically-engineered crops now being grown on a commercial scale have been engineered to be tolerant of a specific herbicide. Monsanto, for instance, has created soybeans, cotton, oilseed rape, corn and sugarbeet so that these plants are not killed off when the company's top-selling weedkiller, Roundup, (whose active ingredient, glyphosate, tends to kill off most plants) is applied to a field. Monsanto argues that growing Roundup Ready crops will reduce herbicide use by up to 39 per cent.44
Some individual farmers may well be able to reduce (but not eliminate) their use of herbicide by growing Roundup Ready seeds. But if more farmers use these seeds, particularly those who do not currently use Roundup or other weedkillers, more herbicide is likely to be applied overall.
Moreover, just as bacteria which cause illnesses in humans have gradually developed resistance to antibiotics, so too weeds in or near fields of genetically-engineered crops will become resistant to the herbicide. Such "superweeds" will require higher and higher doses of herbicide, leaving larger and larger amounts of chemical residue behind on crops.45
In some cases, the herbicide sprayed on fields growing the genetically-engineered crops may well be more toxic than the chemicals applied to fields of non-engineered seeds. Oilseed rape, for instance, has been engineered by AgrEvo and Plant Genetic Systems46 to tolerate the herbicide, glufosinate (marketed by one of the parent companies, Hoechst, under the brand names Liberty, Basta, Harvest and Challenge). Glufosinate is a broad spectrum herbicide and thus affects more plants than other more specific weedkillers. As the group GeneWatch points out, "Any reduction in herbicide use would be directly attributable to glufosinate's potency. Hence, whilst it may be true that fewer litres will be required, the toxic effect will be the same or even greater." GeneWatch also point out that:
"Any reduced usage claim seems even less convincing when AgrEvo have increased production facilities for glufosinate in the US and Germany and expect sales to increase by $560 million in the next five to seven years. Indeed, the introduction of glufosinate resistant crops to increase sales of its herbicide products is considered to be AgrEvo's underlying aim in entering the GE market in the first place."47
The effects of chemical herbicides are well-documented. They reduce soil fertility, pollute water, deplete earthworms and beneficial microbes, and have varying short- and long-term affects on human health.
While Monsanto has claimed that its glyphosate weedkiller, Roundup, is "environmentally friendly", "biodegradable" and "practically non-toxic" to mammals, birds and fish, there is mounting evidence that glyphosate-based herbicides can be lethal to beneficial insects such as ladybirds and lacewing flies which are predators of common agricultural pests such aphids.
Glufosinate, meanwhile, is toxic to plants, fish and other aquatic life; laboratory animal studies have linked the chemical with birth defects.
"Just as herbicide-resistant crops are likely to trigger the evolution of 'superweeds', so pest-resistant crops could accelerate the evolution of 'superbugs'"
The next most common application of genetic engineering in agriculture is the development of crops which produce their own insecticide; pest resistant crops are now being commercially grown in the United States. In theory, such crops might seem to eliminate the need for external applications of chemical insecticides (to the benefit of the health of farmworkers and consumers as well as the soil) and to reduce crop loss caused by insects. Just as herbicide-resistant crops are likely to trigger the evolution of "superweeds", however, so too these crops could well accelerate the evolution of "superbugs".
The most common way of engineering pest resistance has been to splice into a plant a gene derived from a soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt).48 This organism produces a protoxin which, when eaten by some insects and their larvae, destroys their digestive tracts and kills them.
The substances produced by the genetically-engineered Bt plants, however, do not need to be activated by insect stomach fluids but are immediately toxic. They can survive in soil and keep their toxicity for up to nine months, whereas the naturally-occurring toxin degrades at least two to three times faster.49 Genetically-engineered Bt toxins thus harm and kill a far wider range and number of insects, including beneficial ones, than the naturally-occurring toxin. They also affects soil organisms.
Continuous production of the Bt toxin by genetically-engineered plants creates a strong selection pressure on insects to develop resistance. The evolution of "superbugs" which are resistant to the toxin or which switch to eating other plants is highly likely. Once this occurs, farmers will have to return to using chemical insecticides - until the pests evolve resistance to these too.50 Some scientists believe that the window during which genetically-engineered Bt products will be effective is less than a decade, perhaps only three to four years.51 From a corporate perspective, this only adds to pressures to rush these products on to the market before competitors do so.
Some scientists, meanwhile, are seeking to engineer plants to be resistant to fungi, bacteria and viruses. Field trials involving tomatoes, potatoes, squash, cucumber and cantaloupe have already taken place. Evidence is accumulating that engineering viral resistance in plants could lead to the development of new viruses, which could give rise to potentially more serious diseases.52 It has been reported, for instance, that naturally-occurring viruses can recombine with the virus fragments spliced into plants.53 Any new crop diseases, especially those occurring on an epidemic scale, would not increase food supplies or food security.
Crossing Out of Genetically-Engineered Organisms
Cross-pollination between genetically-engineered crops and non-engineered varieties or wild relatives could undermine food security still further. The transfer of herbicide resistance to other plants, for instance, could lead to the emergence of new species of weeds which would be difficult to eradicate and which could disrupt ecosystems by displacing existing flora.54 Such hybridisations have already been demonstrated in field experiments with wild radish, wild turnip, hoary mustard and mustard greens.55 In the case of genetically-engineered potatoes, hybridisation readily occurred with non-engineered varieties over distances up to one kilometre.56
The resulting hybrids will not necessarily die out quickly. Recent studies in Denmark reveal that the transgene for herbicide resistance in genetically-engineered oilseed rape not only spread easily to weeds but produced fertile, weed-like plants after just two generations of hybridization and backcrossing.57
Indeed, the sheer numbers of genetically-engineered organisms now being released into the environment through field trials and commercial growing make it almost inevitable that at least some of the novel genes - particularly those that confer survival advantages to plants such as herbicide tolerance and pest resistance -will cross out, persist, spread out of control and affect ecosystems in unpredictable ways.
"Some novel genes are bound to spread into other plants through cross-pollination and affect ecosystems in unpredictable ways - destroying genetic diversity especially in countries of the South which are the centres of origin of crops"
The risks of such cross-pollination are likely to be greater in the countries of the South than the North, since North America and Europe have few relatives of crops such as rice or soybeans to which the spliced-in genes could spread through cross-pollination. But many of the Southern countries where genetically-engineered crops may be grown - including China, India, Thailand, South Africa and Brazil - are the genetic centres of origin for these crops, easing the spread of transgenes (the gene constructs inserted into crop plants). For this reason, the US Academy of Sciences specifically warns that "greater care may be needed in the introduction of genetically modified crops" in Asia Minor, South-East Asia, the Indian subcontinent and South America than in North America.58
Acknowledging these concerns, the industry cites its "terminator technology" (see pp.9-10), arguing that it would prevent the offspring of genetically-engineered crops from germinating. When the genetically-engineered plants cross-pollinated with wild relatives, the resulting plants would be unable to survive, argue the technology's proponents. But similarly the terminator technology could spread to neighbouring crops as well, with potentially calamitous effects on food production. As the farmers' rights advocacy group, RAFI, point out:
"Even sporadic germination failures will be sufficient to scare farmers away from saving seed that might not grow. The patent holders don't have to have a perfect technique in order to threaten farmers who can't afford risk".
