Truth: GM crops are irrelevant to feeding the world

Myth at a glance

The notion that GM crops are needed to feed the world’s growing population is repeated everywhere.

But it is difficult to see how GM can contribute to solving world hunger. GM crops do not increase yield. Nor are there any GM crops that are better than non-GM crops at tolerating poor soils or challenging climate conditions.

Virtually all of the currently available GM crops are engineered for herbicide tolerance or to contain a pesticide, or both.

The two major GM crops, soy and maize, mostly go into animal feed for intensive livestock operations, biofuels to power cars, and processed human food – products for wealthy nations that have nothing to do with meeting the basic food needs of the poor and hungry.

Even if a GM crop were developed that did increase yield, this would not solve the problem of hunger. This is because the cause of hunger is not a shortage of food, but poverty and lack of access to land on which to grow food.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, we already produce more than enough food to feed the world’s population and could produce enough with existing agricultural methods to feed 12 billion people.

A few GM crops have been specifically promoted as helping small-scale and poor farmers in Africa. However, the results were the opposite of what was promised and all these projects failed.

It is irresponsible to pressure poor farmers in the Global South into gambling their farms and livelihoods on risky and experimental GM crops when alternative farming models have proven effective.

The notion that GM crops are needed to feed the world’s growing population is repeated everywhere by organizations, industry, governments, and individuals in favour of GMOs. But it is difficult to see how GM can contribute to solving world hunger when there are no GM crops available that increase intrinsic yield (see Myth 5.1). Nor are there any GM crops that are better than non-GM crops at tolerating poor soils or challenging climate conditions (see Myth 5.12).

Instead, virtually all of the currently available GM crops are engineered for herbicide tolerance or to contain a pesticide, or both.1 The two major GM crops, soy and maize, mostly go into animal feed for intensive livestock operations, biofuels to power cars, and processed human food – products for wealthy nations that have nothing to do with meeting the basic food needs of the poor and hungry. GM corporations are answerable to their shareholders and are interested in profitable commodity markets, not in feeding the world.

Even if a GM crop did appear that gave higher yields than non-GM crops, this would not impact the problem of hunger. This is because the cause of hunger is not a lack of food, but a lack of access to food. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, we already produce more than enough food to feed the world’s population and could produce enough with existing agricultural methods to feed 12 billion people.2 The problem is that the poor have no money to buy food and increasingly, no access to land on which to grow it. Hunger is a social, political, and economic problem, which GM technology cannot address. GM is a dangerous distraction from real solutions and claims that GM can help feed the world can be viewed as exploitation of the suffering of the hungry.

GM crops for Africa: Catalogue of failure

A handful of GM crops have been promoted as helping small-scale and poor farmers in Africa. However, the results were the opposite of what was promised.

GM sweet potato yielded poorly, lost virus resistance

The virus-resistant sweet potato has been a GM showcase project for Africa, generating global media coverage. Florence Wambugu, the Monsanto-trained scientist fronting the project, was proclaimed an African heroine and the saviour of millions, based on her claims that the GM sweet potato doubled output in Kenya. Forbes magazine even declared her one of a tiny handful of people around the globe who would “reinvent the future”.3

Eventually it emerged that the claims being made for the GM sweet potato were untrue, with field trial results showing it to be a failure. The GM sweet potato was out-yielded by the non-GM control and succumbed to the virus it was designed to resist.4,5

In contrast, a conventional breeding programme in Uganda produced a new high-yielding variety that was virus-resistant and raised yields by roughly 100%. The Ugandan project achieved its goal in a fraction of the time – and at a fraction of the cost – of the GM project. The GM sweet potato project, over 12 years, consumed funding from Monsanto, the World Bank, and USAID to the tune of $6 million.6

GM cassava lost virus resistance

The potential of genetic engineering to boost the production of cassava – one of Africa’s staple foods – by defeating a devastating virus has been heavily promoted since the mid-1990s. It was even claimed that GM cassava could solve hunger in Africa by increasing yields as much as tenfold.7

But almost nothing appears to have been achieved. Even after it became clear that the GM cassava had suffered a major technical failure, losing resistance to the virus,8 media stories continued to appear about its curing hunger in Africa.9,10

Meanwhile, conventional (non-GM) plant breeding has quietly produced a virus resistant cassava that is already proving successful in farmers’ fields, even under drought conditions.11

Bt cotton failed in Makhatini

“The [GM cotton] seed itself is doing poorly. Without irrigation, and with increasingly unpredictable rain, it has been impossible to plant the cotton. In 2005 T. J. Buthelezi, the man whose progress was hymned by Monsanto’s vice-president not three years before, had this to say: ‘My head is full – I don’t know what I’m going to do. I haven’t planted a single seed this season. I have paid Rand 6,000 (USD 820, GBP 420) for ploughing, and I’m now in deep debt.’ T. J. is one of the faces trucked around the world by Monsanto to prove that African farmers are benefiting from GM technology.”
– Raj Patel, “Making up Makhatini”, in Stuffed and Starved12

Makhatini in South Africa was home to a showcase GM Bt cotton project for small-scale farmers.

