GMOs. Scientists can, and should, keep debating the dangerousness and unpredictability of genetical interference in food production, the effects of GMOs on pesticide usage and its possible relation to cancer and other diseases. On a more fundamental level, however, the most important question is the following: why would we even want genetically modified instead of organic food on our plate? The main answer, proponents claim, is that GMOs are necessary to enhance the amount of global food production as they are one of the if not the only viable solution at increasing yield and thus at fighting global hunger. Much of the GMO discourse rests on this assertion, which means that when it is debunked as a myth, the whole argument for the need of genetically engineering our food almost totally succumbs in the blink of an eye.

Following the Second World War, modern yield-increasing agriculture methods were gradually introduced throughout the world, which, so argued agribusiness giants and the Rockefeller and Ford foundations who supported them, would reduce world hunger. In reality, this so-called “Green Revolution” gave rise to an unseen amount of control over the global food production by a handful of Anglo-American companies, in the process of which wealthy landowners became richer and poor peasant farmers remained poor. The same companies and organisations who were at the forefront of the Green Revolution, using basically the same arguments, then went on to foment the “Gene Revolution.” While they further consolidated their grip on the global food supply from the mid-1980s onwards, they argued that at the same time, GMOs would increase yield, reduce pesticide usage and be the ultimate solution to global hunger and poverty. This argumentation implied that, by opposing or even criticising the GMO project, one de facto supported genocide against the world’s poor.[1]

Over the last couple of years, two decades into the Gene Revolution, however, it has become crystal clear that GMOs have failed on their promise. In July 2009, the Union of Concerned Scientists, a US-based non-profit science advocacy organisation with a membership numbering hundreds of thousands of professional scientists and private citizens, published a report on “biotechnology’s broken promises” called Failure to yield. The organisation carefully examined the record of genetically modified (GM) crops in the US, where they have been commercially grown since the mid-1990s and where the best and most extensive data on GMOs is available. Specifically, they reviewed the data of soybeans and corn, the main GM food crops. “Despite proponents’ claims,” the authors concluded, “genetic engineering has actually done very little to increase the yields of food and feed crops. Given such a track record, it appears unlikely that this technology will play a leading role in helping the world feed itself in the foreseeable future.” Although the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) data do show rising crop yields nationwide since the 1990s, the study found that most of the gains cannot be attributed to the adoption of GMOs. For instance, USDA data showed a 28% increase in corn production per acre between the periods 1991-1995 and 2004-2008, but the Union of Concerned Scientists discovered that only 3-4% of that growth was attributable to the genetically engineered Bt corn, as opposed to 24-25% that had resulted from other factors, such as traditional breeding.[2]

Cotton farmer India
Indian cotton farmer © Amit Dave / Reuters

A 2013 article published in the International Journal of Agricultural sustainability, too, found that “relative to other food secure and exporting countries (e.g. Western Europe), the US agroecosystem is not exceptional in yields.” By comparing agricultural productivity of staple crops such as maize, canola and wheat between North America and Western Europe over the last 50 years, the authors maintain that “the US (and Canadian) yields are falling behind economically and technologically equivalent agroecosystems matched for latitude, season and crop type.”[3] Contrary to the often-made claim that Europe’s reluctance to embrace GMOs is causing it to fall behind the US, the opposite is thus in fact the case.

More recently, more mainstream outlets, too, are starting to point to the failure of GM crops to increase food production. In 2001, the USDA had already admitted that “the application of biotechnology at present is most likely […] not to increase maximum yields. More fundamental scientific breakthroughs are necessary if yields are to increase.”[4] Fifteen years later, however, those “fundamental scientific breakthroughs” remain absent, as is now acknowledged in mainstream publications. In 2016, the US National Academy of Sciences released a report about the “experiences and prospects” of GM crops. Although the Academy does not exclude potential yield increases in the future (without backing that claim up with evidence, it should be mentioned), it agreed with the above-mentioned studies, namely that “the nation-wide data on maize, cotton and soybean in the United States do not show a significant signature of genetic-engineering technology on the rate of yield increase.”[5] That same year, the New York Times, the establishment “paper of record,” conducted its own comparative research between North American and Western European agricultural productivity in a study that used data from the UN, and too concluded that “the United States and Canada have gained no discernible advantage in yields – food per acre – when measured against Western Europe, a region with comparably modernized agricultural producers such as France and Germany.”[6]

