by Lucy Sharratt and Taarini Chopra
While we all agree that world hunger is a problem we must act upon, agreeing on the solution is far more difficult. The world’s largest seed and biotech companies want us to believe that genetic engineering – also called genetic modification or GM – is necessary to meet the challenge of world hunger. Many agribusiness sectors argue that their business models and new technologies are key to “feeding the world,” as well as to solving our global climate and energy crises.
At the Biomarine Business Conference last month in Halifax, the “Aquaculture Business Perspectives” panel’s information included the statement: “With world population expected to increase by more than two billion by 2050, more food will be consumed in the next 50 years than in the whole of human history. According to aquaculture business leaders, including Henry Clifford, Vice President of Marketing and Sales at AquaBounty, the company that wants approval to sell its GM salmon for fish farming, “Feeding the world will become our most important and pressing global priority.”
Corporations are using the moral imperative to “feed the world” to justify their controversial products and ease government regulation. It’s a compelling argument. In Halifax, Clifford used it to promote what he called “historically groundbreaking advances,” such as AquaBounty’s fast-growing GM fish. He told conference participants, “We cannot allow the technophobes and Luddites to impede this work. We will need every biotech available.”
Is Clifford right? Do we need every technology, including every biotechnology, to solve the problem of world hunger? GM has failed so far to solve any measure of hunger and yet industry continues to promise new GM products for the future. We may question whether this future can ever become a reality, but first we need to ask if we need GM at all.
GM crops are not “serving” the poor now. Currently, 85% of planted GM crops are engineered to be tolerant to herbicides and the rest are insect resistant. The four major GM crops – corn, canola, soy and cotton – with the small exception of some sweetcorn, are developed for large-scale industrial farming and are cash crops for processed food ingredients, animal feed and even biofuel. They are not designed to suit the needs of small-scale farmers and none actually go towards feeding hungry people. Additionally, with the exception of GM cotton in India, the poor are not growing GE crops. The US, Brazil and Argentina grow 76% of the world’s GM crops, with huge pesticide-dependent soybean farms, for animal feed, dominating South America’s GE production.
When small farmers in the global south plant GM crops, they pay a high price if something goes wrong. In India, for example, GM cotton requires investments in seeds and chemicals, but yields have been unpredictable. GM cotton crop failures have been attributed to poor quality seeds, susceptibility to pests and the fact that the technology, developed in the US, is poorly adapted to local environmental conditions. In the state of Andhra Pradesh, where land-holdings are small, soils are marginal and unpredictable monsoons are the only source of water. The government estimates that 3.3 of the 4.7 million acres of GM cotton in 2011 had a yield loss of more than 50%. Farmers who take out loans to buy seed are unable to repay them and are pushed deeper into a cycle of poverty. Over a quarter of a million farmers in India have committed suicide in the past 15 years. If this staggering figure doesn’t mark the failure of GE crops to help the poor, what does?
As it happens, we already produce enough food to feed everyone, enough for 10 billion people (Eric Holt-Giménez, 2012). How is it possible that the world produces 17% more food per person than it did 30 years ago and yet the number of hungry people has increased? The claim that GM seeds and animals are needed to feed the world neglects the root problem: that hunger is caused by poverty.
People are hungry for many reasons: They do not have money to buy food. They do not have access to land to grow their own food. The problems are complex, including poor food distribution systems, food wastage and a lack of reliable water and infrastructure for irrigation, storage, transport and financing. If social, economic and political problems are not addressed and as long as food is not reaching those who are hungry and poor, increased agricultural production will not help reduce food insecurity anywhere in the world. Hunger is a social justice problem, not a supply problem.
In answer to the question, “Who will feed us?” ETC Group has most recently calculated that the industrial food chain uses about 70% of the world?s agricultural resources to produce just 30% of our global food supply. In contrast, the ‘peasant’ food web provides 70% of all the food eaten by people, using only 30% of the resources, via urban agriculture, hunting and gathering, fishing and farming.
This diversity of production is not part of the corporate vision for our future. The same six companies that control all the GM seeds in the world – Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, Bayer, Dow and BASF – also control 75% of all private sector plant breeding research, 60% of the commercial seed market and 76% of global agrochemical sales (ETC Group 2013). The cost of feeding ourselves with this technology is, at the very least, surrendering our future control over seeds. The alternative is local control over seeds that are adapted to our environments and which make the most efficient use of local resources.
The reality is the world’s three billion or so indigenous and peasant producers – rural and urban, fishers and pastoralists – not only feed a majority of the world’s people now, but also create and conserve most of the world’s biodiversity. It is clearly peasants who will feed us, not corporations.
Lucy Sharratt is the coordinator at Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN). Taarini Chopra is a researcher at CBAN. For references, see www.cban.ca/Resources/Topics/Feeding-the-World and www.cban/cotton