GM Crops, Pesticides and the Poor
I’m often accused of murdering millions. Why? Because I speak out against GM crops. And here I am, at it again…. Whenever the issue of genetically modified (GM) crops is raised, there are always two main reasons posited for their use: The first is that tinkering with the building blocks of life is essential if we’re to feed the world’s burgeoning population. It is inferred that we can somehow ‘improve’ plants, and make them more productive. Although this concept is vigorously promoted by biotech corporations, with all the advertising finesse their great wealth provides (and, astonishingly, a good amount of corporate agribusiness wealth comes right out of your pocket via tax-payer funded subsidies), their wishful thinking couldn’t be further from the truth.
The second justification for GM crops is that through their use we can decrease the amount of pesticides applied to our crops, some of which inevitably ends up in our water and on our plates (note that when we use the term ‘pesticides’, we’re referring to both insecticides and herbicides). This is an extremely naïve expectation – especially as it is the move towards large scale monocrop systems that has given rise to imbalances of weed and insect populations and created the market for these chemicals in the first place. In 2007 the Friends of the Earth produced a report that asked a good question: “Who Benefits from GM Crops? – an analysis of the global performance of gm crops (1996-2006)” (1.94mb PDF), and went on to provide a very thorough answer from case studies around the world. That report covered, primarily, the first of the two reasons mentioned above. Essentially, and the answer is not going to surprise many of our readers, the only beneficiaries of GM crops are the corporations supplying the seeds and the chemicals the seeds are ‘designed’ for. Indeed, they’re making record profits, while in some places the farmers that contract to purchase seeds (they must sign a contract to give up the traditional practice of saving seed for the next season) are experiencing complete disaster, which has translated, in India in particular, to a dramatic rise in farmer suicides – see here, and here. The 2008 edition of Who Benefits from GM Crops? – the rise in pesticide use (PDF) focuses mainly on the second aspect – that of the supposed decrease in pesticide usage. Although disingenuously marketed as such, none of the GM crops on the market are actually modified to benefit the poor and hungry – rather, they are modified for compatibility with the chemicals those companies also produce, and their usage has, predictably, increased, not decreased.
Despite more than a decade of hype and failed promises, the biotechnology industry has not introduced a single GM crop with increased yield, enhanced nutrition, drought-tolerance or salt-tolerance. Disease-tolerant GM crops are practically nonexistent. In fact, biotech companies have made a commercial success of GM crops with just two traits – herbicide tolerance and insect resistance –which offer no advantages to consumers or the environment. In fact, GM crops in the world today are best characterized by the overwhelming penetration of just one trait – herbicide tolerance – which is found in over 80% of all GM crops planted worldwide, and which as we explore further below is associated with increased use of chemical pesticides…. HT [herbicide tolerant] crops are ‘pesticide-promoting’ – that is they encourage the development of herbicide-resistant weeds, which in turn lead to yet more pesticide use. Pesticide-promoting HT crops have spawned an epidemic of herbicide-resistant weeds in the U.S., Argentina and Brazil, thereby encouraging still greater use of chemicals to control them. Pesticides have adverse health and environmental impacts that GM agriculture is exacerbating. It is no accident that agrichemical-biotech companies focus development efforts on pesticide-promoting, HT crops: they lead to increased sales of the chemicals these firms also sell…. The biotechnology industry asserts that reduced use of pesticides (i.e. herbicides, insecticides and fungicides) is one of the most valuable benefits of its technology, particularly in connection with GM soy (FoEI, 2007). Yet independent studies have demonstrated not only that these pesticide reduction claims are unfounded, but that GM crops have substantially increased pesticide use, particularly since 1999. – Full Report, p. 8
Monsanto’s credo is “doing well by doing good”. They are certainly doing well – indeed, they’ve created a multi billion dollar market where a market needn’t, and shouldn’t, be – but their claims of doing good are wholly unsubstantiated and dishonest. The record of more than a decade of GM crop use speaks for itself. As expressed in the documentary, The Corporation, if corporations were individuals, some of them would be locked up as psychopaths for their wholly anti-social character traits. We can’t let industries like this continue holding the reins of the world’s food supply. If they are allowed to persevere, they will ultimately flog this old horse, our ailing world, until it is dead.
Arguably the best way to hasten the demise of such agricultural practices is to demand labelling for all products that contain genetically modified organisms, and to allow GM-free products to be marketed as such.