Furthermore, by analysing data from the US Geological Survey, the Times study also discovered that overall pesticide usage had increased, not decreased, since the adoption of GMOs in the US. Although the use of toxins that kill insects and fungi had fallen by a third, “the spraying of herbicides, which are used in much higher volumes, has risen by 21 percent. By contrast, in France, use of insecticides and fungicides has fallen by a far greater percentage – 65 percent – and herbicide use has decreased as well, by 36 percent.”[7] Not only has insecticide and fungicide usage thus dropped twice as fast in a technologically comparable but quasi GMO-free environment, the results suggest that usage of herbicides only declines in GMO-poor agroecosystems. Therefore, another argument of GMO apologists, that GM technology would reduce pesticide usage, is thereby called into question as well. And indeed, the Times study mentioned that herbicide use in soybeans, a leading American GM crop, had skyrocketed since the adoption of GMOs in the US, having grown two and a half times in the last two decades, at a time when planted acreage of the crop grew by less than a third. This was not new information for sceptics, though. A 2012 study published in Environmental Sciences Europe discovered that, paradoxically, “herbicide-resistant crop technology has led to a 239 million kilogram increase in herbicide use in the United States between 1996 and 2011.” Recognising that insecticide use had fallen, the author calculated that over this same period of time that GMOs were gradually introduced in America, overall pesticide usage actually rose by 7%.[8]

Kenyans examining Bt corn
Kenyans examining Syngenta-produced Bt corn © Dave Hoisington

Finally, in addition to abundant evidence that points to the failure of GMOs to increase yield, the introduction of GM crops has in some case studies even decreased the production of food per acre. In 2004, the Australian Network of Concerned Farmers put out a report about the plantation of GM canola in their country, concluding that “there is no evidence that GMO canola crops yield more, but there is evidence they yield less. Although Monsanto claim a 40% yield increase with Roundup Ready canola, their best on their website for Australian trials are 17% less than our national average.”[9] A 2002 report from the UK-based Soil Association, based on extensive research into the adoption of GM crops in North America, came to roughly the same conclusion: “For farmers considering growing GM crops, the crops have not, overall, delivered on their promises of higher yields, better returns and lower agrochemical use. The only exception was Bt maize yields, though there was no net income benefit. In most cases they have performed worse than non-GM crops, including substantially lower yields for PR soya.”[10] (emphasis added)

Taking all of this in mind, is it then such a surprise that GM projects that promise to fight global hunger in Africa or Asia keep turning out to be massive failures? One of the most-touted of such projects in Asia was “Golden Rice,” a GM crop that was gaining momentum around the turn of the century, which, according to the biotech industry and obedient American officials and mass media, could be a life saver for millions of people suffering from Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD). This prospect, an ideal promotion for the still young GM industry, first hit the headlines in 2000. Time did not caution its words on the cover of the magazine’s July edition, bluntly stating that “this rice could save a million kids a year.”[11] President Bill Clinton was a staunch pusher of the project as well. “If we could get more of this golden rice, which is a genetically modified strain of rice, especially rich in Vitamin A, out to the developing world, it could save 40.000 lives a day, people that are malnourished and dying,” he exclaimed at a press conference after a three-day summit of the G8.[12] From the onset, however, there was not a shred of evidence to back these claims up, and indeed, it was eventually discovered that Golden Rice contained too little provitamin A to effectively combat VAD in people who have a generally nutrition-poor diet, in other words, the people in the Global South who are actually dying from it.[13] Even more mind-boggling, tried and tested, simple, affordable and probably healthier alternatives were already available before the Golden Rice project came off the ground, but they remained underfunded. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), remedies in the form of vitamin A supplementation had already averted an estimated 1.25 million deaths in 40 countries by 1998.[14] Moreover, Francesco Branca, a malnutrition expert at the same organisation, proclaimed that in addition to handing out supplements and fortifying existing foods with vitamin A (which by 2009 had already been successfully done by Dutch food giant DSM, for instance),[15] teaching people to grow carrots or certain leafy vegetables are, as things stands right now, “more promising ways to fight the problem.”[16]

