The GM mirage will not help the poor
Painstaking development efforts, not the GM promise of miracle yields, hold most hope for the hungry, argues ActionAid's Alex Wijeratna
Wednesday June 4, 2003
One in three people go to bed every night not knowing where their next meal will come from. In a world where 800 million people are hungry because they cannot grow or buy enough food, GM crops have been vigorously promoted as a means of alleviating world hunger.
The biotech lobby claim that GM technologies will increase food production, reduce environmental degradation, provide more nutritious foods and promote sustainable agriculture.
GM "miracle" crops such as golden rice have been promoted as a means of combating the vitamin A deficiency that kills over a million children in Asia and Africa each year and sends many more millions blind.
What is not explained is that children do not suffer from vitamin A deficiency because rice contains too little vitamin A, but because they eat little else besides rice. A child would need to eat about 7kg a day of cooked golden rice - about 20 bowlfuls - to obtain the required amount of vitamin A.
Encouraging people to grow and consume crops rich in vitamin A such as beans, pumpkins, ivy gourd and leafy green vegetables would tackle vitamin A deficiency more effectively.
We are also told that cereal production in Africa averages one tonne a hectare - the same as in Roman Britain - and that the use of pesticides and drought resistant GM cereals is probably the only means to increase yields, giving food security and generating cash incomes.
But there is no consistent evidence that GM crops require fewer chemicals and yield more. In one study, GM soya produced by agrochemical giant Monsanto had 6% lower yields than ordinary soya and 11% less than high-yielding ordinary soya.
We have been here before. The Green Revolution of the 1960s was launched to address hunger in poor countries. It introduced a few uniform hybrid crop varieties, which were grown in large monocultures and relied on high chemical inputs and extensive irrigation.
While the Green Revolution initially increased yields - mainly of hybrid rice and wheat grown by commercial growers in Asia and Latin America - these gains were eventually offset by resulting soil erosion and the evolution of new pests and diseases. In Africa, it failed to deliver the promised benefits as the technologies were unsuited to local conditions, ineffective, expensive and unpopular with poor communities.
Today, GM seeds are being promoted by a handful of multinational businesses and just four corporations - Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer CropScience and Du Pont - control most of the GM seed market.
These chemical corporations have bought up seed and biotech companies around the world and now have a controlling stake in the world's key agricultural markets. They are effectively privatising the world's food chain and are protecting their investments in GM seeds by using intellectual property rights - patents.
Up to 1.4 billion people, including nearly 90% of farmers in Africa, many of them women depend on saved seed. Yet the proliferation of intellectual property regimes that come with GM seeds threatens centuries-old practices of saving and exchanging seeds. If poor farmers opt for GM, they lose their right to save seed and must purchase expensive seeds and pesticides every season from the big corporations.
The profits of the agrochemical industry were the driving force behind the emergence of GM agriculture, not the interests of poor farmers. By linking their chemicals to seeds via GM technologies, these corporations have been able to extend markets for their herbicides and pesticides.
Rather than making poor farmers reliant on chemicals and heavily commercialised agriculture, it would be far better to provide money and training in cheaper sustainable solutions. There are many sustainable and affordable alternatives to GM crops for poor farmers.
ActionAid supports poor farming communities in its programmes across Africa, Asia and Latin America, from community seed and grain banks to permaculture projects and organic farming. Some spectacular production increases have been achieved.
In a remote region of west Nepal, hundreds of poor farmers were trained in sustainable permaculture principles and transformed areas that used to suffer food shortages into ones that now produce an abundance of honey, fruit, cereals, rice and leafy greens.
Yields of wheat and maze have jumped by up to 340% since 1995 and communities have diversified into cottage industries including beekeeping, cotton and hemp handlooms, leather processing, candle making, agroforestry and kitchen gardening.
Yamuna Ghale, ActionAid's Food Rights co-ordinator in Nepal is convinced this is the way forward. As she points out, "Empowering the poor and the most marginalised at grassroots is the best way to achieve local food security."
The UK public should not be duped into accepting GM in the name of developing countries. Hunger can only be addressed by tackling poverty and inequality. GM does not provide a magic solution and its expansion is more likely to benefit rich corporations than poor people.
What poor people really need is access to land, water, better roads to get their crops to market, agricultural training and affordable credit schemes. Money would be far better spent tackling these problems than poured into GM technology.