It is not just to plants that transgenes could be transferred. A recent study has shown that they can be transferred to soil bacteria as well, which could then be picked up by insects, birds and animals, and carried into water supplies.59
Destroying Genetic Diversity
"Genetic engineering will narrow, not increase, the genetic base of food crops, threatening the very basis of human nutrition"
Genetic engineering in agriculture will hasten the further erosion of food genetic diversity, no matter how many "new" types of crop are created. Splicing the odd new gene or two into a restricted set of cultivars does nothing to compensate for the massive loss in the base of genetic diversity. This had been painstakingly built up in wild varieties through long-term evolution in millions of unique locales and developed in myriad domesticated varieties through millennia of small farmers' innovative breeding efforts. Narrowing the genetic base of agriculture to only a few types of crop erodes long-term security of agricultural yields and therefore the very basis of human nutrition.
Genetic engineering companies, as a matter of business principle, are continuing the strategy already pursued for many decades by corporate plant breeders and seed companies (in tandem with food processors and retailers) of creating uniform national (and now international) markets for just a few standardized seeds and chemicals. Seed varieties suitable only for a specific locality are neither promoted nor developed. A few decades ago, Indian farmers were growing some 50,000 different varieties of rice; just over ten years ago, this number had dropped to 17,000; and today, the majority grow just a few dozen. In Indonesia, 1,500 local varieties have become extinct in the last 15 years. If different varieties, each of which have different traits , are not grown out constantly, they are very quickly lost.60
The demands of food processors for a particular type of uniform crop accentuates the loss of genetic diversity. Of the 150 varieties of potato legally available in Britain, for instance, just 10 account for more than 70 per cent of the acreage planted to potatoes.61 Thus as writers Marc Lappé and Brit Bailey conclude:
"The increasing trend towards uniform farming practices . . . is almost certainly going to be exacerbated by the availability of transgenic seed. The resulting crop patterns may well increase the fragility of the crop and permit the introduction of widespread disease."62
Some farmers in the United States growing genetically-engineered soybeans are already discovering that monocultures of a single genetically-engineered variety may be more susceptible to disease. Sudden Death Syndrome, a disease caused by a soilborne fungus, Fusaruim solani, affected soybeans in central and northern Missouri in the late summer of 1998, potentially reducing yields. Some observers estimated that 80 to 90 per cent of some affected areas were planted with Roundup Ready seeds. Commented one farmer who could lose up to half his yield, "I think there was a rush to get some variations [of genetically-altered soybeans] on the market that didn't really have good disease resistance".63
Genetic engineering, in short, will do little to reduce overall chemical use, nor to prevent crop losses due to pests and diseases - and could make these problems far worse.
PART III: CHOICE? WHAT CHOICE?
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"Genetic engineering companies and their allies are moving rapidly to deny farmers the possibility of planting non-engineered crops -- and control of the food chain from seeds to food on consumers' plates"
Given these ecological, economic and social risks, many farmers - if they had access to full information - might prefer not to grow genetically-engineered crops. But genetic engineering companies and their allies are moving rapidly to deny farmers the opportunity of planting non-engineered crops. If history is any guide to the future, the companies involved will probably use their political and economic muscle to achieve this goal. Several tactics are likely in both the North and the South. Taken together, they contradict the assertions that "traditional seeds will continue to be available just as they are now" or that concerns about farmers losing access to seeds, not being able to save or exchange seeds and becoming dependent on plant breeders are "largely unfounded".64
Monopolies From Seed to Supermarket
Mergers, takeovers, joint ventures and licensing agreements between plant breeding companies, seed distributors, grain traders, chemical companies and genetic engineering interests have resulted in some genetic engineering companies gaining near-monopoly control over the growing and marketing of some agricultural commodities. Monsanto's chair and chief executive, Bob Shapiro, is candid about his company's aims:
"In the past, we've supplied agricultural inputs to help farmers grow crops . . . Increasingly, we're looking instead at creating value throughout the chain, running from seed and inputs all the way through to consumers."65
Just ten multinationals (including Monsanto) have now cornered nearly 40 per cent of the world seed market.66 Monsanto itself estimates that half the US grain industry is now using its genetically-engineered seed; it expects that by the year 2000, all soybeans planted in the United States will be of its Roundup Ready variety.67
In the immediate future, it is likely that farmers in the North will be most directly affected by such monopoly control. Within a few years, the only soybeans Monsanto is likely to offer in Japan will be genetically-engineered ones.68
In Ireland, where Monsanto and Swiss company Novartis are trying to get Roundup Ready sugarbeet approved for commercial growing, Monsanto has warned that Novartis, the country's major supplier of sugarbeet seed, may find it "uneconomic" to "continue to supply traditional seed to the Irish market".69
The advent of the terminator technology, however, will hasten the eagerness of the major genetic engineering firms to exploit the potential market of some 1.4 billion households in developing countries who currently rely on largely "unimproved" agricultural systems, that is, who save their seeds from year to year rather than buying them in. The companies feared that, without the technology, they would be unable to enforce royalty payments on any farm-saved seed in countries without effective legislation to "protect" plant breeders, or to enforce contracts forbidding such seed saving. Now, they have a technology that will make it "safe" for seed companies to sell their high-tech varieties in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
"It is truly easy to make a great deal of money dealing with very primary needs: food, shelter, clothing." Monsanto
For the companies, the commercial potential is huge. As Monsanto's Bob Shapiro recently told readers of the house magazine of the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private sector wing of the World Bank which focuses on private investment in developing countries, "It is truly easy to make a great deal of money dealing with very primary needs: food, shelter, clothing."70 Research is already being conducted on cassava (Manihot esculenta), an important source of dietary carbohydrate in Africa, while Monsanto has started collaborating with scientists in Kenya to produce transgenic sweet potatoes resistant to feathery mottle virus.
A Condition of Credit
"The provision of small loans to poor people to grow genetically-engineered crops is one way of getting them hooked"
Government agencies, banks and other credit agencies are likely to be persuaded to make the adoption of genetically-engineered crops a condition of obtaining credit. Credit will be given for these crops and their inputs, but not for others. This practice was widely encouraged during the Green Revolution.
Monsanto is already seeking to foster strategic alliances with microcredit organisations which provide small loans to poor farmers, many of whom are women. The company sees microcredit as "a way to develop new markets by helping the people in those markets participate in economic development."71 Monsanto reports that it is "striving to have at least one microcredit project operating in each of its world areas by the end of 1998", is "working with third-party organizations in Indonesia, India and Mexico" and "is also in the early stages of investigating partnerships in such areas as Eastern Europe, China, South Africa, sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Latin America."72 In 1998, Monsanto's attempt to set up a joint venture with Bangladesh's famous Grameen Bank, which provides credit to the poor, was derailed by public protests that the deal would only help hook the country's poor farmers on expensive Monsanto products.73
Restricting Traditional Varieties
"Seed companies could take non-engineered crops off national seed listings, or simply stop supplying them"
Seed companies may well take conventional varieties off the market - a grave threat to organic farmers - or use existing seed and patent legislation to restrict farmers growing such varieties.
