GM not the answer to world hunger
2.The hungry won't live if farms die
1.GM crops are not the answer to world hunger
China Dialogue, May 21 2008
Last week, chinadialogue columnist Taige Li explored whether genetic modification can increase crop yields. Emma Hockridge responds, and argues that oil-intensive biotechnology will not ease the global food crisis.
With soaring food prices around the world, there has been a renewed recent interest in whether the world can feed itself. This question is not a new one, and many organisations have been talking about the need to radically change our food and farming system to one which is more sustainable for many years.
The current industrial agricultural system, which has been in place for around 60 years, is wholly reliant on oil- and gas-intensive inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides.
The recent spate of media attention has given the pro-genetic modification (GM) lobby an opportunity to hijack the debate and attempt to persuade people that there is some mileage in this outdated debate. Although the GM industry has been promising huge benefits as a result of this technology for many years, the truth is that none of these claimed benefits have come to fruition. GM crops do not produce higher yields, use fewer pesticides, or do anything to assist people in developing countries.
It is obviously upsetting for the GM industry and others who have a blind faith in the capacity of complex, high-tech solutions to solve every problem to have their beliefs challenged by reality. This is what has happened to true believers in GM crops. Out in the fields of North America, while GM crops resistant to sprays or capable of killing insects have made life simpler for big farmers, they have not according to the US department of agriculture increased yields. In farmer's fields in India, GM crops have not increased yields and have sometimes failed with catastrophic consequences.
The recent International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) report, with input from hundreds of scientists from all over the world, recognises that the challenges farming now faces are those of the increasing scarcity and price of oil and the need to cut greenhouse-gas emissions from farming (primarily nitrous oxide) by 80% by 2050. As with energy production, the future of food production lies in systems which take nitrogen from the air to fertilise crops using energy from the Sun, as with organic farming, rather than burning up increasingly scarce oil and natural gas. Peer-reviewed scientific research continues to show that these sustainable farming systems will increase food production in developing counties, and will provide us with slightly more food than we currently produce.
With specific regard to the question of yields, all major GM crop varieties in cultivation have produced yields that are lower than, or at best, equivalent to, those of non-GM varieties. The Soil Association has published a briefing on the latest available research on GM crop yields from the past ten years.
The research on GM crops as a whole shows that first-generation genetic modifications address production conditions (insect and weed control), and are in no way intended to increase the intrinsic yield capacity of the plant.
For example, an April 2006 report from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) states 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". The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s 2004 report on agricultural biotechnology acknowledges that GM crops can have reduced yields. A 2003 report in Science by Matin Qaim and David Zilbermann both strong supporters of GM crops stated that: "in the United States and Argentina, average yield effects [of GM crops] are negligible and in some cases even slightly negative."
For the three crops which are being produced using GM technology, the individual results are just as bleak. Studies from 1999 to 2007 consistently show Monsanto's Roundup Ready (RR) GM soya to have 4% to 12% lower yields than conventional varieties. Yields of GM soybeans are especially low under drought conditions. Due to pleiotropic effects, when stems split under high temperatures and water stress, GM soybeans suffer 25% higher losses than conventional soybeans. The “yield drag” or yield suppression of RR soya is reflected in flat overall soybean yields from 1995 to 2003, the very years in which GM soya adoption went from 0% to 81% of US soybean acreage. By one estimate, stagnating soybean yields in the US cost soybean farmers US$1.28 billion in lost revenues from1995 to 2003.
Only maize shows a persistent trend of yield increase into the biotech era, but even here the rate of increase is no greater after than before biotech varieties were introduced. For example, a rigorous, independent study conducted in the US under controlled conditions demonstrated that Bt maize (see "Is GM the answer to the food crisis", Taige Li) yields anywhere from 12% less to the same as very similar conventional varieties.