The project generating the most global media coverage that sought to promote GM technology as the ultimate solution for poverty in Africa was probably Monsanto-trained scientist Florence Wambugu’s GM sweet potato project in Kenya. Travelling around the world in the early 2000s and receiving up to $6 million in funds from Monsanto, the World Bank and USAID, she appeared on numerous mass media channels and outlets to propagandise a genetically engineered virus-resistant sweet potato that could allegedly double output for farmers in Kenya. “Millions served,” shouted a headline in Forbes magazine in December 2002, continuing with a deceptive subtitle intended to ridicule critics, “while the West debates the ethics of genetically modified food, Florence Wambugu is using it to feed her country.”[17] Wambugu was so convinced that GM technology could save Africa from starvation, that she told the New Scientist in 2000 that “in Africa GM food could almost literally weed out poverty.”[18] The Nuffield Council on Bioethics, too, claimed in a 2003 report on GMOs that “the use of GM virus-resistant sweet potatoes could prevent dramatic and frequent reductions in yield of one of the major food crops of many poor people in Africa.”[19] The actual results, just like with the Golden Rice project, did not receive saturated media coverage, however. In January 2004, it emerged that, following a three-year trial of the GM plant, non-transgenic crops yielded much more tuber compared to the newly introduced GM crop. Furthermore, the report that published these findings, compiled by the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO, formerly KARI), also found “all lines tested [to be] susceptible to viral attacks,” of which the yield losses resulting from these viral diseases “can be as high as 80 per cent.”[20] In contrast, again reminiscent of the Golden Rice project, Aaron DeGrassi of the British Institute of Development Studies had already shined light on better alternatives. Aside from scrutinising Wambugu’s GM sweet potato for not addressing the crop’s major problems, he pointed out in a June 2003 92-page report studying GM projects in Sub-Saharan Arica that “conventional sweet potato breeding in Uganda was able in just a few years to develop with a small budget a well-liked virus-resistant variety with yield gains of nearly 100%.”[21] Thus, once again, most of the research money and effort was absorbed by the GM industry, all the while an organic and sustainable solution was already available but lacking sufficient funds.

These two examples suggest that organic rather than GM agricultural projects are the real solution to fight global hunger. They are not isolated instances. The largest ever study examining sustainable agriculture initiatives in developing countries found that when sustainable agricultural practices in a variety of systems and crops were adopted, crop yield skyrocketed by 79% on average. The study, published in 2006 in Environmental Science & Technology comprising analysis of 286 projects covering 37 million hectares spread over 57 countries, additionally found that of the projects with pesticide data, 77% resulted in a decline of pesticide use by 71% while yields grew by 42%. Although the authors cautioned that it remains uncertain whether these approaches can meet future global food needs, “more widespread adoption of these resource conserving technologies […] would contribute to increased agricultural productivity, particularly as evidence indicates that productivity can grow in many farming systems as natural, social, and human capital assets also grow.” The study also disclosed that “poor households benefit substantially [from these sustainable practices],” but to address food poverty problems, “the challenge is to find ways to improve all farmer’s access to productive technologies and practices that are also resource conserving.”[22] This cannot merely be done by industrialised agriculture, the authors argue, because evidence points to significant environmental and health problems as a result of a blind belief in industrial and technological progress over the past decades. Furthermore, “there are growing concerns that such systems may not reduce food poverty,” they go on to say. “Poor farmers need low-cost and readily available technologies and practices to increase local food production and to raise their income,” including integrated pest management, integrated nutrient management, incorporating forestry, fish and livestock into farming systems, and finally, reducing the amount of tillage. “What is important,” the study stated, “is who produces the food, has access to the technology and knowledge to produce it, and has the purchasing power to acquire it.”[23] One does not have to go on a limb to assume that global adoption of GM technology, inevitable linked to the need for a technocratic elite and thus to monopolisation, will develop in the opposite direction, away from rather than towards local and durable solutions.

Organic farmers in Zimbabwe
Organic farmers in Zimbabwe © UNDP Zimbabwe

In 2008, the idea that the exchange of knowledge on organic agricultural practices offers the real solution to rising global food demands was fortified by none other organisation than the UN. To answer the question to what extent organic agriculture could enhance food security in Africa, a collaborative task force was set up in 2004 between the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) and the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). Their findings were even more stunning than the above-mentioned study, namely a 116% average crop yield increase for all African projects and a 128% increase for the projects in East Africa.[24] Just like the other study, the UN report points out that “organic and near-organic agricultural methods and technologies are ideally suited for many poor, marginalized smallholder farmers in Africa, as they require minimal or no external inputs, use locally and naturally available materials to produce high-quality products, and encourage a whole systemic approach to farming that is more diverse and resistant to stress.” This could eventually cause the African continent to become self-sufficient and throw off the chains of structural enslavement it remains in even after colonial times, because “organic agriculture can increase agricultural productivity and can raise incomes with low-cost, locally available and appropriate technologies, without causing environmental damage.” Furthermore, “by addressing many different causal factors simultaneously,” evidence suggests that organic agriculture “can build up natural resources, strengthen communities and improve human capacity,” and in this way, is “highly promising for food security in Africa.”[25]

