GM no solution to global hunger

In 1998 the GM giant Monsanto launched an aggressive advertising campaign to persuade reluctant Europeans they should accept GM foods: "As we stand on the edge of a new millennium, we dream of a tomorrow without hunger… Worrying about starving future generations won't feed them. Food biotechnology will."

Such claims drew a critical response not just from many development organizations with decades of on the ground experience of helping the poor and hungry in the developing world, but even from the head of GM firm Syngenta UK (then Novartis Seeds UK), Steve Smith. Smith told a public meeting, "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.

Delegates from 20 African Countries to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN also responded sharply to Monsanto’s PR campaign, issuing a joint public statement in which they declared: “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."

But a decade later, in the face of massive food price inflation affecting some of the poorest countries in the world, claims that GM crops are the silver bullet that can deliver cheap and abundant food for all are once again being made. The evidence to support such claims, however, is scant to non-existent, as noted by the recently concluded International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), a process involving 400 scientific experts initiated by the World Bank with the co-sponsorship of the United Nations.

The IAASTD process involved a thorough sifting of the evidence about agriculture and food production, and took four years to complete. Its 2500-page report, based on peer reviewed publications, concluded that the yield gains in GM crops "were highly variable" and in some cases, "yields declined". The report also noted, "Assessment of the technology lags behind its development, information is anecdotal and contradictory, and uncertainty about possible benefits and damage is unavoidable." Asked at a press conference whether GM crops were the simple answer to hunger and poverty, IAASTD Director Professor Bob Watson (former director of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and as of 2008, chief scientist at Defra) replied, "I would argue, no ". The UK Government approved the IAASTD report on 9 June 2008.

The report not only brought into question GM's claims to be the solution to global poverty and hunger but also to be a solution to climate change. In fact, GM crops are seen by many as reinforcing an outdated model of agriculture, unsuited for dealing with the conditions that climate change and expensive scarce oil bring for global food security. Many also see GM crops as anti-innovation, because they involve patents which restrict the sharing of knowledge and technology.

Large sections of the IAASTD report favoured truly innovative approaches to improving agriculture and increasing food production. These involve techniques suited to small farmers that minimize the use of increasingly expensive fossil fuel-derived inputs like fertilisers and pesticides. These approaches to cultivation and pest control recognise the value, particularly to the poor and hungry, of low-cost practices using locally available materials and technologies in an environmentally sensitive manner. They include integrated pest management (IPM) and agroecological, or even fully organic, methods.

These innovative farming methods have met with remarkable success, both in the developing and developed world. The IAASTD report notes that they can deliver effective crop protection and pesticide reduction and yield advantages. The yield advantages of IPM have been particularly strong in the developing world, increasing productivity for poor farmers while enhancing sustainability. This, the report notes, has significant policy implications for food security. The IAASTD report also notes that the community-wide economic, social, health and environmental benefits of these approaches have been widely documented.

After the publication of one study looking at a large number of projects in the developing world, New Scientist commented, "Low-tech 'sustainable agriculture', shunning chemicals in favour of natural pest control and fertiliser, is pushing up crop yields on poor farms across the world, often by 70 per cent or more... The findings will make sobering reading for people convinced that only genetically modified crops can feed the planet's hungry in the 21st century... A new science-based revolution is gaining strength built on real research into what works best on the small farms where a billion or more of the world's hungry live and work... It is time for the major agricultural research centres and their funding agencies to join the revolution."

Here are some examples of the remarkable gains in productivity that have been achieved:

  • Some 45,000 farmers in Guatemala and Honduras used regenerative technologies to triple maize yields to some 2-2.5 tons/ha and diversify their upland farms. This has led to local economic growth that has in turn encouraged re-migration back from the cities;
  • 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, tripled sorghum and millet yields to some 2-2.5 tons/hectare;
  • Some 200,000 farmers across Kenya, participating in government and non-government soil and water conservation and sustainable agriculture programmes, more than doubled their maize yields to about 2.5 to 3.3 t/ha and substantially improved vegetable production through the dry seasons;
  • 100,000 small coffee farmers in Mexico adopted fully organic production methods, and yet increased yields by half;
  • a million wetland rice farmers in Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam shifted to sustainable agriculture, where group-based farmer-field schools have enabled farmers to learn alternatives to pesticides, and increased their yields by about 10%.

The lot of small farmers in the developing world can also be greatly improved by other practical measures – for example, through facilitating access to affordable finance (microcredit, grants) or through increasing investment in rural infrastructure, such as road, transport, and storage facilities. In contrast, when it comes to helping the developing world, GM technology is failing to deliver. As Defra chief scientist Bob Watson has unambiguously stated, "The absence of GM crops is not the driver of hunger today."

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