The recent experience of Scottish seed potato growers may be a portent of things to come. In the early 1990s, the corporate holders of plant breeding rights over certain varieties of (non genetically-engineered) potato began to enforce their rights, enshrined in British law for some 30 years but not yet exercised, to stipulate who could grow the seed potatoes and to whom they could be sold. A number of growers were forced out of business.74 It is not inconceivable that similar legislation could be used to prevent farmers growing conventional varieties that were "in competition" with genetically-engineered varieties marketed by the same seed firm.
Countries in the South are under pressure to adopt legislation to protect plant breeders' rights, which would be to the advantage of multinational seed oligopolies.75
Channelling Agricultural Research
"By sucking up vast research funds, genetic engineering is denying money for research into other forms of agriculture"
Companies are channelling agricultural research towards biotechnology through the judicious use of grants to university and agricultural colleges. Monsanto, for example, has donated at least $23.5 million to Washington University for biotech research; the German company Bayer is contributing to the Max Planck Institute in Cologne for the same purpose; while another German-based company, Hoechst, built an entire $70 million biotech research laboratory for the Massachusetts General Hospital where research on crop genetics is also carried out.76 Concern is spreading that research on staple foods will follow the genetically-engineered direction as well.77
By sucking up vast research funds, genetic engineering is denying money for research into other forms of agriculture - such as intercropping and crop rotation (see p.26) - that are far more effective in alleviating the problem of pests.
Inevitably, these donations not only give companies some control over what is researched; they also help direct the curricula of educational colleges, particularly agricultural colleges, creating an institutional framework that is broadly sympathetic to the industry's aims and views.78 As the research filters down into the agricultural extension services, it also helps take the companies' message out into the fields, extension officers being a major source of advice for farmers both North and increasingly South.79
Finally, companies will hope to create "peer pressure" on farmers to adopt the new crops through public relations campaigns, some of them paid for with public money. In Europe, for example, Hoechst and other major genetic engineering companies have contributed £1 million each to the European Commission's FACTT project which aims to familiarise "farmers, extension organisations, the processing industry, regulatory organisations, consumer groups and public interest groups" with crops incorporating transgenic technologies such that they come to accept them.80 In effect, as GeneWatch comments, the project - to which the EU has contributed £1 million of public funds - is little more that "a sales promotion for the GE oilseed rape developed by Hoescht subsidiaries, AgroEvo and Plant Genetic Systems".81
PART IV: ALTERNATIVE ROUTES
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Opposition to the imposition of genetically-engineered foods is growing worldwide as increasing numbers of people learn about the risks of growing and consuming them, and about their potential to increase hunger and poverty. Austria and Luxembourg have banned the import of Bt maize. France recently brought in a two-year ban on commercial growing of the herbicide-resistant oilseed rape produced by AgroEvo and Plant Genetic Systems. In Britain, the government's wildlife adviser, English Nature, has called for a five-year ban on the commercial growing of Bt and herbicide-resistant crops. Also in Britain, major retailers have banned products made with genetic engineering in their foods, while others are actively seeking sources of soya and maize not produce via genetic engineering. Many local governments, meanwhile, have banned genetically engineered food from meals provided in schools.
Ensuring food security worldwide in fact requires an approach to agriculture that is, in almost every respect, the reverse of that being promoted by biotech companies and their allies in government and regulatory authorities, as an NGO statement to the United Nations' 1996 World Food Summit made clear. Fulfilling Monsanto's inspiring slogan "Food • Health • Hope" in fact requires acting against genetic engineering in every particular:
No Patents on Life
People's movements have demanded that legislation permitting patents to be taken out on genes and genetically-engineered organisms, including plants and animals, should be revoked, and that farmers' rights to save seeds freely should be enshrined in international law. Such movements are also demanding that World Trade Organisation (WTO) member countries should not be required to implement some form of national patent "protection" for plant varieties.82
Instead of policies that concentrate control over agriculture in the hands of large landowners, corporations and distant bureaucrats, food security demands policies that increase the ability of smallholders and family farmers to exercise local and regional control over food production, distribution and marketing. Such policies would include redistributive agrarian reforms, strengthened tenancy legislation, a redirection of public investment towards staple food crops, and the enforcement of competition policies to break up corporate monopolies.
Revision of International Trading Rules
Instead of requiring countries to liberalise their agricultural markets, food security demands respect for the rights of nations to "achieve the level of food self-sufficiency and nutritional quality [they] consider appropriate without suffering retaliation of any kind". The agricultural agreements of the WTO which require countries to open up their agricultural markets to imports should be renegotiated. As Kevin Watkins of Oxfam, UK, argues:
"The WTO should enforce a comprehensive anti-dumping provision, outlawing the use of direct and indirect subsidies to gain market share. More importantly, a new food security clause is needed in the WTO which would entitle all food deficit countries to protect their food systems up to the point of food self-sufficiency, if their governments so chose."83
No matter how much food is produced, how few babies are born or how dramatically human numbers fall, there will always be those who are judged "surplus to requirements" and who are excluded from the wherewithal to live - unless there are changes in the social and economic relationships that currently determine the production, distribution and consumption of food in the world. The human population could be halved, quartered, decimated even, yet hunger would still remain: so long as one person has the power to deny food to another, even two people may be judged "too many".84
Instead of encouraging the further industrialisation of agriculture, food security worldwide demands policies that favour non-chemical production with the genuine goal (as opposed to the biotech version) of reducing or eliminating the use of pesticides and other agrochemicals.
Farmers all over the world have developed, and continue to develop, highly-sophisticated multiple-cropping systems that combine up to 20 crops in the same plot, thus optimising resource use, conserving soil fertility and avoiding major pest, fungal and viral problems.
The combined crop yields from multiple-cropping systems are often higher than those from monocultures. Research in West Africa, where 80 per cent of all farm land is intercropped, has shown that "in many cases yields from intercropping surpass those from sole cropping systems".85 In regions such as eastern Nigeria, "intensified intercropping on permanently cultivated, manured and composted 'infield' farms is one of the ways in which farmers have responded to land shortages over the last 50-75 years or so."86
As agricultural researcher Jules Pretty reports, many farmers across the globe are already turning their backs on chemical agriculture to embrace regenerative methods of farming that often bring higher yields whilst still sustaining the soils and other aspects of the agroecosystem on which long-term food production depends:
"A million wetland rice farmers in Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam . . . [are now using] alternatives to pesticides whilst still increasing their yields by about 10 per cent. In southern Brazil, some 223,000 farmers, using green manures and cover crops of legumes and livestock integration, have doubled yields of maize and wheat to 4-5 tonnes/ha. More than 300,000 farmers in southern and western India farming in dryland conditions, and now using a range of water and soil management technologies, have tripled sorghum and millet yields to some 2-2.5 tonnes/hectare."87
Monsanto's advertisement claiming that food biotechnology will feed starving future generations declares that "the implications for the sustainable development of food production are massive". This is indeed true - but not in the ways Monsanto has in mind.
