2008-03-23 16:14:18 UTC
There have been few experiments as reckless, overhyped and with as
little potential upside as the rapid rollout of genetically modified
Last month, the International Service for the Acquisition of
Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), a pro-biotech nonprofit, released a
report highlighting the proliferation of genetically modified crops.
According to ISAAA, biotech crop area grew 12 percent, or 12. 3
million hectares, to reach 114. 3 million hectares in 2007, the second
highest area increase in the past five years.
For the biotech backers, this is cause to celebrate. They claim that
biotech helps farmers. They say it promises to reduce hunger and
poverty in developing countries."If we are to achieve the Millennium
Development Goals (MDGs) of cutting hunger and poverty in half by
2015," says Clive James, ISAAA founder and the author the
just-released report, "biotech crops must play an even bigger role in
the next decade."
In fact, existing genetically modified crops are hurting small farmers
and failing to deliver increased food supply - and posing enormous,
largely unknown risks to people and the planet.
For all of the industry hype around biotech products, virtually all
planted genetically modified seed is for only four products - soy,
corn, cotton and canola - with just two engineered traits. Most of the
crops are engineered to be resistant to glyphosate, an herbicide sold
by Monsanto under the brand-name Round-up (these biotech seeds are
known as RoundUp-Ready). Others are engineered to include a naturally
occurring pesticide, Bt.
Most of the genetically modified crops in developing countries are
soy, says Bill Freese, science policy analyst at the Center for Food
Safety and co-author of "Who Benefits from GM Crops," a report issued
at the same time as ISAAA's release. These crops are exported to rich
countries, primarily as animal feed. They do absolutely nothing to
supply food to the hungry.
As used in developing countries, biotech crops are shifting power away
from small, poor farmers desperately trying to eke out livelihoods and
maintain their land tenure.
Glyphosate-resistance is supposed to enable earlier and less frequent
spraying, but, concludes "Who Benefits from GM Crops," these biotech
seeds "allow farmers to spray a particular herbicide more frequently
and indiscriminately without fear of damaging the crop." This requires
expenditures beyond the means of small farmers - but reduces labor
costs, a major benefit for industrial farms.
ISAAA contends that Bt planting in India and China has substantially
reduced insecticide spraying, which it advances as the primary benefit
of biotech crops.
Bt crops may offer initial reductions in required spraying, says
Freese, but Bt is only effective against some pests, meaning farmers
may have to use pesticides to prevent other insects from eating their
crops. Focusing on a district in Punjab, "Who Benefits from GM Crops"
shows how secondary pest problems have offset whatever gains Bt crops
Freese also notes that evidence is starting to come in to support
longstanding fears that genetically engineering the Bt trait into
crops would give rise to Bt-resistant pests.
The biotech seeds are themselves expensive, and must be purchased anew
every year. Industry leader Monsanto is infamous for suing farmers for
the age-old practice of saving seeds, and holds that it is illegal for
farmers even to save genetically engineered seeds that have blown onto
their fields from neighboring farms."That has nothing to do with
feeding the hungry," or helping the poorest of the poor, says Hope
Shand, research director for the ETC Group, an ardent biotech
opponent. It is, to say the least, not exactly a farmer-friendly
Although the industry and its allies tout the benefits that biotech
may yield someday for the poor, "we have yet to see genetically
modified food that is cheaper, more nutritious or tastes better," says
Shand. "Biotech seeds have not been shown to be scientifically or
socially useful," although they have been useful for the profit-driven
interests of Monsanto, she says.
Freese notes that the industry has been promising gains for the poor
for a decade and a half - but hasn't delivered. Products in the
pipeline won't change that, he says, with the industry focused on
introducing new herbicide resistant seeds.
The evidence on yields for the biotech crops is ambiguous, but there
is good reason to believe yields have actually dropped. ISAAA's Clive
James says that Bt crops in India and China have improved yields
somewhat. "Who Benefits from GM Crops" carefully reviews this claim,
and offers a convincing rebuttal. The report emphasizes the multiple
factors that affect yield, and notes that Bt and Roundup-Ready seeds
alike are not engineered to improve yield per se, just to protect
against certain predators or for resistance to herbicide spraying.
Beyond the social disaster of contributing to land concentration and
displacement of small farmers, a range of serious ecological and
sustainability problems with biotech crops is already emerging - even
though the biotech crop experiment remains quite new.
Strong evidence of pesticide resistance is rapidly accumulating,
details "Who Benefits from GM Crops," meaning that farmers will have
to spray more and more chemicals to less and less effect. Pesticide
use is rising rapidly in biotech-heavy countries. In the heaviest user
of biotech seeds - the United States, which has half of all biotech
seed planting - glyphosate-resistant weeds are proliferating.
Glyphosate use in the United States rose by 15 times from 1994 to
2005, according to "Who Benefits from GM Crops," and use of other and
more toxic herbicides is rapidly rising. The U.S. experience likely
foreshadows what is to come for other countries more recently adopting
Seed diversity is dropping, as Monsanto and its allies aim to
eliminate seed saving, and development of new crop varieties is
slowing. Contamination from neighboring fields using genetically
modified seeds can destroy farmers' ability to maintain biotech-free
crops. Reliance on a narrow range of seed varieties makes the food
system very vulnerable, especially because of the visible problems
with the biotech seeds now in such widespread use.
For all the uncertainties about the long-term effects of biotech crops
and food, one might imagine that there were huge, identifiable
short-term benefits. But one would be wrong.
Instead, a narrowly based industry has managed to impose a risky
technology with short-term negatives and potentially dramatic
But while it is true, as ISAAA happily reports, that biotech planting
is rapidly growing, it remains heavily concentrated in just a few
countries: the United States, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, India and
Europe and most of the developing world continue to resist Monsanto's
seed imperialism. The industry and its allies decry this stand as a
senseless response to fear-mongering. It actually reflects a rational
assessment of demonstrated costs and benefits - and an appreciation
for real but incalculable risks of toying with the very nature of
Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational
Monitor, and director of Essential Action.
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