The project began in 1997 and by 2001 there were an estimated 3,000 smallholder farmers cultivating Monsanto’s Bt cotton – 90% of the total number of farmers on the Flats.13 The high rate of adoption was influenced by the fact that the only source of credit available to farmers in the region was at that time a cottonseed and chemicals company called Vunisa. Vunisa was also the only cotton buyer and seller and heavily promoted Bt cotton.6

The area that was planted to Bt cotton under the project was disputed, with industry sources claiming 100,000 hectares but a survey team suggesting only 3,000.6 Whatever the true figure, after its peak in 2001, the project rapidly went into steep decline.

The project failed due to adverse weather conditions, and most importantly, farmer indebtedness. A 2003 report calculated that crop failures left the farmers who had adopted the expensive Bt cotton with debts of $1.2 million.6 Pest attacks on the crop were also reported, which forced farmers into buying costly insecticide sprays.14

In 2004, only 700 farmers delivered cotton at the Makhathini Cotton ginnery, down from the total of 3,000 farmers planting cotton in 2000 – equivalent to an 80% drop in farmers growing Bt cotton.15

According to a documentary film by the India-based Deccan Development Society, those farmers who still grew the crop after 2004 did so at a loss. They continued only because the South African government subsidized the project from public funds, the company that sold the cottonseed and bought the cotton was their only source of credit, and there was a guaranteed market for the cotton.16

A study published in 2006 concluded that the project did not generate sufficient income to generate a “tangible and sustainable socioeconomic improvement”.14

A 2012 review reported that by the 2010–2011 growing season, the total number of farmers growing GM Bt cotton had shrunk even further, to just 200. The area planted to Bt cotton had shrunk to a minuscule 500 hectares – a decline of more than 90% from the area under cultivation during the period of Bt cotton’s claimed success (1998–2000).17

Yields continued to vary widely according to rainfall levels, hovering within 10% of what they were before Bt cotton was introduced. Overall pest control costs remained significantly higher with Bt cotton (65% of total input costs) than with non-Bt cotton (42% of total input costs).17

The review concluded that the main value of Makhatini project appears to have been as a public relations exercise for GM proponents, providing “crucial ammunition to help convince other African nations to adopt GM crops”. The author added that there was a “disconnect” between how the project was represented and “the realities faced by its cotton growers”.17

“We strongly object that the image of the poor and hungry from our countries is being used by giant multinational corporations to push a technology that is neither safe, environmentally friendly nor economically beneficial to us. We do not believe that such companies or gene technologies will help our farmers to produce the food that is needed in the 21st century. On the contrary, we think it will destroy the diversity, the local knowledge and the sustainable agricultural systems that our farmers have developed for millennia, and that it will thus undermine our capacity to feed ourselves.”
– Statement signed by 24 delegates from 18 African countries to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, 199818

“If anyone tells you that GM is going to feed the world, tell them that it is not… To feed the world takes political and financial will.”
– Steve Smith, head of GMO company Novartis Seeds UK (now Syngenta), at a public meeting on a proposed local GMO farm scale trial, Tittleshall, Norfolk, UK, 29 March 200019

GM soy and maize project ends in ruin for poor farmers

A GM soy and maize farming project ended in disaster for poor black farmers in South Africa. The Eastern Cape government was criticized for its support of this so-called “Green Revolution” project, which was launched in 2003–2004. A research study by the Masifunde Education and Development Project Trust, together with Rhodes University, found that the programme had disastrous results for farmers.20

“We saw a deepening of poverty and people returning to the land for survival,” said Masifunde researcher, Mercia Andrews. The study raised concerns about feeding schemes conducted on animals with “alarming results”, including damage to internal organs. It presented evidence of weed and pest problems, contamination of crops with GM pollen, and the control exercised by big companies over local and global food systems as a result of patented seeds.20

Conclusion

GM crops do not increase yield. Nor are there any GM crops that are better than non-GM crops at tolerating poor soils or challenging climate conditions. Thus it is difficult to see how GM can contribute to solving world hunger.