The picture I am trying to demonstrate here was most recently confirmed by a peer-reviewed paper from July published in the Geographical Review. The author, professor of geography William G. Mosely, pointed to how the introduction and failure of expensive GM seeds for Bt cotton in India has resulted in a steep rise in farmer suicides in Maharashtra state as one example to make his point, which is the following:

“[GM] technology is sufficiently expensive that it is inaccessible to the poorest of the poor for whom food insecure is [a] great issue. Furthermore, such [GM] solutions are often aimed at maximizing production under ideal conditions, as opposed to minimizing risk in highly variable meteorological environments. […] As such, investing in GMO-seed technology represents a significant financial risk for many small farmers in variable rainfall environments, let alone the volatility of markets where farmers must sell all or part of their harvest if they are to cover their input costs. A more viable approach to helping the poorest of the poor increase production and meet food needs is informed by agroecology.”[26]

There is only one problem with agroecological approaches that increase the amount of food and help farmers manage pest problems, however. In stark contrast to the GMO industry, they are starved of resources. “Unfortunately,” Mosely observed, “funding for work in this area has been woefully limited, probably because agroecological approaches are unlikely to generate the profits derived from the GMO nonsolution to global hunger.”[27] In other words, by plundering scarce research funds from proven initiatives that would enhance the ability of poor people around the world to become self-sufficient and increase their standard of living, the GM industry is killing – not saving – the hungry of the world.

As long as we know how to work with nature, we could produce everything in abundance. To drive home this point, I would like to conclude by pointing you to a short award-winning documentary called Homegrown revolution, which stars a family that has become entirely self-sufficient while living fifteen minutes from downtown Los Angeles.[28] When Jules Dervaes “found out that genetically modified food had entered the food supply,” he and his family decided to start growing as much food as they could on a space in their garden not bigger than one tenth of an acre. After a couple of years, they succeeded in producing 6.000 pounds of organic fruit and vegetables a year, producing biodiesel to drive their cars and holding a city farm including bees, chickens, ducks and goats. All of this has enabled them to become “directly and indirectly self-sufficient” in a dense urban area, as they buy non-growable foods with income from their garden surplus which they sell to individuals and restaurants. The documentary closes with a quote from Dervaes, which, I think, is relevant for everyone on the planet, from struggling farmers in Africa and Asia to urban consumers in the West, as all our currently enslaved by the corporate food industry:

“In our society growing food yourself has become the most radical of acts. It is truly the only effective protest, one that can – and will – overturn the corporate powers that be. By the process of directly working in harmony with nature, we do one thing most essential to change the world: we change ourselves!”

We thus find ourselves at an important crossroads in history. Are we going to let Big Agra and the powers behind these companies use food as a weapon to rule over us, exactly as Henry Kissinger envisioned in his 1974 National Security Memorandum 200,[29] or are we going to, by growing our own crops and buying only organic food from local markets, set ourselves free and break the creeping monopolisation of the most basic necessity of life?

Urbean Homestead garden
The garden from the Dervaes family, fifteen minutes from downtown Los Angeles © The Urban Homestead

Notes

[1] William Engdahl, Seeds of destruction: the hidden agenda of genetic manipulation (Montréal: Global Research, 2007), 123-253.

[2] Union of Concerned Scientists, issue briefing to Failure to yield: evaluating the performance of genetically engineered crops (Cambridge, MA, July 2009), available at http://ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture/our-failing-food-system/genetic-engineering/failure-to-yield.html#.Wedp31u0PIV.

[3] Jack A. Heineman et al., “Sustainability and innovation in staple crop production in the US Midwest,” International Journal on Agriculture Sustainability 12, no. 1 (2014), published online on 14.06.2013, available at http://tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14735903.2013.806408.

[4] Quoted in Engdahl, Seeds of destruction, 244.

[5] National Academy of Sciences, Genetically engineered crops: experiences and prospects (Washington, DC, 2016), chapter 4: “Agronomic and environmental effects of genetically engineered crops,” 97-105, available at http://nap.edu/read/23395/chapter/7#104.

[6] Danny Hakim, “Doubts about the promised bounty of genetically modified crops,” New York Times, 29.10.2016, http://nytimes.com/2016/10/30/business/gmo-promise-falls-short.html.

