Are biotech crops a moral choice?
Irish Farmers Journal (Letters), 6 September 2008 [via GM-free Ireland]
In your editorial in the Irish Farmers Journal, 28 August 2008, you claim that 'this technology has huge potential for improvement, so we can only come to the conclusion that it would be immoral to ban or block its development.' Like many other promoters of biotech crops, who use a moral argument to tip the scale, you do not develop your argument.
The most common argument from proponents of GM crops is that genetically engineered food will be necessary to feed a growing world population. They argue that, if the world population continues to grow, it will be necessary to increase crop yield by new technologies, such as genetic engineering.
There is very little evidence to support this argument. In fact, most of the data points in the opposite direction. In 2003, Aaron deGrassi, a researcher at the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex University, published an analysis of the GM crops which biotech companies are developing for Africa.
These included cotton, maize and sweet potato. He discovered that conventional breeding and ecological management produced a far higher yield, at a fraction of the cost of genetic engineering. At that time, the GM research on sweet potato was approaching its 12th year. 12 scientists were involved and the project had already cost â‚¬6m. The result indicated that the yield had increased by 18%.
On the other hand, conventional sweet potato breeding, working with a much smaller budget, had produced a virus-resistant variety with 100%. More importantly for small, subsistence farmers, the non-transgenic sweet potato had not been patented. [GMW: It also emerged subsequent to deGrassi's report that the final trial results showed the GM sweet potato had failed completely in term sof both virus resistance and increasing yields.]
A 2007 study, conducted by Kansas State University agronomist Dr Barney Gordon over the past three years, suggests that the yield from RoundupReady soya was 9% less than conventional varieties. A report from the United States Department of Agriculture stated in April 2006 that currently available GM crops do not increase the yield potential of a hybrid variety. In fact, yield may even decrease if the varieties used to carry the herbicide tolerant or insect resistant genes are not the highest yielding cultivars.
If GM crops are vital for combating hunger, it seems strange that they have not been endorsed by the Food Security Report from the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) published in 2008.
This report is a collaboration between public bodies such as the World Bank, the United Nations Environment Programme, the World Health Organisation and representatives from governments, NGOs and scientific bodies. It is a thorough sifting of the evidence about agriculture, food production and security, running to 2,500 pages. It took four years to complete, and invoved the work of 400 scientists.
The report does not endorse the claim that GM crops will feed the world. It argues that a drastic change in agricultural practices will be necessary in order to counteract soaring food prices, hunger, social inequality and environmental degradation.
It maintains that GM crops are controversial, and that they will not play a substantial role in addressing the challenge of climate change, loss of biodiversity, food security, poverty and hunger. It did not rule out a role for GM crops in the future, but highlighted the problems which the current regime of patenting seeds has on farmers and researchers.
Hans Herren, the co-chair of IAASTD, believes that small scale farmers need to be given access to better knowledge, appropriate technologies, geared to farming in their locations, as well as more credit.
They also need better roads to get their produce to markets. All of these recommendations were clear to me during my years working among the T'boli people in the Phillippines in the 1980s.
Robert Watson, the director of the IAASTD, and chief scientist at the UK Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, responded to a question from the Daily Mail Are GM crops the simple answer to hunger and poverty? with the words I would argue, no.
The report concludes that 'Assesment of the technology lags behind its development, information is anecdotal and contradictory, and uncertainty about possible benefits and damage is unavoidable.'
The GM lobby often accuses those opposed to GM as being anti-science. Nothing is further from the truth.
Robert Watson has pointed out that 'investment in agriculture science has decreased, yet we urgently need sustainable ways to produce food. Incentives for science to address the issues that matter to the poor are weak.'
Fr. SeÃ¡n McDonagh, SCC.
Note from GM-free Ireland:
Fr. SeÃ¡n McDonagh is a Dominican missionary priest and the author of the book Patenting Life? Stop! Is corporate greed forcing us to eat genetically modified food? Dominican Publications, Dublin, 2003. ISBN 1-871552-85-0. â‚¬ 14.99 www.dominicanpublications.com