Truth: The 2008 food crisis was not caused by a lack of GM crops but by the rush to biofuels

Myth at a glance

The World Bank and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have identified the biofuels boom – not a lack of GM foods – as the main cause of the 2007–2008 food crisis and the ongoing rise in global food prices.

The FAO and other major international organizations have recommended that the leaders of the G20 countries remove their support for biofuels development in order to protect food supplies.

Vast tracts of agricultural land are now growing crops to fuel cars, not to feed people.

The same companies that produce GM seeds also produce feedstocks for biofuels. Therefore it appears that these companies are not motivated by a desire to feed the world but by a desire to make a profit.

Currently available GM crops are engineered to tolerate herbicides or to express insecticides. Neither trait is useful in addressing hunger.

Attempts to genetically engineer crops to address hunger in poor regions have ended in failure and farmer indebtedness.

The 2007–2008 global food crisis led to food riots around the world, as the escalating price of staple crops pushed food out of reach of the poor and hungry. GMO proponents have used the food crisis to claim that anti-GMO activists in the Global North are keeping the Global South hungry by creating unfounded fears about GM crops. GM crops, they claim, could help solve the hunger problem, if only the activists in affluent countries would stop interfering.

But in 2008 the World Bank and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) identified the biofuels boom – not a lack of GM foods – as the main cause of the 2007–2008 food crisis.1,2

Biofuels are crops used for fuel. Vast tracts of cropland have been taken out of food production to grow biofuels for cars, funded by generous government subsidies. This has made food scarcer, pushing up costs.

Two years on in 2010, the food crisis had not abated. At a summit meeting, the leaders of the G20 countries requested the FAO, along with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD),the World Bank, the World Health Organization (WHO), and other international bodies to “develop options… on how to better mitigate and manage the risks associated with the price volatility of food and other agriculture commodities, without distorting market behaviour, ultimately to protect the most vulnerable.”3

The FAO and its partner organizations responded with a report that was uncompromising in its conclusion that biofuels were a major threat to food security. The report recommended removing government support for their development: “G20 governments [should] remove provisions of current national policies that subsidize (or mandate) biofuels production or consumption… Failing a removal of support, G20 governments should develop contingency plans to adjust (at least temporarily) policies that stimulate biofuel production or consumption (in particular mandatory obligations) when global markets are under pressure and food supplies are endangered.”3

In 2014 the World Bank’s Food Price Watch publication reported a small 3% decline in the price of internationally traded food commodities between October 2013 and January 2014, but noted that “international prices are still not overly far from their historical peak” in August 2012.4

Biofuels couple food prices to petrochemical fuel prices

The growth of the biofuels industry has created a link between agriculture and fuel that never existed before. Previously, agricultural markets were driven only by food demands and were not linked to petroleum markets. But now they are tightly linked, because agriculture provides the crops that are used to make the biofuels alternative to petrochemical fuels. Four major food and feed crops – sugarcane, maize, wheat, and soy – are now used for biofuels feedstock. So the biofuels boom has coupled food prices to petrochemical fuel prices,5 with the result that food prices will continue to rise as petroleum becomes scarcer and more expensive.

The same companies that produce GM seeds also produce feedstocks for biofuels.67 We conclude that these companies are not motivated by a desire to feed the world but by a desire to make a profit.

Food speculation and hunger

An additional cause of the food crisis is financial speculation in food commodity markets. This trend drives up prices for the crops that are traded internationally on a large scale, namely maize, wheat, and soy. One report on the topic concluded, “Food markets should serve the interests of people and not those of financial investors… Given that hunger still exists in the world, even small price increases that are driven by financial investment are scandalous. We must not allow food to become a purely financial asset.”8

GM crops do not provide a solution to the problem of financial speculation in food markets.

