Expert report shows that GE won't feed the world
Biotechnology companies developing genetically engineered (GE) crops have withdrawn from a major international project to map out the future of agriculture, after it failed to back GE as a tool to reduce poverty and hunger. The project involves 4,000 scientists and experts from around the world, and one of its draft reports raises serious concerns about the environmental, human health and economic impacts of GE crops.
The International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology is an ambitious, 4-year, US$10-million project that aims to do for hunger and poverty what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has done for the challenge of global warming. Monsanto, Syngenta and BASF resigned from the project after a draft report highlighted the risks of GE crops and said they could pose problems for the developing world.
The report states that there is no evidence that GE crops increase yields and warns that use of the technology in the developing world could concentrate 'ownership of agricultural resources' in the hands of the companies involved, as well as causing problems with patents.
Greenpeace, a member of the assessment project, urged the companies to reconsider. Jan van Aken, GE campaigner with Greenpeace International, said: 'This assessment goes far beyond genetic engineering, it is about setting solutions for global agriculture and the world's poor and hungry. It is such a shame to withdraw from such a good initiative, simply because your business plans do not fit with sound science and experts voiced a more balanced opinion than yours.'
According to the scientific journal Nature the idea that biotechnology cannot by itself reduce hunger and poverty is now mainstream opinion among agricultural scientists and policy-makers. For example, biotechnology expansion was not among the seven main recommendations in Halving Hunger: It Can Be Done, a report commissioned by former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan. The writing team for this report included Kenya's Florence Wambugu, perhaps the strongest proponent for biotechnology in Africa.
However, whilst experts all round the world have rejected GE as a solution to world hunger, the biotechnology industry continues to push them as a panacea for the world's poor. For example, the recent International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications’(ISAAA) report claims that half the world's population benefits from GE crops (1). This figure is arrived at by adding together the entire population figures of China, India and all other countries where GE crops are grown, despite the fact that these crops are only grown on a very small scale in the vast majority of those countries. In China, for example, GE represents only 2.9% of Chinese agriculture area, in Europe it is only 0.119% of the agricultural area.
The reality is that of the 1.5 billion hectares of arable land on the planet, more than 92% is cultivated without genetically engineered (GE) plants and over 99% of farmers worldwide farm without resorting to GE crops. In fact, rice and wheat, two of the world's most important staple crops, are still grown GE free. Despite having been commercialised for twelve years, 80% of all GE crops are still grown in just three countries - the US, Argentina and Brazil. And increasingly more countries are opting for an outright ban on GE crops, as can be seen by France's recent announcement to ban the commercial planting of GE maize.
David Adam, D. (2008) Biotech companies desert international agriculture project , The Guardian, 22/1/08, Editorial (2008) Deserting the hungry? Nature, 17/1/08451:223-224.
ISAAA (2008) ISAAA Brief 37-2007: Executive Summary, Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2006
(1) The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications' (ISAAA) is a pro-biotech lobby group that works to push genetic engineering into the developing world. It receives significant amounts of funding from the biotechnology industry, including from such GE giants as Monsanto and Du Pont. Every year it publishes a report on the state of GE world-wide which is scientifically flawed and its statistics distorted.
[Louise Sales is Community Organiser - Genetic Engineering for Greenpeace Australia Pacific]