Virtually all of the currently available GM crops are engineered for herbicide tolerance or to contain a pesticide, or both.1 The two major GM crops, soy and maize, mostly go into animal feed for intensive livestock operations, biofuels to power cars, and processed human food – products for wealthy nations that have nothing to do with meeting the basic food needs of the poor and hungry.

Even if a GM crop were developed that did increase yield, this would not solve the problem of hunger. This is because the cause of hunger is not a shortage of food, but poverty and lack of access to land on which to grow food. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, we already produce more than enough food to feed the world’s population and could produce enough with existing agricultural methods to feed 12 billion people. GM is a dangerous distraction from real solutions to hunger.

A few GM crops have been specifically promoted as helping small-scale and poor farmers in Africa. However, the results were the opposite of what was promised and all these projects failed.

It is irresponsible to pressure poor farmers in the Global South into gambling their farms and livelihoods on risky and experimental GM crops when alternative farming models have proven effective.

References

  1. James C. Global status of commercialized biotech/GM crops: 2012. ISAAA; 2012. Available at: http://www.isaaa.org/resources/publications/briefs/44/download/isaaa-brief-44-2012.pdf.
  2. Ziegler J. Economic, social and cultural rights: The right to food. Report by the special rapporteur on the right to food, Mr Jean Ziegler, submitted in accordance with Commission on Human Rights Resolution 2000/25 (Geneva: UNECOSOC E/CN.4/2002/558). New York, NY: United Nations Economic and Social Council: Commission on Human Rights; 2002. Available at: http://repository.forcedmigration.org/pdf/?pid=fmo:5322.
  3. Cook LJ. Millions served. Forbes. 2002. Available at: http://www.forbes.com/forbes/2002/1223/302.html.
  4. Gathura G. GM technology fails local potatoes. The Daily Nation (Kenya). http://bit.ly/KPQPxL. Published January 29, 2004.
  5. New Scientist. Monsanto failure. 2004;181(2433). Available at: http://bit.ly/MHPG9W.
  6. deGrassi A. Genetically modified crops and sustainable poverty alleviation in Sub-Saharan Africa: An assessment of current evidence. Third World Network – Africa; 2003. Available at: http://allafrica.com/sustainable/resources/view/00010161.pdf.
  7. Groves M. Plant researchers offer bumper crop of humanity. LA Times. http://articles.latimes.com/1997/dec/26/news/mn-2352. Published December 26, 1997.
  8. Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. Danforth Center cassava viral resistance review update. 2006. Available at: http://bit.ly/1ry2DUC.
  9. Greenbaum K. Can biotech from St. Louis solve hunger in Africa? St. Louis Post-Dispatch. http://bit.ly/L2MmG4. Published December 9, 2006.
  10. Hand E. St Louis team fights crop killer in Africa. St Louis Post-Dispatch. http://www.gmwatch.org/index.php/news/archive/2006/5580. Published December 10, 2006.
  11. International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA). Farmers get better yields from new drought-tolerant cassava.http://bit.ly/L3s946. Published November 3, 2008.
  12. Patel R. Making up Makhatini. In: Stuffed and Starved. London, UK: Portobello Books; 2007:153–158.
  13. Falck-Zepeda J, Gruère G, Sithole-Niang I. Genetically modified crops in Africa: Economic and policy lessons from countries south of the Sahara. In: International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI); 2013:27–29. Available at: http://www.ifpri.org/sites/default/files/publications/oc75.pdf.
  14. Hofs J-L, Fok M, Vaissayre M. Impact of Bt cotton adoption on pesticide use by smallholders: A 2-year survey in Makhatini Flats (South Africa). Crop Prot. 2006;25:984–988.
  15. Pschorn-Strauss E. Bt cotton in South Africa: The case of the Makhathini farmers. Durban, South Africa: Biowatch South Africa; 2005. Available at: http://www.grain.org/article/entries/492-bt-cotton-in-south-africa-the-case-of-the-makhathini-farmers.
  16. Community Media Trust and Deccan Development Society. A disaster in search of success: Bt cotton in Global South.; 2007.
  17. Schnurr MA. Inventing Makhathini: Creating a prototype for the dissemination of genetically modified crops into Africa. Geoforum. 2012;43(4):784–792.
  18. Paul H, Steinbrecher R. Hungry Corporations: Transnational biotech companies colonise the food chain. In: London, UK: Zed Books; 2003:3.
  19. Monbiot G. Organic farming will feed the world. The Guardian (UK). http://www.monbiot.com/2000/08/24/organic-farming-will-feed-the-world/. Published August 24, 2000.
  20. Jack M. GM project faces ruin. The New Age (South Africa). http://www.thenewage.co.za/21688-1008-53-GM_project_faces_ruin. Published June 28, 2011.