[7] Hakim, “Doubts about the promised bounty of genetically modified crops.”

[8] Charles M. Benbrook, “Impacts of genetically engineered crops on pesticide use in the U.S. – the first sixteen years,” Environmental Sciences Europe, published on 28.09.2012, available at http://enveurope.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/2190-4715-24-24.

[9] Network of Concerned Farmers, Will GM crops yield more in Australia? (November 2004), quoted in Engdahl, Seeds of destruction, 241.

[10] Soil Association, Seeds of doubt: North American farmers’ experiences of GM crops (Bristol, September 2002), 57, available at http://orgprints.org/9041/1/Seeds_of_Doubt.pdf.

[11] Cover of Time magazine 156, no. 5 (July 2000), available at http://content.time.com/time/magazine/0,9263,7601000731,00.html.

[12] Quoted in Richard Lloyd Parry, “Clinton attacks Europe for moving too slowly over ‘safe’ GM food,” Independent, 23.07.2000, http://independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/clinton-attacks-europe-for-moving-too-slowly-over-safe-gm-food-707884.html.

[13] “Golden Rice ‘could save a million kids a year’,” GM Watch, section of “GM Myths,” last updated in May 2012, http://gmwatch.org/en/golden-rice-could-save-a-million-kids-a-year.

[14] World Health Organisation, “Micronutrient deficiencies: vitamin A deficiency,” http://who.int/nutrition/topics/vad/en/.

[15] Peter Foster, “Fortified rice to save millions of lives each year,” Telegraph, 14.05.2009, http://telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/5318253/Fortified-rice-to-save-millions-of-lives-each-year.html.

[16] Martin Enserink, “Tough lessons from Golden Rice,” Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education, http://fbae.org/2009/FBAE/website/news_tough-lessons-from-golden-rice.html.

[17] Lynn J. Cook, “Millions served,” Forbes, 23.12.2002, http://forbes.com/free_forbes/2002/1223/302.html.

[18] “Feeding Africa,” New Scientist, 27.05.2000, reprinted on GENTECH’s archive, http://gene.ch/gentech/2000/May/msg00138.html.

[19] Nuffield Council on Bioethics, The use of genetically modified corps in developing countries (London, 2003), 43, available at http://nuffieldbioethics.org/wp-content/uploads/GM-Crops-Discussion-Paper-2003.pdf.

[20] Gatonye Gathura, “Monsanto’s GE potato fails in Africa,” Organic Consumer Association, 29.01.2004, http://organicconsumers.org/old_articles/monsanto/africapotato020204.php.

[21] Aaron DeGrassi, Genetically modified drops and sustainable povery alleviation in Sub-Saharan Africa: an assessment of current evidence (Third World Network – Africa, June 2003), executive summary, I-II, available at http://biosafety-info.net/file_dir/1919248844e4526271.pdf.

[22] J.N. Pretty, et al., “Resource-conserving agriculture increases yields in developing countries,” Environmental Science & Technology 40, no. 4 (2006), 1118, available at http://pubs.acs.org/doi/pdf/10.1021/es051670d.

[23] Pretty, et al., “Recouce-conserving agriculture increases yields in developing countries,” 1114-5.

[24] UNEP and UNCTAD, Organic agriculture and food security in Africa (New York and Geneva: United Nations, 2008), 16, available at http://unctad.org/en/Docs/ditcted200715_en.pdf.

[25] UNEP and UNCTAD, executive summary to Organic agriculture and food security in Africa, VII-XI.

[26] William G. Moseley, “A risky solution for the wrong problem: why GMOs won’t feed the hungry of the world,” Geographical Review 107, no. 4 (2017), introduction, available at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gere.12259/full.

[27] As most of the article is behind the paywall, I refer to this quote via GM Watch, which has a review of the paper up on its site: “Why GMOs won’t feed the hungry of the world but agroecology can,” GM Watch, 20.07.2017, http://gmwatch.org/en/news/latest-news/17740-why-gmos-won-t-feed-the-hungry-of-the-world-but-agroecology-can.

[28] Urban Homestead, Homegrown Revolution (documentary, 2009), available at http://youtube.com/watch?v=7IbODJiEM5A&t=5s.

[29] Joseph Brewda, “Henry Kissinger’s 1974 plan for food control genocide,” Schiller Institute Food for Peace Movement, 08.12.1995, http://schillerinstitute.org/food_for_peace/kiss_nssm_jb_1995.html.