Notes and References
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1. See Gurdial Singh Nijar, Liability and Compensation in a Biosafety Protocol, Third World Network (228 Macalister Road, 10400 Penang, MALAYSIA), 1997.
2. Quoted in Pretty, J., "Feeding the World?", Splice, (The Genetics Forum, 94 White Lion St, London N1 9PF, UK), Vol.4, Issue 6, Aug/Sept 1998, pp.4-5.
3. On average, 350 kg of cereal per person.
4. Much genetic engineering in the edible-crop sector is not even directed at food production. About one quarter of genetic-engineering patent applications to alter the quality of maize, for example, are aimed at increasing the amount of the starch it produces, starch being the base for many industrial applications. See "CGIAR: Agricultural Research for Whom?, The Ecologist Vol.26, No.6, Nov/Dec 1996, p. 267. Another major application of plant genetic engineering has been in non-food crops, such as cotton and tobacco.
5. cited in Lappé, M. and Bailey, B., Against the Grain: The Genetic Transformation of Global Agriculture, Earthscan, 1998.
6. "Cargill and Monsanto Announce Global Feed and Processing Biotechnology Joint Venture", PR Newswire, St. Louis and Minneapolis, 14 May 1998. For further information about Cargill, see, Kneen, B., Invisible Giant: Cargill and Its Transnational Strategies, Pluto Press, London, 1995; The Ram's Horn monthly newsletter (PO Box 3028, Mission, British Columbia V2V 4J3, CANADA).
7. Pimmentel, D. et al, "Energy and Land Constraints in Food Production", Science, 190, cited in Rifkin, J., Beyond Beef: The Rise and Fall of the Cattle Culture, Penguin, New York, 1992, p.163.
8. In the United States, for example, intensively-raised cattle use up 89 per cent of the energy they receive in the form of animal feed just by maintaining normal body function, excreting it or absorbing into parts of their bodies that do not end up being eaten. Only 11 per cent is converted into beef. One steer produces less than 50 kilogrammes of protein from consuming over 790 kilogrammes of plant protein. See Rifkin, J., op. cit. 7, pp.160-161.
9. Lappé, F.M., Diet for a Small Planet, Ballantine, New York, quoted in Doyle, J., Altered Harvest, Viking Penguin, New York, 1985, p.287.
10. See Harris, M., The Sacred Cow and the Abominable Pig, Touchstone/Simon and Schuster, New York, 1987, p.25, cited in Rifkin, J., op. cit. 7, p.155.
11. Mitchell, T., "The Use of an Image: America's Egypt and the Development Industry", The Ecologist, Vol. 26, No, 1, Jan/Feb 1996, pp.19-25.
12. Genetic Concern, "Genetically engineered cauliflower will fool consumers seeking fresh vegetables", press release, 31 Mar '98.
13. Key, T. et al., "Dietary habits and mortality in 11,000 vegetarians and health-conscious people; results of a 17-year follow up", British Medical Journal 313, 1996, pp.775-779, cited in Leather, S., The Making of Modern Malnutrition: An Overview of Food Poverty in the UK, The Caroline Walker Trust, London, 1996, p.34.
14. Leather, S., The Making of Modern Malnutrition: An Overview of Food Poverty in the UK, The Caroline Walker Trust, London, 1996, p. 13.
15. Evans, D., "Produce-on-demand: What's good for US markets is good for world markets too", Nature Biotechnology 14, 1996, p. 802.
16. Shiva, V., Betting on Biodiversity: Why Genetic Engineering Will Not Feed the Hungry, Research Foundation for Science, Technology & Ecology, (A-60 Hauz Khas, New Delhi 110016, India) 1998, p.32.
17. Busch, L. et al, Plants, Power and Profit, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1990.
18. Nottingham, S, Eat Your Genes, Zed Books, London, 1998.
19. Nottingham, S, Eat Your Genes, Zed Books, London, 1998.
20. Shiva, V., op. cit. 16, p.36.
21. Shiva, V., op. cit. 16,
22. Shiva, V., op. cit. 16
23. Shiva, V., op. cit. 16
24. Dr. Harry B. Collins, Delta and Pine Land Company, text circulated at the Fifth Extraordinary Session of the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, 1998.
25. Steinbrecher, R.A. and Mooney, P.R., "Terminator Technology", The Ecologist, Vol. 28, No. 4, August 1998.
26. Many Southern countries do not have such plant protection legislation. However, the TRIPs (trade-related intellectual property) agreement of the World Trade Organisation stipulates that member countries must have legislation in place within a few years. See "Ten reasons not to join UPOV", Global Trade and Biodiversity in Conflict series, Issue 2, The Gaia Foundation/Genetic Resources Action International, London/Barcelona, May 1998 (available from Gaia, 18 Well Walk, London NW3 1LD, UK).
27. Lappé, M. and Bailey, B., op. cit. 5.
28. "US Patent on New Genetic Technology Will Prevent Farmers from Saving Seed", press release, RAFI, 11 March 1998.
29. "Company aims to block seed saving", GenEthics News (PO Box 6313, London N16 0DY, UK), Issue 22, Feb/March 1998, pp.1-2.
30. USDA spokesperson Willard Phelps said that the goal of the technology is "to increase the value of proprietary seed own by US seed companies and to open up new markets in Second and Third World countries". See RAFI, op. cit. 28.
31. Dr. Harry B. Collins, op. cit. 24.
32. GenEthics News, op. cit. 29. British company Zeneca recently applied for a patent for its version of the terminator technology, dubbed the "Verminator" because it involves genes derived from fat tissue of a rat. See RAFI, ". . . And Now the 'Verminator'! Fat Cat Corp With Fat Rat Gene Can Kill Crops", press release, 24 August 1998. http://www.rafi.org/
33. Farming News, 21 August 1998.
34. Lappé, M. and Bailey, B., op. cit. 5.
35. See Watkins, K., "Free Trade and Farm Fallacies", The Ecologist, Vol.26, No.6, November/December 1996, p.246.
36. Bello, W. and Rosenfeld, S., Dragons in Distress: Asia's Miracle Economies in Crisis, Institute for Food and Development Policy, San Francisco, 1990, p.86.
37. Vasil, I.K., "Biotechnology and Food Security for the 21st Century: A Real-world perspective", Nature Biotechnology 16., pp.399-400, cited in "Genetic Engineering: Can it Feed the World?", GeneWatch, (The Courtyard, Whitecross Road, Tideswell, Buxton, Derbyshire SK17 8NY, UK) Briefing 3, August 1998.
38. See, for example, FAO, 1980 World Census on Agriculture, Census Bulletins, Rome, 1980, cited in Shiva, V., op. cit. 16, p.15.