Currently available GM crops do not address hunger

Currently available GM crops are engineered to tolerate herbicides or to express insecticides. Neither trait is useful in addressing hunger. Attempts to genetically engineer crops to address hunger in poor regions have ended in failure and farmer indebtedness (see Myth 6.1). Golden rice, which is intended to alleviate vitamin A deficiency in developing countries, is still not ready for market after over a decade’s worth of costly research and development work. It has not even been toxicologically tested to see if it is safe to eat.

“The agribusiness giants who have developed and patented genetically modified crops have long argued that their mission is to feed the world, rarely missing an opportunity to mention starving Africans. Their mission is, in fact, to make a profit. Land rights for small farmers, political stability, fairer markets, education and investment hold the key to feeding Africa but offer little prospect of increased profits. The climate crisis was used to boost biofuels, helping to create the food crisis; and now the food crisis is being used to revive the fortunes of the GM industry.”
– Daniel Howden, Africa correspondent, The Independent (UK)9

“The cynic in me thinks that they’re just using the current food crisis and the fuel crisis as a springboard to push GM crops back on to the public agenda. I understand why they’re doing it, but the danger is that if they’re making these claims about GM crops solving the problem of drought or feeding the world, that’s bullshit.”
– Denis Murphy, head of biotechnology, University of Glamorgan, Wales10

Conclusion

The World Bank and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have identified the biofuels boom – not a lack of GM foods – as the main cause of the 2007–2008 food crisis and the ongoing rise in global food prices. The FAO and other major international organizations have recommended that the leaders of the G20 countries remove their support for biofuels development in order to protect food supplies.

Vast tracts of agricultural land are now growing crops to fuel cars, not to feed people.

The same companies that produce GM seeds also produce feedstocks for biofuels. Therefore it appears that these companies are not motivated by a desire to feed the world but by a desire to make a profit.

Currently available GM crops are engineered to tolerate herbicides or to express insecticides. Neither trait is useful in addressing hunger. Attempts to genetically engineer crops to address hunger in poor regions have ended in failure and farmer indebtedness. Golden rice, which is intended to alleviate vitamin A deficiency in developing countries, is still not ready for market after over a decade’s worth of costly research and development work. It has not even been toxicologically tested to see if it is safe to eat.

References

  1. Mitchell D. A note on rising food prices: Policy Research Working Paper 4682. Washington, DC, USA: The World Bank Development Prospects Group; 2008.
  2. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Soaring food prices: Facts, perspectives, impacts and actions required. In: Rome, Italy; 2008. Available at: http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/user_upload/foodclimate/HLCdocs/HLC08-inf-1-E.pdf.
  3. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and others. Price volatility in food and agricultural markets: Policy responses. Policy Report including contributions by FAO, IFAD, IMF,OECD, UNCTAD, WFP, the World Bank, the WTO, IFPRI and the UN HLTF. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations; 2011. Available at: http://ictsd.org/downloads/2011/05/finalg20report.pdf.
  4. Cuesta J. Food price watch. Washington, DC, USA: World Bank; 2014. Available at: http://www.worldbank.org/content/dam/Worldbank/document/Poverty%20documents/FPW%20Feb%202014%20final.pdf.
  5. World Bank. Food price watch. Washington, DC, USA; 2011. Available at: http://bit.ly/JZBHaQ.
  6. The Bioenergy Site. Monsanto biofuels feedstock research extended. http://www.thebioenergysite.com/news/13514/monsanto-biofuels-feedstock-research-extended. Published November 5, 2013.
  7. Syngenta. What Syngenta thinks about biofuels. 2013. Available at: http://www.syngenta.com/global/corporate/en/news-center/Pages/what-syngenta-thinks-about-full.aspx.
  8. Henn M. The speculator’s bread: What is behind rising food prices? EMBO Rep. 2011;12:296–301.
  9. Howden D. Hope for Africa lies in political reforms. The Independent (UK). http://ind.pn/LsLp9O. Published September 8, 2008.
  10. Lyons R. GM: It’s safe, but it’s not a saviour. Spiked Online. 2008. Available at: http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php?/site/article/5438/.