Is Genetically Modified Food Really the Answer to Food Security For All?
Recently we have heard a lot about food security particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia. Some western governments (especially USA) and institutions are encouraging African and Asian countries to produce genetically modified (GM) crops for the benefits of increasing crop yield, defeating malnutrition and increasing the income of farmers.
Others argue that poor farmers will be forced to buy expensive seeds that they cannot save for subsequent years. There is also the danger of releasing GM seeds into the wider environment, possibly contaminating non-GM crops, having a negative impact on biodiversity, insects and animals.
Unlike developing countries, many developing countries do not have regulations and biosafety infrastruture in place to protect human health.
What is genetic modification?
Any live cell can be genetically modified. The genetic modification of plants involve transferring DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), the genetic material, from a plant or bacterium or even animal, into different plant species. This unnatural technological process results in so called benefits such as the resistance to insects, which could be detrimental to human health and the environment. Much of the research conducted has been done by the corporations involved in the production of GM seeds and insecticides and so they emphasise benefits to farmers and supermarkets rather than the consumers.
For example, they emphasise the crops herbicide tolerance, resistance to insects and increased shelf life.
The Position in Europe
Consumers in Europe have protested strongly against GM farming on grounds of its impact on health and the environment, as well as insisting that labels on food products identify GM ingredients. The EU is under pressure from the World Trade Organisation and the Biotech industry has recently reached a milestone in that two corn seeds are soon to be approved for cultivation in Europe. Unlike Africa and Asia, Europe has a ‘precautionary principle’ incorporated in the Maastrict Treaty. This rule permits governments to impose restrictions on otherwise legitimate commercial activities, if there is a risk even if not yet scientifically demonstrated, of environmental damage.
The Approach to GM in the USA and Elsewhere
As many of the corporations producing GM seeds, technology and insecticides are American, it goes without saying that the USA is a leading producer of GM crops. Of the 200 million acres of GM crops produced globally, more than half is grown in the USA. The other top producers are Argentina, Canada, Brazil and China and the main crops produced are soya, maize, rape seed oil (canola), rice, squash and potato.
GM Technology in Africa
In 2009, it was reported that Nigeria’s National Biosafety Committee had approved field trials to grow GM cassava with increased nutrients, which will be less vulnerable to plant viruses and last longer than two days without processing.
South Africa, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Mali, Egypt and Uganda all have GM Research & Development capacity. Benin, Birkina Faso, Egypt, Kenya, Morocco, Senegal, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe have all conducted GM field trials. GM crops trialled in Africa include sweet potato, maize, cotton, soybean, pigeon peas, bananas and tobacco.
One of the most worrying aspects of GM technology is patenting, which generates huge income for those granted patents! Prior to the development of GM, patents on plants were not widely granted in the USA or Europe. Today in Europe the Patent Convention (EPC) explicitly forbids patents on plant or animal varieties.
In the USA however, hundreds of US patents in the plant biotechnology category have now been granted. Corporations with the most patents include Monsanto, Syngenta, Aventis, CropScience, and Dupont.
In order to use their GM technology a licence is required. Developing countries will not be able to export crops which have been produced with unlicensed patented technology regardless of whether the relevant patent rights have been granted in that country or not. The crops can however, be sold within the country of origin. Some of the Negative Impacts of GM Technology that have been Identified.
Despite claims of increased crop yield when GM technology is used, some farmers in Australia have reported 17% reduction in yield. This has been supported by the US Department of Agriculture which in April 2006, reported that the current available GM crops do not increase yield potential of hybrid varieties i.e. herbicide tolerant and insect resistant genes.
There have been outbreaks of secondary pests that cannot be killed by GM Bt insecticides which have rendered Bt cotton in China ineffective.
In March 2009, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (India) set up a special committee to study Mahyco’s (part owned by Monsanto) biosafety data from nine years of field trials of Bt brinjal (egg plant/aubergine), before approving commercial production. This was because the positive benefits claimed by Mahyco were disputed by independent studies. If approved, it would be the first time that a food crop with the BT gene inserted was available for direct consumption by humans (there has been numerous complaints that animals that grazed on Bt cotton have become ill and died in India).
In 2006 Prince Charles set up the charity Bhumi Vardaan to promote sustainable agriculture after visiting Punjab. Charles was concerned by what he found in what was once described as the bread basket of India, spiralling debt, declining income and increased infertility of the land. This had resulted in thousands of Indian farmers committing suicide. The crisis has been branded the GM genocide by campaigners. Charles claimed the issue of GM had become a ‘global moral question’ and that the time had come to end its unstoppable march.
It is worth noting that in the late 1980s under pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), India had opened its strongly protected economy and encouraged its farmers to switch to modern farming with hybrid seeds!
Farmers in some so-called developing countries, were choosing to grow GM crops such as Round-Up Ready Yellow Maize for poultry, rather than drought resistant white maize for human consumption.
Also, breeders could try to incorporate plant genetic resources into patent applications, which are indigenous to developing countries. This could require these countries to require a licence to grow or use patented plant resources, thus providing further income for the corporations.
Consumers, including vegans, vegetarians and some religious and faith groups, are concerned about the possible introduction of genes of animal origin into other animals and crops, for example non-kosher ingredient into kosher food, non-halal ingredient into meat, meat into a crop or pork into non-pork eating faith group foods.
Concern should be raised about the possibility of the introduction of GM crops into the environments in Africa which could render land previously fertile, infertile such has been the case in parts of India. Concerns should also be made about using sub-Saharan and Asian countries for experimental farming, rather than the West, and growing GM crops in these countries rather than the West for entry into the food chain of processed foods, particularly those destined for European consumption in products that do not require stringent labelling or is absent of labelling, such as the maize ‘pop corn’ in cinemas!!
Finally, one could argue that the growth of agri-business and cash crops in sub-Saharan Africa has contributed to local food scarcity – in that farmers are actually using land and resources to grow high quality food for westerners, rather than the local community.
By Malieka Robinson
(Local No. 111)