Genetically modified crops are hailed by their proponents as the basis for a “new green revolution”, and as the key solution to feeding the world in the face of population growth and the exhaustion of new sources of agricultural land. There is a massive volume of research and research literature around genetically modified crops, but how much of it is really of value in assessing this often heard hypothesis about “GM is needed to feed the world?”
This review of selected pertinent peer reviewed articles recognises that food shortage is a complex problem, impacted as much by social and economic factors as by agricultural productivity, and that narrow emphasis on technical solutions is inadequate to address it. It argues that genetically modified crops do not address core agricultural ecological sustainability issues such as biodiversity loss, soil and water degradation, reliance on petroleum and its byproducts, nor do they address the problem of inherently unstable food systems based on monoculture cropping, high inputs and concentration of land ownership and of agricultural input and output marketing. Furthermore, research resources are being monopolised by the centralised, privately marketable industrial-biotechnology approach to agricultural intensification at the expense of research into the knowledge based and socially embedded agro-ecological approach. This review concludes that if we are to feed the world in a sustainable way, technological refinements of a business as usual approach cannot be sufficient. Rather than being marginalised in agricultural research and policy making, a holistic agroecological approach — from food system level to agroecosystem level to field level — should receive first priority, and should provide the context for ongoing research into crop improvement, including the use of high technology methods.
Global food crisis
The global situation of food security and agricultural sustainability is routinely characterised as a crisis. Of an approximate world population of seven billion people, one billion people are estimated to be undernourished. Global population continues to grow, and is estimated to stabilise at around nine billion around 2050. Climate change is resulting in hotter, drier weather and more erratic weather patterns, desert areas are expanding, clearing pressure is increasing on remaining wilderness areas, and large areas of existing agricultural land face soil degradation and erosion. It is clear that the global food system is under stress and that this stress can be expected to increase significantly in the coming decades.
Such a background of food scarcity and ecological degradation is the chosen context of much of the discourse around agricultural research and its methods, priorities and applications. Agriculture, as the provider of the basic necessity of food, must be sustainable in the face of population growth and global ecological limits if human society itself is to be sustainable. Over recent decades, a divide between competing paradigms in approaching the question of sustainable agriculture has crystallised (Vanloqueren & Baret, 2009).
The dominant, conventional paradigm, which commands a great majority of global agricultural research publications and research money, has a focus on private technological products to increase agricultural production, and takes the existing industrialised, transnational market food system as a given. From the perspective of this paradigm, genetically modified (GM) crops are the key to feeding the world — they are promoted as having the potential to greatly increase yields in a “new green revolution” with impact on the scale of the “Green Revolution” of the 1960s, which was based on the technological innovations of high yielding hybrid grain varieties and synthetic fertilisers and pesticides.
On the other hand, there is a marginalised but emerging paradigm of agricultural science that takes a very different view, re-embedding agriculture in a social and ecological context and bringing structural features of the food system itself into the line of inquiry. The “technology” broadly advocated by this paradigm cannot be encapsulated in proprietary products, but is instead a knowledge based technology, a synthesis of agronomy and ecology that is widely referred to simply as agroecology.
This paper will review the argument for GM crops as the key solution for food security, and examine an alternative focus as exemplified by a major international assessment of the state of agricultural science and technology in a development context, which calls for systemic changes to the food system, agricultural research and agricultural practice.
The spectre of food shortage and the magic bullet solution
The literature is awash with articles presenting repetitions of an argument that more rapid adoption of GM crops will save the world from starvation. There are of course nuances and variations, but the key rhetorical devices are the Malthusian spectre of starving masses and unmixed optimism in regard to interpretation of existing results and envisioning of future potentials of GM crops. There may be passing reference to issues of poverty and inequitable distribution in global markets, but such structural influences on hunger are not explored. Alternative agricultural strategies are much more likely to be ignored or glibly brushed aside than seriously critiqued. Technical successes of biotechnology, both real and potential, are emphasised in the comparative or even absolute absence of the socio-economic and ecological context of the poor smallholders most threatened by poverty and attendant food scarcity.
A fairly typical example of the arguments framing GM crops as a “pro-poor” technology is Farre et al’s 2010 review of the subject, which states that “plant biotechnology is not a magic bullet” before laying out an argument that seems to strongly imply that it is. The technical effectiveness of herbicide resistance and toxicity to certain insect pests, nutrional alterations, and the (unrealised) potential for abiotic stress resistance and the production of novel plant products such as pharmaceuticals is enumerated, without reference to data supporting actual yield increases, or any discussion of the relative merits of plant biotechnology versus other tools or actions. Economic access to high technology products by the poor is not addressed. The vexed issue of patents on living organisms is dealt with by stating that “In developing countries, many key technologies for biotechnology products appear to be unprotected….The donation of intellectual property for humanitarian purposes in developing countries is therefore a realistic prospect”. The key problem then, as this article see it, is that the regulatory environment is too restrictive because of a lack of political will to facilitate GM crop uptake, and the key solution is “the global harmonisation of regulation” (Farre et al, 2010). An obvious contradiction here is that such global harmonisation would presumably harmonise with the pro-GM, strong Intellectual Property Rights regulatory framework as found in the US, and would surely bring to an end any situation where “key technologies for biotechnology products appear to be unprotected” in the developing world.