39. Half the food produced in Africa is grown by peasant producers for their own consumption. Such growers comprise between 70 to 90 per cent of total populations. See Raikes, P. Modernising Hunger, James Currey, London, 1988, p.49.
40. Many of these jobs could be destroyed by the introduction of herbicide tolerant crops. At present, herbicides account for just 15% of total agricultural chemical consumption in the South, as against 48% in the North. According to FAO, the difference lies in low labour costs which "can make manual weed control more economical than herbicide use." See FAO, Agriculture Towards 2010, Rome, 1993, p.142.
41. Bennet, J. with George, S., The Hunger Machine, Polity Press/Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1987, p.59.
42. O'Brien, J. and Gruenbaum, E., "A Social History of Food, Famine and Gender in Twentieth-Century Sudan" in Downs, R.E., Kerner, D.O. and Reyna, S.P., The Political Economy of African Famine, Gordon and Breach, Reading, 1991, p.178.
43. Until Monsanto sold off and spun most of its chemical division into a separate company, Solutia, in 1997 (keeping the weedkiller, Roundup, for itself), it was one of the largest polluters in the United States. It used to be one of the main producers of the highly-toxic defoliant, Agent Orange, and highly-toxic PCBs. Most large genetic engineering companies have a history of marketing toxic chemicals.
44. Affidavit of Stephen Moll, Roundup Ready Crop Director, Monsanto Europe, The High Court Judicial Review between Clare Watson and the Irish Environmental Protection Agency and Monsanto plc, Dublin, 1997.
Zeneca has filed a suit against Monsanto in the US, contending that Monsanto is "engaging in exclusionary and anticompetitive practices through the coupling of sales of biotech seeds to its own herbicides". See "Zeneca Files Antitrust Suit Against Monsanto", Chemical Week, 5 August 1998.
45. In some cases, herbicide residues are likely to increase on the edible portion of the crop. Monsanto has applied to the regulatory authorities in several countries to increase the "safe" residue limit of glyphosate in crops from 6 milligrams per kilogramme dry weight to 20 milligrams. The US Environmental Protection Agency and the EU have acceded to this request. The chemical residue limits for crops intended to feed livestock are much higher than those for human consumption. See Lappé, M. and Bailey, B., op. cit. 5.
46. Plant Genetic Systems, originally a Belgian company, is now owned by AgrEvo, a biotech joint venture between German chemical and pharmaceutical companies, Hoechst and Schering.
47. "Genetically-engineered Oilseed Rape: Agricultural Saviour or New Form of Pollution?", GeneWatch, (The Courtyard, Whitecross Rd, Tideswell, Buxton, Derbyshire SK17 8NY, UK) Briefing 2, May 1998.
48. Steinbrecher, R. A., "From Green to Gene Revolution: The Environmental Risks of Genetically-engineered Crops", The Ecologist, Vol.26, No.6, November/December 1996., p.275.
49. Steinbrecher, R. A., "From Green to Gene Revolution: The Environmental Risks of Genetically-engineered Crops", The Ecologist, Vol.26, No.6, November/December 1996., p.276.
50. Many farmers, including organic farmers, use suspensions containing the soil bacterium as a biopesticide. If insects develop resistance to the bacterium's toxin because of constant exposure to genetically-engineered versions, the suspensions will become ineffective.
51. Hoyle, R., "Taking the hex off transgenic plant exports", Nature Biotechnology 14, 1996, p.1628.
52. Falk, B. & Bruening, G., "Will transgenic crops generate new viruses and new diseases?" Science 263, 1994, pp.280-289.
53. Osbourne, J.K., Sarkar, S. and Wilson, T.M., "Complimentation of coat protein-defective TMV mutants in transgenic tobacco plants expressing TMV coat protein", Virology 1979, 1990, pp.921-925; Greene, A.E. and Allison, R.F., "recombination between viral RNA and transgenic plant transcrips", Science, 263, 1994, pp.1423-1425.
54. GeneWatch, op. cit. 47.
55. GeneWatch, op. cit. 47. See also Eber, F., et al., "Spontaneous hybridisation between a male-sterile oilseed rape and two weeds", Theoretical and Applied Genetics 88, 1994, pp.362-368; Jorgensen, R.B. and Anderson, B., "Spontaneous Hybridisation between oilseed rape (Brassica napus) and weedy B. capestris (Brasicaceae): a risk of growing genetically modified oilseed rape", American Journal of Botany 81, 1994, pp.1620-1626; Lefol, E. et al., "Gene dispersal from transgenic crops: growth of interspecific hybrids between oilseed rape and the wild hoary mustard", Journal of Applied Ecology 32, 1995, pp.803-808; Frello, S., et al., "Inheritance of rapeseed (brassica napus) - specific RAPD markers and a transgene in the cross B. juncea x (B. juncea x B. napus)", Theor. & Applied Genetics 91, 1995, pp.236-241.
56. Skogsmyr, I, "Gene dispersal from transgenic potatoes to conspecifics: A field trial", Theoretical and Applied. Genetics 88, 1991, pp.770-771.
57. Mikkelsen, T.R., Andersen, B., and Jorgensen, R.B, "The Risk of crop transgene spread", Nature 380, 1996, p.31.
58. US Academy of Sciences, Field Testing Genetically Modified Organisms: Framework for Decisions, Washington DC, National Academy Press, 1989
59. Gebhard, F. and Smalla, K., Appl. Environ. Microbiol. 64, 1998, pp.1550-1559.
60. Since rice was domesticated in Asia some 8,000 years ago, farmers and local communities have developed well over 100,000 different varieties. Some grow under five metres of rainfall per year, others do well in the desert; some do well when average temperatures are well over 30°C, others flourish in fresh and cool climates; some grow at or below sea level, others grow at high altitudes. Companies are unlikely to breed varieties that are highly suitable for a limited area.
61. Clunies-Ross, T., Farmers, Plant Breeders and Seed Regulations: An Issue of Control, The Ecologist Public Outreach Unit, 1996. See also Clunies-Ross, T., Seeds, Crops and Vulnerability: A re-examination of diversity in British agriculture, The Ecologist Public Outreach Unit, 1995, (both available from The CornerHouse, PO Box 3137, Station Rd, Sturminster Newton, Dorset DT10 1YJ, UK, £5 and £10).
The Irish potato crop failed last century because genetically-uniform crops were grown over a large area. After the famine, potatoes resistant to blight, the disease that ruined the plants, were brought over from Latin America to start planting anew. Given the drastic erosion in genetic diversity since that time, a process which genetic engineering, corporate concentration and restrictive legislation will hasten, there could well be no alternatives left if such an epidemic occurred in the future.
