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Engineering Hunger

Andrew Kimbrell

1st May, 2003

In the penultimate extract from Fatal Harvest’s demolition of agribusiness disinformation, The Ecologist assesses the claim that biotechnology will solve industrial agriculture’s ills.

Myth number 6


BIOTECHNOLOGY WILL SOLVE THE PROBLEMS OF INDUSTRIAL AGRICULTURE


The truth: New biotech crops will not solve industrial agriculture’s problems, but will compound them and consolidate control of the world’s food supply in the hands of a few large corporations. Biotechnology will destroy biodiversity and food security, and drive self-sufficient farmers off their land.


The myths of industrial agriculture share one underlying and interwoven concept. They demand that we accept that technology always equals progress. This belief has often blinded us to the consequences of many farming technologies. Now, however, many people are asking some very logical questions. A given technology may be progress, but progress toward what? What future will that technology bring us? We see that pesticide technology is bringing us a future of cancer epidemics, toxic water and air, and the widespread destruction of biodiversity. We see that nuclear technology – used in our food in irradiation – is bringing us a future of undisposable nuclear waste, massive clean-up expenses and multiple threats to human and environmental health.


As a growing portion of society realises that pesticides, fertilisers, monoculturing and factory farming are little more than a fatal harvest, even the major agribusiness corporations are starting to admit that some problems exist. Their solution to the damage caused by the previous generation of agricultural technologies is – you guessed it – more technology. ‘Better’ technology, biotechnology, a technology that will fix the problems caused by chemically intensive agriculture.


In short, the myth makers are back at work. But looking past the rhetoric, a careful examination of the new claims about genetic engineering reveals that instead of solving the problems of modern agriculture, biotechnology only makes them worse.


WILL BIOTECHNOLOGY FEED THE WORLD?

In an attempt to convince consumers to accept food biotechnology, the biotech industry has relentlessly pushed the myth that it will conquer world hunger. This claim rests on two fallacies: that people are hungry because there is not enough food produced in the world; and that genetic engineering increases food productivity.


In reality, the world produces more than enough to feed its current population. The hunger problem lies not with the amount of food being produced, but with how it is distributed. Too many people are simply too poor to buy the food that is available, and too few people have the land or the financial capability to grow food for themselves. The result is starvation. If biotech corporations really wanted to feed the hungry they would encourage land reform, which could put farmers back on the land, and they would push for wealth redistribution, which could allow the poor to buy food.


The claim that genetic engineering boosts food production is arguably even more mendacious. Currently, there are two principal types of biotechnology seeds in production: herbicide-resistant and ‘pest’-resistant seeds. Monsanto makes Roundup Ready seeds, which are engineered to withstand the firm’s Roundup herbicide. The seeds – usually for soya beans, cotton or canola – allow farmers to apply the herbicide in ever greater amounts without killing the crops. Monsanto and other companies also produce Bt seeds – usually for corn, potatoes and cotton – that are engineered so that each plant produces its own insecticide.


Independent research shows that these genetically engineered types of seed do not actually increase overall crop yields. A two-year study by University of Nebraska researchers showed that growing herbicide-resistant soya beans actually resulted in lower productivity than that achieved with conventional soya beans. These results confirmed the findings of Dr Charles Benbrook, the former director of the Board on Agriculture at the US’s National Academy of Sciences. His work looked at more than 8,200 field trials and showed that Roundup Ready seed produced fewer bushels of soya beans than natural varieties.


Far from being an answer to world hunger, genetic engineering could be a major contributor to starvation. There are currently more than a dozen patents on genetically engineered ‘terminator’ technology. These seeds are engineered by biotech companies to produce a sterile seed after a single growing season. This ensures that farmers cannot save their seed and that they will have to buy from corporations every season instead. Does anyone believe that the solution to world hunger is to make the crops of the world sterile? With more than half of the world’s farmers relying on saved seeds for their harvest, imagine the mass starvation that would result should the sterility genes escape from the engineered crops and contaminate non–genetically engineered local crops, unintentionally sterilising them. According to a study by Martha Crouch of Indiana University, such a chilling scenario is a very real possibility.


WILL BIOTECHNOLOGY PROTECT THE EARTH?

The idea that biotechnology is beneficial to the environment centres on the myth that it will reduce pesticide use by creating plants resistant to insects and other pests. Research by the US government has already disproved this claim. A study by the US Department of Agriculture in 2000 revealed that there is no overall reduction in pesticide use with genetically engineered crops.


And even as it does nothing to alleviate the chemical pollution crisis, biotech food brings its own very different pollution hazard: biological and genetic pollution. In 2000, researchers at Purdue University in Indiana found that the release of only a few genetically engineered fish into a large native fish population could make the original species extinct in only a few generations. While scientists at Cornell University discovered that the pollen from Bt corn could be fatal to the monarch butterfly and other beneficial insects. Furthermore, the US’s Union of Concerned Scientists has shown that genetically engineered Bt crops could lead to pests becoming resistant to Bt. This non-chemical pesticide is essential to organic and conventional farmers throughout the country. If plant pests developed a resistance to it, it could fatally undermine organic farming in the US.


Another significant environmental issue with genetically engineered foods is that the crops are notoriously difficult to control. They can migrate, mutate and cross-pollinate with other plants. If a pest- or herbicide-resistant strain were to spread from crops to weeds a ‘super-weed’ could result. Overall, the environmental threat of biotechnology caused 100 top scientists to warn that its careless use could lead to irreversible, devastating damage to the environment.

 

WILL BIOTECHNOLOGY PRODUCE SAFE FOOD?

The biotech industry claims that it is bringing a whole new generation of healthier and safer foods to the market. Yet US government scientists say the genetic engineering of foods could make safe foods toxic. Genetically engineered foods may contain both old and new allergens that could create serious reactions in millions of consumers. Biotech foods can also have lower nutritional values. In 1999 the British Medical Association recommended banning importing unlabelled genetically modified organisms because of the potential health risks. What makes these risks all the more alarming is that the US government requires no mandatory safety testing or labelling of  any genetically engineered foods. As a result we have no assurance on the safety of these foods and no way to trace adverse reactions. Far from improving the safety of our food supply, biotechnology is creating new, unique health risks.


IS BIOTECHNOLOGY CHEAP AND EFFICIENT?

Biotech companies have spent billions of dollars researching the effects of inserting fish genes into tomatoes, firefly genes into tobacco plants, human genes into farm animals, and creating thousands of other transgenic organisms. It has taken thousands of trials just to come up with herbicide-resistant crops that lead to lower yields and greater chemical use. Biotechnology has yet to bring to market a single product that actually benefits consumers. As companies pass on the enormous costs of their research, why should the public pay more for biotech foods that offer no advantages and only risks?


The biotechnology industry continues to promote itself as the ultimate panacea for all the problems of industrial agriculture. A review of its real impacts reveals that it is not an antidote to modern agriculture but rather simply a continuation and exacerbation of today’s food production crisis. Biotechnology increases environmental degradation, causes new food safety risks and threatens to increase world hunger. It is not the solution, but a major part of the problem n


Reprinted with permission from Fatal Harvest: the tragedy of industrial agriculture, edited by Andrew Kimbrell, distributed by Island Press, www.islandpress.org.

 

This article first appeared in the Ecologist May 2003

 

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