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?