62. Lappé, M. and Bailey, B., op. cit. 5.
63. "Farmers see outbreak of soybean disease", press release, 9 September 1998, Campaign for Food Safety, Minnesota. See also Krimsky, S. and Wrubel, R.P., Agricultural Biotechnology and the Environment: Science, Policy and Social Issues, University of Illinois Press, Chicago, 1996 (available from Council for Responsible Genetics, 5 Upland Rd, Suite 3, Cambridge MA 02140, USA)
64. First quote, Dr. Harry B. Collins, op. cit. 24; second quote, Peter Sutherland, when Director-General of GATT, cited in Clunies-Ross, T., Farmers, Plant Breeders and Seed Regulations, op. cit. 61.
65. "The Sustainable CEO: Monsanto", Impact, Spring 98, Vol. 2, No. 2, pp.15-19.
66. This market dominance is reinforced through the patenting of genetic material. Monsanto, for example, has made patent claims to all genetically-engineered cotton and brassicas. See GeneWatch, op. cit. 37; Patenting, Piracy and Perverted Promises, GRAIN, (Girona 25, pral, E-08010 Barcelona, SPAIN), 1998.
67. cited in Lappé, M. & Bailey, B., op. cit. 5.
68. cited in Lappé, M. & Bailey, B., op. cit. 5.
69. Affidavit of Stephen Moll, op. cit. 44.
70. "The Sustainable CEO", op. cit. 65.
71. Monsanto 1997 Report on Sustainable Development, St. Louis, Missouri, p.27.
72. Monsanto 1997 Report on Sustainable Development, St. Louis, Missouri.
73. Microcredit programmes have long been run by self-help groups to provide credit to the poor, especially women, in urban and rural areas. Given the sudden interest in microcredit from an array of multinational companies, transnational banks and international financial and development institutions, however, critics stress the importance of distinguishing between microlenders whose primary goal is empowerment of the poor and those whose primary goal is profit. Microcredit from the latter, often given at high interest rates, keeps the poor trapped in a downward spiral of debt. See, for example, Dawkins, N. and Wysham, D., The World Bank's Consultative Group to Assist the Poorest: Opportunity or Liability for the World's Poorest Women?, Institute for Policy Studies, 733 15th st, NW, Suite 1020, Washington DC 20005, USA.
74. Clunies-Ross, T., Farmers, Plant Breeders and seed Regulations, op. cit. 61.
75. "Ten reasons not to join UPOV", op. cit. 26.
76. Hobbelink, H., Biotechnology and the Future of World Agriculture, Zed Books, London, 1991, p.39.
77. "CGIAR: Agricultural Research for Whom?, op. cit. 4.
78. Hobbelink, H., op. cit 76, p.39. One researcher commented of the Hoechst grant for the biotech laboratory, "essentially everyone in that lab is an indentured servant to Hoechst".
79. See Clunies-Ross, T. and Hildyard, N., The Politics of Industrial Agriculture, Earthscan, 1992, London.
80. FACTT: A project to promote Familiarisation with and Acceptance of Crops incorporating Transgenic Technologies in modern agriculture. A demonstration project under Framework Programme IV - European Commission, Paper OCS 8/96, Annex D & Draft Technical Annex - 19 December 1995, quoted in GeneWatch, op. cit. 37.
81. GeneWatch, op. cit. 37.
82. "Ten reasons not to join UPOV", op. cit 26.
83. Watkins, K., op. cit. 35.
84. Hildyard, N., "Blood, Babies and the Social Roots of Conflict", in Suliman, M., (ed.) Ecology, Politics and Violent Conflict, Zed Books, London, 1998.
85. Baker, E.F. I. and Yusuf, Y., "Mixed cropping research at the Institute for Agricultural Research, Samaru, Nigeria" in Monyo, J.H., Ker, A.D.R. and Cambell, M., (eds), Intercropping in semi-arid areas, International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, 1976, cited in Richards, P., Indigenous Agricultural Revolution, Hutchinson, London, 1985, p.66.
86. Richards, P., op. cit. 85.
87. Pretty, J., op. cit. 2, p.4. See also Pretty, J., The Living Land: Agriculture, Food and Community Regeneration in Rural Europe, Earthscan, London 1998; Pretty, J., Regenerating Agriculture: Policies and Practice for Sustainability and Self-Reliance, Earthscan, London, 1995.
Dumping Food on the South
Northern governments have long subsidised their industrialised farming systems for many decades to ensure national food self-sufficiency (at least in per capita terms rather than in distributional ones). But the subsidies have also caused these systems to generate vast surpluses of food which has been dumped on world markets at artificially low prices. Smaller farmers in the countries of the South find it hard to compete with cheaper (because subsidised by the home country) imported grains and local production of staple foods in many places has declined.
Subsidised food dumping is clearly connected to the creation of food dependence in sub-Saharan Africa. Three decades ago, the region was self-sufficient in basic food staples. Since the 1970s, however, wheat imports have increased by over 200 per cent. Net imports have risen three-fold from three million to nine million tons. The decline in per capita production from 135 kilogrammes to 112 kilogrammes over the same period is related to the rise in imports.
Food dumping played a key role in this surge in import demand. In the latter half of the 1980s, the US and the EU were selling wheat at $60 per ton in West Africa, one quarter of the price paid to EU farmers for their crop.
Local producers of staple food crops could not compete with these imports. Local markets collapsed, household incomes fell, and investment in agriculture declined, widening the gap between local production and demand - a gap which imports could step in to fill.
In fact, food deficits in the South have been assiduously cultivated by policymakers in the North. During the 1960s, a central objective of the US food aid programme was to translate demand for food in the South into demand for US wheat. By the mid-1960s, this programme accounted for over one-third of US cereal exports, laying the foundation for multi-million dollar markets in countries such as the Philippines and Colombia.
Agricultural liberalisation - encouraging or requiring countries to drop their restrictions on food imports - is the latest tactic being pursued by Northern countries to create further markets for their production. The last revision of GATT - the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (the rules governing international trade) - requires signatories to the Agreement to open up their markets to imports and to remove their subsidies to farmers if they do not want to face trade retaliation. The Agreement left intact, however, many of the subsidises given to Northern farmers.
The US Department of Agriculture estimates that liberalisation will create substantial market opportunities for US agricultural exporters. In South-East Asia, for instance, US policy makers expect consumers in South-East Asia to start eating products made from US wheat such as bread and pizza instead of locally-produced rice, cassava and maize. Kevin Watkins of Oxfam UK concludes that "South-East Asia is being sized up - and cultivated - as a dependent market for US food exporters."
The Philippine government plans to cut by more than half the amount of land planted to maize and rice, reducing it from five million hectares to two million hectares. The leftover three million hectares will be diverted to cash crop production and livestock. An estimated half a million people are likely to lose their livelihoods if these plans go ahead.
The benefits of food dumping have consistently accrued to grain traders such as Cargill which has now entered into a joint venture with Monsanto. Cargill enjoys considerable influence over US and international agricultural policy. During the GATT agriculture negotiations, the company was a key adviser to the US government.
The claim that genetically engineered food grown in the North will help to feed the hungry in the South ignores these dynamics of the global trade in foodstuffs.
Watkins, K., "Free Trade and Farm Fallacies", The Ecologist, Vol.26, No.6, November/December 1996, p.246.