Critical reappraisal of GM success stories in the developing world
While the above is but one example of moralistic championing of GM crops as the way to feed the world in the absence of substantial yield data to back this assertion, there are a good number of studies appearing to support significant yield gains, improvements in pest management and reductions in pesticide use in developing country agriculture. However, a critical look at the data to date indicates that results, particularly in a developing world context, are mixed and equivocal.
An in-depth review of reports of the use of Bt cotton in China, India and South Africa shows that there have often been small and apparently selective samples of farmers surveyed, and that multiple papers have been published rehashing different discussions based on the same underlying data sets. Furthermore, results show that while an increase in average yields on an aggregate level can be demonstrated, there has been a high degree of variability between regions and farmers and across seasons, with significant numbers of farmers losing out on their investment in the more expensive seeds. As for pesticide use, some studies did show a reduction, but others showed no significant impact or increases in pesticide use, including in response to major outbreaks of secondary insect pests in China. Such inconvenient facts fail to dampen the enthusiasm and biased slant of presentation of peer-reviewed articles in respected journals. For example, in a paper entitled “Reductions in Insecticide Use from Adoption of Bt Cotton in South Africa: Impacts on Economic Performance and Toxic Load to the Environment”, the researchers had actually calculated that the total toxic load to the environment in the Makhathini Flats in fact rose over the first three seasons of Bt cotton adoption! (Glover, 2010)
Similarly, an “evidence based” review of the alleged connection between Bt cotton adoption and farmer suicides in India concluded there was no evidence for such allegations, despite finding that there had in fact been poor performance in some areas that had in fact coincided with local spikes in farmer suicides. The review reasoned that such failures were unrelated to the Bt trait itself and were rather a result of poor performance of the base cotton hybrid in which the trait was inserted and of poor marketing practices. Such arguments that treat the GM trait as somehow disconnected from the socio-economic and agronomic context in which it is adopted are routinely encountered, and allow successes to be attributed to the technical effectiveness of the trait, while failures can be put down to the social, environmental and institutional context in which it was used (Glover 2010).
A review of the impact of rapid adoption of GM crops in South America found that far from reducing pesticide use, the introduction of crops, particularly soybeans, that rely on broadscale glyphosate application as a routine management strategy, has been associated with increased pesticide use, an alarming increase in pesticide related deaths in Paraguay and major outbreaks of glyphosate resistant weeds in Argentina and Brazil, resulting in increased use of more toxic herbicides. Meanwhile, the rapid expansion of industrial agriculture as facilitated by GM crops has resulted in accelerated land grabs and clearing of rainforest in the Amazon basin (Richards 2010). As for the key promise of relief of hunger and poverty, South America’s experience with large scale uptake of GM crops has failed to deliver demonstrable benefits in this regard, with persistent poverty and income inequality (Richards 2010).
The IAASTD report, its implications and its suppression
The International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) was a multi-disciplinary review of international agricultural systems sponsored by the World Bank and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and other United Nations affiliated organisations, tasked with assessing agriculture’s capacity for feeding a growing population and supporting sustainable development. Its report, based on four years of work by over 400 authors working through a democratic bureau process and ratified by 57 nations in 2008, called for root and branch changes to the world food system, specifically stating that “business as usual is not an option.”
Two of the leading authors (Ishii-Eitman & Ching, 2008) summarise the IAASTD report’s key findings as follows:
- Agriculture involves far more than yields: it has multiple social, political, cultural, institutional and environmental impacts and can equally harm or support the planet’s ecosystem functions on which human life depends.
- The future of agriculture lies in biodiverse, agroecologically based farming and can be supported by ‘triple-bottom-line’ business practices that meet social, environmental and economic goals.
- Reliance on resource-extractive industrial agriculture is unsustainable, particularly in the face of worsening climate, energy and water crises; expensive, short-term technical fixes – including transgenic crops – do not adequately address the complex challenges of the agricultural sector and often exacerbate social and environmental harms.
- Achieving food security and sustainable livelihoods for people now in chronic poverty requires ensuring access to and control of resources by small-scale farmers.
- Fair local, regional and global trading regimes can build local economies, reduce poverty and improve livelihoods.
- Strengthening the human and ecological resilience of agricultural systems improves our capacity to respond to changing environmental and social stresses. Indigenous knowledge and community-based innovations are an invaluable part of the solution.
- Good decision-making requires building better governance mechanisms and ensuring democratic participation by the full range of stakeholders.
