Seeking a technological food fix for world hunger may be… the most commercially malevolent wild goose chase of the new century. – Dr Richard Horton, editor of the British medical journal, The Lancet
Failure to Yield (PDF)
Some companies know how to make money out of any situation of great demand. Monsanto, and other biotech industries, are certainly among these. As of 2009, more than one billion people – almost a sixth of the world’s population – are going hungry every day. As we’re heading towards a head count of around 9.2 billion people by 2050, Monsanto is boldly standing forward, claiming that it has the answers to a growing food crisis that will otherwise get worse by the year. Monsanto has an advertising campaign running – promising more food, health and prosperity. They’re promising miracles through modern biotechnology. But, does it stand up to scientific scrutiny?
I’ve written a few times that conventional plant breeding techniques and natural plant speciation will create improved plant varieties at far less expense, with far less risk, and in a much faster time frame than genetic tinkering ever will. The Union of Concerned Scientists has just completed a report, Failure to Yield – Evaluating the Performance of Genetically Engineered Crops, that fully concurs with these thoughts.
Several recent studies have shown that low-external-input methods such as organic can improve yield by over 100 percent in these countries, along with other benefits. Such methods have the advantage of being based largely on knowledge rather than on costly inputs, and as a result they are often more accessible to poor farmers than the more expensive technologies (which often have not helped in the past).
Genetic engineering has been promoted as an important means for dramatically improving the yields of staple food crops, but there is little evidence to support such a claim. In Failure to Yield, the Union of Concerned Scientists provides the most comprehensive evaluation to date of more than two decades of U.S. genetic engineering research and commercialization aimed at increasing crop yield. Our analysis shows that despite tremendous effort and expense, genetic engineering has only succeeded in measurably increasing the yield of one major food or livestock feed crop—and this contribution has been small compared with other available methods.
Failure to Yield also considers the substantial theoretical and practical challenges to increasing yield via genetic engineering in coming years, provides an evaluation of more promising approaches that would also minimize environmental harm, and recommends policy changes that would maximize our ability to improve crop productivity in a sustainable manner. - Failure to Yield
The report, like other reports before it (like Who Benefits from GM Crops?, an expansive worldwide study by Friends of the Earth, as well as the more recent 3-year, 400-scientist strong ‘Agriculture at a Crossroads‘ report by the IAASTD that was endorsed by 58 countries) puts forward more likely solutions – like utilising low-input, sustainable, traditional farming practices to increase yields. And, significantly, these methods will do a lot more than just increase yields – they will also increase diversity, increase the carbon-absorbing and water conserving capacity of soils, reduce chemical use and increase local resilience to economic problems.
Organic Agriculture & Food
Security in Africa ( PDF)
Another study, this time by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the UN Environment Program (UNEP), titled Organic Agriculture and Food Security in Africa repeats the same message. It found, based on many case studies (114 farming projects in 24 African countries), that organic or near-organic agricultural practices outperformed chemical-based conventional farming systems by more than 100%, while also providing other social and environmental benefits.
It is important to remember, when contemplating the issue of crop yields, that we still produce more food than the world consumes. Where people are unable to secure enough food to eat, it is not because the food isn’t available to be had, but because people don’t have the money to buy it. This isn’t a food shortage issue, yet, but an inequality/economics issue brought about by the very globalised industrial agricultural model that companies like Monsanto depend on for their existence. Industrialised agriculture – the ‘Green Revolution’ of post World War II – has played an enormous role in increasing the world’s population to dangerous levels, whilst simultaneously undermining the very platform, of soil fertility and water, that supports that population. More than that, it has hastened the breakdown and erosion of local economies, forcing them into agricultural specialisation and international trading markets that make them vulnerable to market speculators at a global financial level, and vulnerable to increased pest and disease problems at the local level. For those not familiar with these thoughts, please read Orchestrating Famine – a Must Read Backgrounder on the Food Crisis and Food Miles or Fair Miles?
Monsanto stands for more than just bio-technology. It also stands for monocrop, chemical intensive farming and large scale global food swaps. These are all damaging and self-defeating. They are problems, not solutions.
I’m not the only one wishing Monsanto would stop feigning benevolence by using the world’s poor as a marketing tool for their own gain. The people of Africa have spoken clearly for themselves on this issue:
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 millennia, and that it will thus undermine our capacity to feed ourselves". - SayNoToGmos.org (emphasis added)
When I say we are not yet living in a world short of food – be aware I am also very mindful of the fact that, even with more equitable, localised markets in place, if we don’t start rebuilding soil and conserving water we will face the rise of famines inexorable in nature and beyond the scope of anything the world has yet seen. Monsanto, with its glossy, specious adverts and its injudicious desire to trumpet an agricultural model based on fossil fuels and constant soil erosion, while we’re standing at a significant agricultural and energy crossroad, is being completely cavalier by putting shareholder profits before the lives of billions.
Anti-GMO reports like those featured in this post just keep coming out – and from people with no vested financial interest in endorsing or condemning biotechnology. They fly in the face of industry sponsored sales pitches. Essentially, if solving problems is the priority then we need to head the low-input, knowledge-based route. If controlling the world’s food supplies and capitalising on every mouthful is the priority, regardless of cost to the environment, then head the Monsanto route. The choice is simple.