Why GM Food Won't Feed The World

Merrick, 11th March 2001ce

When biotech giant Monsanto did their massive advertising campaign for GM food in Britain in 1998, they said ‘slowing its acceptance is a luxury our hungry world cannot afford’.

Having sensed that public concern about genetically modified (GM) food was not going to go away, Monsanto had employed the services of Burson Marsteller, a PR company specialising in 'greenwash'. Rather than simply being the usual environmental debate of a clash of priorities and paradigms, they shifted it right over to the moral plain. They told us GM foods are necessary to feed the world, and people campaigning against it were therefore wanting to starve people out of idiotic anti-scientific emotive selfishness. The slogan for their full-page newspaper ads was 'Food - Health - Hope'.

While those adverts were running there was a meeting of the UN Food And Agricultural Organisation about genetic resources. Delegates from 24 African countries gave a joint statement saying ‘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 do not believe that such companies or gene technologies will help our farmers to produce the food that is needed in the 21st century. On the contrary, we think it will destroy 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’.

In India farmers have been burning the GM crops (then having a whip-round to compensate the farmer who was growing it). Major charities to who feed the starving oppose GM. I saw a guy from Christian Aid win a debate with a guy from Monsanto on Channel 4 News. The Chief Executive of Action Aid said ‘Rather than reducing world hunger, genetic engineering is likely to exacerbate it. Farmers will be caught in a vicious circle, increasingly dependent on a small number of giant multinationals, such as Monsanto, for their survival’.

We have to look at why people are starving in these countries. The UN World Food Programme reports that the world already produces 150% of the food required to provide every single human with an adequate and nutritious diet. Remember the Ethiopian famine in the mid 80s? At that time Europe was importing coffee, meat, fruit, vegetables for humans and linseed, oilseed rape, and cottonseed as animal feed.

The growing global corporate power demands that money is made from anything that it can be made from. If a farmer in India grows wheat and uses it to feed his family, saving some as seed for next year’s crop, then no money moves around.

In the same way that the pharmaceutical industry ridicule any method of healing that doesn’t depend on their overpriced drugs, so the biotech companies are ridiculing any food production that doesn’t at least use their chemicals (and preferably GM stuff), while making overblown claims about the effectiveness of their products.

Perhaps most interestingly, GM crops seem not to be delivering the hugely increased yields their makers promised, and almost invariably cannot survive with just a single dose of pesticides. Data collected from farmers in the USA has shown many to have a drop in yield compared to growing the non-GM crop. The GM companies are now no longer trying to say they're improving yields, and are struggling to show they aren't decreasing yields!

The first GM food put on sale was the Flavr Savr tomato. It was engineered to ripen longer on the vine and still be hard enough for picking, packing and transport. It has been withdrawn because it bruised easily, produced a lower yield than non-GM, and wasn’t disease-resistant. When Monsanto brought out BT Cotton it promised resistance to bollworm. Nearly half of the two million acres planted in the southern USA suffered heavy infestation. A group of the Texan growers are suing Monsanto. That’s all well and good if you’re an American who can afford to sue. If you’re a Bangladeshi farmer you probably can’t afford lawyers and your family will starve. In the ex-Soviet republic of Georgia, Monsanto’s New Leaf potatoes lost two-thirds of the entire crop to a disease called phytophora (‘potato blight’) because they were not suited to local conditions. Many of those farmers are still in debt.

What actually works best in any country is small-scale farming of native crops. UN figures show this time and again, all around the world. In Asia, figures for Syria show farms between 1 and two and a half acres are over 3 times as productive as farms over 35 acres. A similar study in Nigeria has the small farms over 4 times as productive. In Mexico the UN found farms of 7-10 acres were over 12 times as productive as farms of 37 acres. This is because small farms tend to produce several crops at once, thus reducing nutrient depletion. They’re more likely to compost any waste, they use all the land (eg shrimps, crabs, and herbs cultivated in rice paddies), and a whole load of stuff that agri-business simply cannot effectively do.