When asked directly, the vast majority of Americans (94%) agree that GM ingredients should be labeled as such… – Public Perceptions of Genetically Modified Foods: A National Study of American Knowledge and Opinion (PDF)
Most people, when given a choice, will choose a GM-free product over one that contains them. Big Biotech knows this, which is why they’ve used their valuable political ties to lobby against labelling. If 94% of people would like to see GM labelling, one must ask at what point did democracy vacate the house? Big Biotech are using every recourse available to them to increase usage of their ‘patented products’, and every additional acre of GM crops brings added financial and environmental vulnerability for farmers and consumers. The war in Iraq is a case in point. Although industries like ExxonMobil are regarded as being the main benefactors of the ‘war on terror’, other corporations have ‘made a killing’ as well:
As part of sweeping “economic restructuring” implemented by the Bush Administration in Iraq, Iraqi farmers will no longer be permitted to save their seeds. Instead, they will be forced to buy seeds from US corporations — which can include seeds the Iraqis themselves developed over hundreds of years. That is because in recent years, transnational corporations have patented and now own many seed varieties originated or developed by indigenous peoples. In a short time, Iraq will be living under the new American credo: Pay Monsanto, or starve. … A new report by GRAIN and Focus on the Global South has found that new legislation in Iraq has been carefully put in place by the US that prevents farmers from saving their seeds and effectively hands over the seed market to transnational corporations. This is a disastrous turn of events for Iraqi farmers, biodiversity and the country’s food security. While political sovereignty remains an illusion, food sovereignty for the Iraqi people has been made near impossible by these new regulations. “The US has been imposing patents on life around the world through trade deals. In this case, they invaded the country first, then imposed their patents. This is both immoral and unacceptable”, said Shalini Bhutani, one of the report’s authors. — Vegsource (see also)
And where military might isn’t used to usher in a corporate ‘golden age’ of food domination, people’s poverty and misery is utilised instead. Poor nations, when faced with the need for food aid, are told they must accept it in the form of GM food, or get nothing:
Zambia has been told by the USA to use $50 million to buy America’s GM maize through the World Food Programme or face starvation. When The US tried to force GM food aid on India an unnamed USAID spokesman told the media “beggars can’t be choosers.” — SayNoToGMOs
While biotech’s glossy magazine adverts and happy television commercials may cause me to get berated for threatening the lives of millions with my anti-GMO stance, it appears I actually have the poor on my side:
Zambia’s response marks the death of the ‘feeding the world’ PR strategy. Referring to the maize, President Levy Mwanawasa said “if it is not fit then we would rather starve” – and the national paper added “If the US insists on imposing this genetically modified maize on our people, we will be justified in questioning their motive”. – SayNoToGMOs
In 1998 Monsanto sent an appeal to all Africa’s Heads of State, entitled ‘Let The Harvest Begin’, which called upon them to endorse GM crops. Monsanto were following the advice of the world’s leading PR company to avoid the ‘killing fields’ of health and environmental issues in the GM debate, such as the absence of independent safety testing, and to shift the debate to focus on supposed benefits for the poor. Western ‘greens’ should be singled out for demonisation for preventing biotech corporations from ‘feeding the world’. Ministers in Western governments have been bombarded with propaganda calling upon them to ignore the ‘selfish’ objections of their own citizens – consumers, health advocates, environmentalists and food retailers – because this technology was the only hope for the world’s poor. American TV audiences have seen hundreds of adverts depicting smiling well-fed Third World farmers joyfully growing GM crops. None of this propaganda is based on fact and, significantly, none of it originates from the nations that would supposedly benefit from this technology. Monsanto’s letter-writing exercise could well have been the most catastrophic PR stunt in history. In response the Food and Agriculture representative of every African nation (except South Africa) signed a joint statement called ‘Let Nature’s Harvest Continue’ that utterly condemns Monsanto’s policy. It stated: “[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 think it will destroy the diversity, the local knowledge and the sustainable agricultural systems that our farmers have developed for millenia, and that it will thus undermine our capacity to feed ourselves”. – SayNoToGMOs (emphasis added)
Although it’s easy to pull the wool over the eyes of many in the general public, as few farm any more, it has been consistently shown that bio-diverse, sustainable farming systems are more productive than monoculture systems. If we are to actually feed a burgeoning population, and also supply them with clean available water, then moving towards GM- and chemical-free farming should become one of our biggest priorities. After all, why should millions suffer for the benefit of a few corporate executives and their shareholders?
You start the article with:
“I’m often accused of murdering millions.”
That makes me wonder – by whom? By gardeners, or rather by people who never grew an ounce of food themselves? The biggest single problem I identify with the food supply systems which we have today is that in the industrialised nations, the majority of people by now seem to have basically no knowledge about growing food – and still make decisions about how it should be done.
The accusations come from techno-savvy but nature ignorant individuals on sites where I get involved in discussions to interrupt pro-GMO discourse with some reality checks. There are a great many people, particularly in the US of A I note, who are wholly convinced that without genetic engineering ‘technology’, much of the world would starve. It’s of course all based on wonderful advertising by BigAgri. For them, my anti-GMO stance is tantamount to murder.
ah, had such a discussion quite recently with a biochemistry grad student who was very enthusiastic about C4 rice. I asked him if he ever had heard of SRI before. (He hadn’t – I showed him the Cornell website). I pointed out to him that I saw this as a symptom of a skewed (screwed?) education system. In a saner world, wouldn’t we make sure our biology experts get a broad education when it comes to a subject such as rice that ensures they at least have heard of Fukuoka’s contemplations, of SRI, of the history of growing rice by the paddy method, and a number of other important aspects rather than exclusively receiving specialist training “just on the properties of rubisco”?