Instead of moving to act upon the report’s recommendations or even seriously addressing or debating the fundamental issues the report raised, the World Bank and FAO and other key organisations have ignored the report and denigrated its legitimacy, from the FAO’s High Level Food Summit in Rome in 2008, two months after the report’s ratification by 57 governments (Ishii-Eitman & Ching 2008) through to the present day. The acute food crisis of 2007-2008 and ongoing poverty and malnutrition provide evidence of structural failure of the dominant market-centric organisational and institutional agricultural framework. Perversely, key international institutions and influential agricultural development foundations continue to offer intensification of this same framework and its technologies as the solution (McMichael & Schneider, 2011). This situation is a classic manifestation of the Einsteinian aphorism that “you cannot solve a problem with the same level of thinking that created it”.
The globalised market driven approach transforms food into a global commodity that responds to monetary demand, not social need. It sees the poorest consumers in direct competition for basic grain foods with rich consumers, the intensive meat industry, and now biofuels manufacturers. Meanwhile, the poorest farmers are increasingly pressured to enter export markets, reducing the availability of locally grown food for local consumption or self consumption, hence increasing vulnerability to food shortage in response to price fluctuations (McMichael & Schneider, 2011).
As outlined in the IAASTD report, the world needs to look outside the square of industrial agriculture and world markets, and focus on local food system resilience to achieve sustainable food adequacy and the alleviation of poverty.
The marginalisation of development of agroecological innovation
While genetic engineering and agroecological engineering have developed as scientific disciplines over approximately the same time-frame of recent decades, genetic engineering has dominated research prioritisation and research funding throughout this period. Although recent international analyses of agriculture including the IAASTD have clearly established the need for a much higher priority to be placed on agroecology, research money and research publications continue to be dominated by genetic engineering with little sign of a change in this balance (Vanloqueren & Baret 2009).
There are a range of interconnected factors driving this disparity, none of them relating to the actual merit of the respective paradigms. For a start, underlying agricultural science policies are driven by a transnational market focus, heavily influenced by industry through very well funded lobby organisations and the promotion of public-private partnerships, and shaped by public, media and NGO perceptions which focus on genetic engineering (whether potential benefits or risks) rather than consideration of agroecology as an alternative (Vanloqueren & Baret, 2009).
Private sector research is naturally oriented towards the development of patentable and marketable product technologies, not on knowledge intensive technologies. Public sector research in turn is influenced not only by increasing reliance on the private sector, but also by entrenched assumptions that the most likely (if not necessarily the most desirable) course of agricultural development is a continuation of industrialised, high input, monoculture based, market driven approaches, a paradigm that genetic engineering fits perfectly, but agroecology fundamentally challenges. The same is true in regard to genetic engineering’s comfortable fit into the reductionist and specialist scientific paradigm that still dominates in research institutions (Vanloqueren & Baret, 2009).
The ‘successes’ of genetically modified crops to date in terms of yield increases are much more equivocal than their advocates claim, and the promise of GM crops that effectively resist abiotic stresses such as drought remains unrealised. Most importantly, the technology has been married to a market-industrial paradigm of agriculture characterised by ever increasing concentration of land ownership, germplasm ownership and agricultural input and output marketing ownership. This industrial model relies heavily on the finite and non-renewable resource of petroleum, and is accelerating landlessness, urbanisation, wilderness clearing, ecotoxicity, agricultural carbon and nitrogen emissions and soil and water degradation. Moreover, its basic structural features place the poorest consumers and farmers at further disadvantage. Its fundamental assumptions need to be seriously questioned as the world seeks solutions for hunger.
The IAASTD report emphasises the need for a holistic, multi-disciplinary and multi-factorial approach to food systems, and places agroecology front and centre as an appropriate technology for sustainable agriculture. The massive worldwide investment in biotechnology, to the relative exclusion of other research and development trajectories, would only be justifiable if GM crops were a panacea in their own right. While increased investment in agriculture is needed, the priorities of investment need to be urgently re-thought from the ground up, from the context of true public interest and the universal right to food. The emphasis needs to move away from private marketable goods and towards agroecological research, participatory extension services with a social mandate and free from industry influence, and participatory, localised plant breeding programs that give farmers control of improved plant genetics.
- Farre, G., Ramessar, K., Twyman, R. M., Capell, T., & Christou, P. (2010). The humanitarian impact of plant biotechnology: recent breakthroughs vs bottlenecks for adoption. Current Opinion in Plant Biology, 13, 219-225.
- Glover, D. (2010). Exploring the resilience of Bt cotton’s ‘pro-poor success story’. Development and Change, 41 (6), 955–981.
- Ishii-Eitman, M., & Ching, L. L. (2008). The IAASTD review. Development 51 (4), 570-573.
- McMichael, P., & Schneider, M. (2011). Food security politics and the Millennium Development Goals. Third World Quarterly, 13 (1), 119-139.
- Richards, D. G. (2010). Contradictions of the ‘new green revolution’: a view from South America’s Southern Cone. Globalizations, 7 (4), 563-576.
- Vanloqueren, G., & Baret, P. V. (2009) How agricultural research systems shape a technological regime that develops genetic engineering but locks out agroecological innovations. Research Policy, 38, 971-983