And small-scale farms mean lots of different strains of crops being grown, thus protecting against the vulnerability so clearly demonstrated by the GM crops like Flavr Savr, BT Cotton and New Leaf. The Irish potato famine was due to a blight that swept across Europe, because Europe mainly grew a few strains of closely-related potato. The same blight was present in the Andes, but there the farmers plant as many as 46 varieties, and the blight only affected a few. The European farms were restocked from potatoes from Andean farmers. Maybe we should try learning from the mistakes of the past instead of saying it’s essential to repeat them.

Because they can single out genes, the GM corporations like to imply that they know what the genes do. This is as ludicrous as saying that because I can separate my VCR from my TV I therefore know the function and effect of my VCR’s components.

Genes are not Lego bricks, they recombine in different ways. One GM product is a potato with a lectin gene in (from snowdrops). In lab tests on rats, potatoes with lectin added had no effect. Potatoes with the lectin gene caused dramatic and severe organ shrinkage, leading to death in a matter of days. Whether such effects translate to humans is anyone’s guess (vivisection has a long history of being wrong – Thalidomide, anyone?), but it clearly establishes that gene-splicing is a different thing than just adding the two parts together. A lighted match and petrol do not just make petrol with a match in.

And if we don’t suffer the potato-famine model of a disease on one crucial crop, we may create the blight; a crop that spreads far beyond its cultivated fields. Weed-resistant plants crossing with another hardy weed (pollen can travel 3 miles and more); this plant then infests our food crops, or the food supply of a crucial part of the ecological jigsaw is wiped out.

Or if, as with GM potatoes and rats, there’s an unforeseen effect on human health from a bad genetic mix. A strain of GM tomato contains a nut gene; no substance of nut, just a genetic code. It causes allergic reaction in people with nut allergies. According to our understanding of genetics this simply cannot happen. But it does. They really do not know what they are doing, they are like a room full of babies with a box of scalpels.

Monsanto are the same company that gave the world Agent Orange, the carcinogenic sweetener Canderel and the cow-growth hormone BST that has been linked to a mass of health problems.

The corporations don’t want to feed people. They want to make money. What makes them money is selling their wares around the world, and it’s a lot easier to do that to giant agri-businesses than to subsistence smallholders. If that means that some people starve then they’ll live with it.

Monsanto are developing a ‘terminator’ gene that means seeds from a plant are sterile, thus forcing a farmer to buy from them again next year. The Monsanto guy I saw on Channel 4 News was embarrassed about this and say it’s just at the idea stage and probably won’t happen; the guy from Christian Aid could quote Monsanto’s patent numbers for it. Companies don’t patent for the fun of paperwork and paying lawyers. Unless it is banned then the Terminator gene will be used.

How is that going to feed the world? How is that anything more than cynical enslavement? Biotech company Novartis have a patented technique that turns off genes that are critical to a plant’s ability to fight off many viruses and bacteria; the only way to turn them back on is to spray a chemical only made by Novartis. Zeneca has patents pending in 77 countries for its ‘Verminator’ technology that makes a plant’s germination and growth dependent on a chemical cocktail sold only by Zeneca. This isn’t chemistry to add assistance – this is chemistry to reverse inbuilt weakness. There is no possible benefit to the farmer or consumer.

We know, not only from all the hard evidence I've quoted from the UN and the GM companies themselves, but from the evidence of our own lives that life is best organised by those who have to live with the consequences. The nearer that power over the life of you and your community is to the will of you and your community, the better life is. The corporations and their PR people (such as politicians) are not there to help us. The advent of GM foods proves this clearly and unarguably.

Make no mistake, their ‘feed the world’ line is a lie. They know many people have an intrinsic faith in technology and Western science. It’s cynical posturing and devious marketing. Science, capitalism and professional politics, like most religions, present themselves as solutions to the problems they create.