Having said that, people from the US and their attitude towards tech is a subject of its own. And certainly one which at least in part seems to have been shaped by DC comics (not for the better). I remember that the english Wikipedia entry for “radioactivity” for quite some time stated that “contrary to common belief, exposure to radioactive waste causes cancer and death, rather than granting superpowers”. Says a lot about what’s going on inside people’s heads if they consider such a statement as appropriate for an encyclopedia, actually.
The more I think about this, the more I am drawn to a conclusion I actually don’t like. It would be a very good thing to have a piece of software, available under a free license, that makes some aspects of permaculture design – in particular, polyculture design in conjunction with earthworks – simple, and hence accessible to a broad audience. Why don’t I like that idea? There’s no substitute for both close observation and doing the digging and planting. We certainly do not want an army of polyculture designers armed with software and an attitude of “if the world does not behave the way it should according to these models, all the worse for the world”. On the other hand, observations keep on reminding me that the most effective way in order to get the point across what sort of approach permaculture actually is when addressing a techie audience seems to be to let them play around with and explore a piece of software. Typical issues such a tool should address are: “Given these microclimatic conditions, this is a long list of species we might want to take a closer look at”, “this is a complete list of ground cover legumes that might work for this soil and microclimate”, “in order to meet the nitrogen requirements of this acre, we will use this approach”, “the strategy to supply food for predators through the seasons is presently incomplete – and the list of nectary plants that might fill the early summer food gap for predatory insects is…”, “the economic potential for this particular timber species is…” etc. (I sometimes feel that itch in my fingers to write just such a tool, and I’m quite confident I could cobble together a useful working prototype within one week of concentrated work. But deep inside, I’m still a bit unconvinced about whether this would be such a good idea.)
The point is that many techies presently have pretty much no clue about the actual level of technical sophistication in permaculture. And if I may say so – neither have a number of “permies”. The way I understand it, permaculture is about both science and wisdom (and not geomantic feng-shui herb spirals). The “wisdom” part being especially important with respect to the problem that “an idea is a very dangerous thing if it is the only one you have” – something which I encounter very often in discussions about all sorts of things – including GMOs. But that (techies having a wrong mental picture of permaculture or none at all) seems like a solvable problem to me.
A final (unrelated) comment, coming back to rice now: The evidence seems to be that growing more food might not be the best strategy to deal with a massively growing population. I’ve come to the conclusion that both overconsumption in the “first world” and population growth in the “third world” have a common cause: old age security. Who will feed, clothe and house me when I am old and my physical strength isn’t anymore what it has been? The first world philosophy is: “a strong economy, retirement savings, my pension insurance fund, etc.” – hence the need for an industry that keeps on creating and satisfying artifical wants – which goes hand in hand with excessive resource consumption. The third world philosophy is: my descendants. This goes hand in hand with large families and population explosion.
So – if we were serious about actually solving problems, wouldn’t we then think hard about how to systematically reduce the amount of effort that perpetually has to be expended in order to provide our needs? Sort of, can’t we eliminate the need to till by producing food from perennial crops? Or along the lines of “By the time when I’m old, the nut trees which I planted will be producing prolifically, economic security problem solved.” Hmmm. I seriously wonder if anyone ever had such a ‘funny’ idea… (Evidently, that’s not what mainstream economic thinking would try to do – remember the need to make the world more complicated by multiplying wants?)
Yes Thomas, and this is why people here left/leave the countryside, because the well payed jobs are in cities. To get a good pension you have to earn minimum 300000 – 400000 N.Kr. a year. If you are self sustained at a small farm with no income, you’ll get a very small pension if you get sick or old and unable to take care of your self.
This is why I think sickness or age pensions should have been flat, independent on your former earnings, not stressing people to earn so much, and instead living sustainable lives.
This of course assumes a country that actually has a system of pensions to begin with. In most third world countries there is no pension plan except for civil servants and even then they have to make strategic investments in either land and small scale farming, more children, or small businesses in order to provide for themselves in their “golden years”~!
the corporations create artificial scarcity while telling us that they are creating abundance – their whole purpose is to turn common ecosystems and communities into privilege for a few, taking from the masses and the natural world to enrich a tiny percentage of humans.
and they will continue to do so until there is nothing left living and free.
Yes Andy, I could not say it better my self! In addition GMO is against permaculture principles 8, 9 & 10: https://permacultureprinciples.com/principles.php