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The Politics of Hunger
By casting starvation as a problem of food shortage, proponents of genetic engineering offer a seductively simple, but false, analysis of world hunger.
Hunger has seldom been the result of an aggregate shortage of food; instead it has consistently been one of inequalities in political and economic power. Hunger, as economist Amartya Sen points out, is the inevitable outcome of the normal workings of a market economy.
In his classic text, Poverty and Famine, Sen stresses that the famines which decimated peasants in India in 1943 and in Ethiopia, the Sahel and Bangladesh in 1974 were not the result of market failures, but of those market and non-market mechanisms (including the ownership of resources) which undermine the ability of poorer sections of the community to buy goods on the market.
Food goes to those who have the money to buy it. Only those who have the income to translate their biological needs into "effective demand" get to eat.
In today's global supermarket, people earning $25 a year - if they are lucky - must compete for food with people in the same or other countries who earn $25 a hour, or even $25 a minute.
In Costa Rica, for instance, while beef production doubled between 1959 and 1972, per capita beef consumption in the country fell from 30 pounds to less than 19. The reason? US consumers could pay higher prices for the meat than Costa Ricans.
It is this market logic that explains why 20 per cent of parents and 10 per cent of children in Britain experience "food poverty"; why Ethiopia was using some of its prime agricultural land at the height of the 1984 famine in the Horn of Africa to produce linseed cake, cottonseed cake and rapeseed meal for export to Britain and other European nations as feed for livestock; and why insufficient food is a perennial feature of life for an increasing number of people.
Genetic engineering in agriculture does not address these underlying structural causes of hunger (a fact which Monsanto often acknowledges in its PR material). Critically, however, by squeezing the livelihoods of many small and medium-sized farmers, genetically-engineered crops are likely to strengthen these causes by increasing landlessness, underemployment and unemployment.
Sen, A, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlements and Deprivation, Clarendon, Oxford, 1981;
Rifkin, J., Beyond Beef: The Rise and fall of the Cattle Culture, Penguin, New York, 1992;
Drèze, J., Sen, A. and Hussain, A., (eds.) The Political Economy of Hunger, Clarendon, Oxford, 1995.
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Haven't We Been Here Before? The Green Revolution
In seeking to harness public concerns over world hunger in order to promote new (and untried) agricultural technologies, the genetic engineering industry is going over well-trodden ground.
The claims made for the gene revolution echo those made for the Green Revolution - increased food production from new seed varieties with world hunger becoming a thing of the past.
In the early 1960s, for example, the agrochemical industry, backed by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), raised the spectre of increased famine and malnutrition in order to push governments and farmers into intensifying agriculture. Then as now, projected increases in world population were used to argue for massive increases in output; then as now, new technologies were hailed as the "only practical solution"; then as now, the structural causes of poverty and hunger were downplayed or ignored; and, then as now, the myriad ways in which production could be increased using labour-intensive, organic methods of agriculture were steadfastly ignored.
The FAO launched the so-called Green Revolution - an ambitious programme aimed at intensifying production through the use of chemical pesticides, fertilisers and "high-yielding" hybrid crops; raising farm income by encouraging farmers into the world market; and promoting export crops to facilitate economic modernisation. Addressing the FAO in 1974, Dr. Henry Kissinger, then US Secretary of State, promised: "Within a decade, no man, woman or child will go to bed hungry."
Although the Green Revolution undoubtedly increased food production, it singularly failed to address the problem of world hunger. Some 35 years after the Green Revolution was launched, there are more people starving today than at any time in human history - despite world cereal yields consistently outstripping world population growth since 1980 (rising by about 2.2 per cent a year compared to a population growth rate of 1.7 per cent). In India, for example, wheat yields were raised by 50 per cent and rice yields by 25 per cent: yet the numbers living in absolute poverty have continued to increase.
At the farm level, the introduction of Green Revolution technologies compelled farmers to buy in chemical applications and hybrid seeds. Sooner or later, many farmers - faced with rising input costs (in part the result of diminishing returns on fertilisers and pesticides) and declining prices for agricultural produce - found themselves trapped in a cost-price squeeze which eventually forced them out of business. As one farmers' organisation points out:
"Experience has shown repeatedly that when subsistence farmers are offered packages of new seeds and inputs, along with credit to buy them, a large number find they cannot make enough money from their small units to service the debts they have been encouraged to take on. All too frequently, they are forced to sell up so their debts can be paid and their lands are bought up by a new breed of commercial farmers, ambitious to expand and able to invest in machinery and dispense with manual labour."
Today in India, the numbers of farmers committing suicide is growing all the time as more and more indebted, despairing rural dwellers are driven to the wall.
The effects of more than three decades of Green Revolution agriculture have been clear for some time: pesticide and herbicide poisoning of people, animals, soil and water; soil erosion and land degradation; loss of genetic diversity; profits for the few, bankruptcy and landlessness for many; replacement of local economies and farming techniques with an export crop economy.
Indeed, the Green Revolution has done much to intensify and extend hunger's grip, strengthening the very economic and social forces that deny food to poorer people. These impacts will not be lessened with the gene revolution in agriculture, but deepened and expanded.
Smart Plants: A Farmers' Guide to Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in Arable Agriculture, Farmer's Link (49A High St, Watton, Thetford, Norfolk IP25 6AB, UK), 1998.
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Without land on which to grow food, genetically engineered or not, many people in the countries of the South are likely to go hungry. The high input costs of genetically engineered crops for many farmers is likely to drive them into debt and bankruptcy and ultimately landlessness.
Today in the Philippines, nearly three-quarters of rural households (three-fifths of the Philippine population) are landless or near-landless.
In Costa Rica, a country where the cattle owned by 2,000 politically-powerful ranching families occupy more than half of the nation's arable, most fertile land, the figure is 55 per cent.
In Guatemala, huge swathes of land owned by the biggest landlords - an estimated 1.2 million hectares - lie idle, either because the price of export crops is too low to justify planting or because the land is being held for speculation. Some 310,000 people over 20-years of age are landless and without permanent employment.
Even where people have nominal access to land, this hold is often insecure. In many countries of the South, for instance, women do not have legal land titles to the land they cultivate. Discriminatory legislation and practices concerning inheritance, access and ownership are still widespread. Land that women do own tends to be the smaller, less valuable plots.
This is not a trivial issue given that, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, women produce more than half of all the food that is grown in the world. In sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean, they produce up to 80 per cent of basic foodstuffs. In Asia, they provide from 50 to 90 per cent of the labour for rice cultivation. In South-East Asia, the Pacific and many Latin American countries, women's home gardens represent some of the most complex agricultural systems known.
Across much of the developing world, rural women provide most of the labour for farming, from soil preparation to harvest. After the harvest, they are almost entirely responsible for storage, handling, stocking, marketing and processing.
Many development and welfare programmes (and any policies to encourage women to grow genetically-engineered crops) which focus on meeting women's "basic needs", attempting to provide access to education, health care and food, fail to question the distribution of productive resources and political power, and the social division of labour by gender, caste and class.