Despite claims of increased yield, Bt cotton has had no significant impact in real terms. Average cotton yields have increased fivefold since 1930, and staged an impressive surge from 1980 to the early 1990s. Cotton yields then went flat, and continued to stagnate during the seven years of GM cotton's rise to dominance. The steep yield and production increases in 2004 and 2005 were chiefly attributable to excellent weather conditions. Outbreaks of the secondary pests that are not killed by the Bt insecticide have rendered Bt cotton ineffective in China and are also becoming a problem in the American states of North Carolina and Georgia.
The debate over GM crops has now moved on: GM chemical companies claim they have the answer to world hunger while selling products which have never led to overall increases in production and which have sometimes decreased yields or even led to crop failures. As oil becomes scarcer and more expensive, we need to move away from oil-dependent GM crops to producing food sustainably with renewable energy, as is the case with organic farming.
2.The hungry won't live if farms die
By Debasish Roy Chowdhury
China Daily, 23 May 2008
Biofuels, global warming, commodity derivatives, energy prices, prosperity in China and India... the plate seems full when it comes to nailing the culprits for the raging global food crisis.
But as food riots break out from Egypt to Haiti to Bangladesh and over 100 million people across the globe stand on the brink of being hurled deeper into poverty and hunger, there is one possible ingredient to the emerging human tragedy that we appear far less inclined to discuss - industrial agriculture. And the reason why it has not had as much bad press as eco activists would like is that industrial agriculture is widely seen as having kept our bowls full and cheap for long. Now that the bowl is running dry, it's time to look deeper into its pros and cons, as any long-term solution to the food crisis will essentially depend on either reinforcing industrial farming or reversing the process altogether.
"Green Revolution", or the introduction of modern farming techniques, formed the bedrock of rapid economic growth, food security and poverty reduction in many Asian countries including China. Higher agricultural productivity has not only helped millions climb out of poverty and provided cheap and abundant food, it has also freed up farm labor to propel industrial progress. For a country like China, tasked with the responsibility of feeding a fifth of the world's population with less than a 10th of the world's farmland, the appeal of industrial agriculture is thus obvious.
But times of crises require us to look beyond the obvious. Last month's report of an intergovernmental initiative backed by the World Bank and the UN, the result of three years' work by over 400 scientists, called for an overhaul of the practice of chemical-intensive agriculture to tackle hunger. The malaise, as the report put it, is that small-scale farmers, rural communities and the environment are being bled dry to attain higher and unsustainable farm yields. The prescription, which was considered by over 60 countries including China, is more natural fertilizers, small-scale farming and agroecological methods.
These conclusions echo the views of green groups waging war against large-scale monoculture farming and its accessories. These groups argue that hunger is primarily caused by poverty, not lack of food per se, and modern agriculture pushes farmers into poverty by pushing them out of their farms. Even those who stay put finally succumb to the high costs of synthetic inputs such as seeds, pesticides and fertilizers.
This initial cost push can be sustained in the early stages of industrial farming when the yields are high, but becomes progressively untenable as soil is said to lose its fertility over time because of the chemical overdose. India, where indebtedness is estimated to have driven more than 150,000 farmers to their deaths between 1997 and 2005 after the huge initial success of the "Green Revolution", is cited as a classic example.
Industrial agriculture is also heavily energy-dependent both in terms of the composition of fertilizers and pesticides, and the necessity for fuel in mechanized farming, marketing and distribution. Which means if cheap oil is history, so is cheap food. China has just increased this year's rural budget by $3.6 billion, mainly to provide direct subsidies to farmers, while India has announced a $15 billion write-off of farmers' debt. All nations seeking to ensure food security will have to pump in similarly copious amounts of cash to sustain farming, greatly straining their coffers.
Which poses the all-important central question: what cost industrial agriculture? But then, how else will the world ensure food sufficiency for a rising population? Food majors posit genetically modified crops as the answer. Eco groups counter that GM crops are just more of the same.
The need of the hour is to determine the truth. If salvation indeed lies in industrial farming, we'll have to intensify the process. If not, we'll have to make a clean break and seek fresh solutions like organic farming. With arable land shrinking, water tables falling and one child dying every five seconds from hunger-related causes, we'd better be quick.