Landlessness and hunger go hand-in-hand. Eight out of ten farmers in Central America do not have enough land to sustain their families, forcing them to look for seasonal jobs. In Guatemala, government figures from the mid-1980s estimated that 86 per cent of families were living below the official poverty line, with 55 per cent classified as "extremely poor". Rates of malnutrition reflect these figures.
If land reform were to be carried out in Egypt, a country dominated by large landholdings, by setting a ceiling on landholdings at just over three acres (almost five times the minimum required to support a family) landlessness and near-landlessness could be eliminated. Total agricultural production might also increase, as small landholdings produce higher yields per acre than large ones.
In many places, large-scale commercial farms tend to be on the best agricultural land. The sale of their produce is often controlled by national and transnational interests whose profits do not usually go towards feeding the hungry. In Brazil, more land is owned by multinationals than all the peasants put together. Most of the TNC land is used to grow cash crops for export abroad.
Over half of all fruit exports from Chile, now the largest supplier of off-season fruits and vegetables to Europe and North America, are controlled by five transnational companies. In Africa, the rapid expansion of fruit and vegetable exports is dominated by foreign transnational companies (in the case of Kenya and Zambia, for instance) or by powerful domestic commercial interests (in the case of Zimbabwe). The concentration in control over production and marketing means that the benefits from international trade are also highly concentrated.
In Sudan, the expansion of large mechanized farms has not brought cheap grain to many areas of the country because the food is largely exported. Moreover, some 90 per cent of Sudan's marketable food surplus was controlled by less than one per cent of farmers by the end of the 1980s.
While famines occurred in the Sahel countries of Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Chad in the mid-1980s, these countries produced record harvests of cotton for export to industrialised countries.
If people are hungry because they do not have land on which to grow food, either for themselves or to sell, genetically engineered food crops will do nothing to lessen their hunger - they may well exacerbate their problems.
Bina Agarwal, A Field of One's Own: Gender and Land Rights in South Asia, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1995.
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Although proponents of genetic engineering in agriculture promise "a second revolution in food production", arguing that biotechnology "holds out our greatest hope of dramatically increasing yields", experience to date suggests otherwise. The genetically-engineered crops now being cultivated have not significantly increased yields. In some cases, yields are lower than those for conventional varieties of the same crop.
In the first large-scale field trials in Puerto Rico in 1992 of Roundup Ready plants, Monsanto scientists found statistically significant reduced yields, averaging some 11.5 per cent, in three of seven trials.
Many of the first growers of Roundup Ready cotton in the Mississippi Delta of the US complained in 1997 of low yields and poor quality, noting that bolls dropped prematurely and were deformed. Over 50 growers filed complaints with the newly-formed US Seed Arbitration Council; Monsanto has since paid out substantial
Writers Marc Lappé and Brit Bailey report that in 30 out of 38 tests, Roundup Ready soybeans yielded nearly 10 per cent less than conventional soybeans. In another four cases, the yield of the Roundup Ready crop could do no better than match the yields of the highest yielding conventional soybean appropriate for the region.
The gap may be even wider where conditions are not ideal. Several analysts conclude that "any further increases in crop yields in modern food crops will almost certainly come from building on traditional breeding methods - not from transgenics".
Claims that the current generation of genetically-engineered crops will increase yields also need to be set against predictions of the food that is likely to be lost as a result of the use of the new technologies, particularly those that require the use of herbicides.
In Southern countries, for example, much of the output from household plots comes in the form not of cultivated crops but of uncultivated "weeds".
As Vandana Shiva of the Delhi-based Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology comments:
"In West Bengal, 124 'weed' species collected from rice fields have economic importance for local farmers. In a Tanzanian village, over 80 per cent of vegetable dishes are prepared from uncultivated plants."
Were farmers in these regions to adopt genetically-engineered herbicide tolerant crops, their harvest of uncultivated plants would cease, since the herbicides would destroy the "weeds". In many cases, the result would be a severe reduction in the availability of food - particularly for poorer people.
Rice paddies have also customarily provided fish, shrimp, crabs, edible herbs, frogs and medicines. The loss of such complementary harvests necessitated by the use of pesticides and herbicides is seldom taken into account when yields of Green Revolution - or genetically-engineered - crops are calculated.
Lappé, M. and Bailey, B., Against the Grain: The Genetic Transformation of Global Agriculture, Earthscan, London, 1998;
Shiva, V., Betting on Biodiversity: Why Genetic Engineering Will Not Feed the Hungry, Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, New Delhi, 1998;
Rissler, J. and Mellon, M., The Ecological Risks of Engineered Crops, The MIT Press, 1996.
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Monocultures, Pests & Genetically-engineered Crops
It is estimated that between 10-40 per cent of the world's gross agricultural production is lost to pests, weeds and disease. The British Agrochemicals Association puts the figure higher, claiming that
"on average, the farmers of the world lose between 30 and 50 per cent of their own crops before harvest. In other words, for every three loaves of bread which could be produced, more than one is lost because of pests."
By far the highest losses are on farms where crops are grown in monocultures - the cultivation of a single crop over large stretches of land - and regularly sprayed with chemicals.
Not only do monocultures greatly increase the food supply for specific pest populations but, if crops are not rotated, they create a permanent niche for the pests. Indeed, it is now acknowledged by agricultural experts that the principal cause of crop losses due to pest damage is monoculture agriculture. As the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) puts it:
"Pressure from animal pests, diseases and weeds is higher in areas where the same crop is grown all year round."
The problem is compounded, according to FAO, by the use of modern seed varieties which "are often more susceptible to pest damage" and, ironically, by the use of pesticides which:
"can bring about vicious circles of pest resistance, elimination of natural predators, and ever more increased use of and dependence on chemicals."
Because genetically-engineered crops are designed for use within this system of industrial monocultures, they will do nothing to address the root causes of crop losses due to pests. Far from patching up problems such as pesticide resistance, water pollution and soil degradation caused by agrochemicals (chemicals
promoted incidentally by the same companies now advocating genetic engineering), these crops are likely to accentuate them.
Much less of a harvest is lost to pests and disease if several different crops are grown in the same field (intercropping or multiple cropping) and the crops rotated from season to season. In organic farming, pest control also hinges on building up soil, plant and field health.
Pretty, J., Regenerating Agriculture: Policies and Practice for Sustainability and Self-Reliance, Earthscan 1995;
British Agrochemicals Association Limited, The Fight for Food, London, 1982;
US National Research Council, Alternative Agriculture, National Academy Press, Washington DC, 1989;
Vogtmann, H., Boehncke, E. and Fricke, I., The Importance of Biological Agriculture in a World of Diminishing Resources, Proceedings of the 5th IFOAM International Scientific Conference, University of Kassel, August 1984;
FAO, Agriculture: Towards 2010, Rome November 1993; Alexandratos, N., World Agriculture: Toward 2000 - An FAO Study, FAO/Belhaven, Rome and London, 1988.
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