It won't feed the starving and it creates more poverty. So why are we told GM food is the answer?
By Geoffrey Lean
Daily Mail, 20th June 2008
*Ministers and industry accused of exploiting world food crisis to relaunch campaign for GM food
The saying goes, it's an ill wind that blows nobody any good - and the increasing hunger spreading around the globe as the world food crisis takes hold is sending the genetically modified food lobby smiling all the way to the seed bank.
Food prices may be at a record high, food reserves at an unprecedented low, and millions of the world's poorest may be struggling to scrape together a single meal a day - but the much-battered biotech industry is enjoying its biggest ever public relations bonanza.
Yesterday, Environment Minister Phil Woolas said Britain needs to look at whether GM technology could help tackle the current crisis, signalling an end to more than a decade of government scepticism over GM plants.
Suddenly, after years of being shunned by the British public, the industry and its cheerleaders are scrambling for the unfamiliar territory of the moral high ground.
Only GM can reduce world hunger, they say. Anyone churlish enough to mention the indisputable damage it does to the environment - or the worrying, if inconclusive, evidence it may endanger health - is guilty of betraying the most wretched people on earth.
It's been hard, over recent weeks, to switch on the TV or radio without hearing some variation of this theme. And it is passing from punditry into policy.
The World Bank is calling for an agricultural revolution based on biotechnology, while Neil Parish, chairman of the European Parliament's agriculture committee, avers that rising food prices will make consumers 'more realistic' about GM.
George W. Bush - declaring that modified crops ' hold the promise of producing more food for more people' - has made promoting them part of a proposed £335 million aid package to ease the food crisis.
Dissent is denounced as heresy. Britain's National Beef Association is calling for 'all resistance to GM crops to be abandoned immediately'.
And when the world's biggest ever agricultural study - the work of 400 scientists and 60 governments - concluded GM was 'not the simple answer to hunger and poverty', it was denounced by one newspaper columnist as 'a truly shocking betrayal of the world's least well fed'.
Ministers and members of the biotech industry are jumping on the band wagon of the world food crisis and using it to support the argument for GM crops
But it's all hype. The truth is GM crops do nothing to ease world hunger. Quite the reverse. They actually threaten to make it worse.
Let's start with the fallacy that GM crops are more productive. Intuitively it seems to make sense and you hear it everywhere: BBC newsreaders refer unquestioningly to 'high yielding GM crops'. George Bush's food aid expert, Dan Price, says: 'It is established fact that a number of bioengineered crops have shown themselves to increase yield.'
Not so. The real facts show that genetic modification not only fails to boost productivity, but often slashes it.
Dr Charles Benbrook, an agricultural scientist, reported 'voluminous and clear evidence' that modified soya crops 'produce five to ten fewer bushels per acre in contrast to otherwise identical varieties grown under comparable field conditions'.
In 1998, a study based on 8,200 trials of GM soya varieties in U.S. universities found they produced 6.7 per cent less than their nearest non-GM relatives. They yielded 10 per cent less than the best conventional soya available at the time.
Two years later, a study at the University of Nebraska came up with strikingly similar results, finding that five different Monsanto GM soyas - though more expensive - produced 6 per cent less food than their closest cousins, and 11 per cent less than the highest-yielding traditional varieties.
Other studies have shown that the productivity of soya doubled in the 70 years before the introduction of modified varieties in the mid-Nineties.
At least half of this was down to the traditional way of improving crops by interbreeding them; the rest came from improved farming practices. But once GM soya became widespread, this growth abruptly stopped: yields have remained much the same since.
Cotton yields, which had multiplied five-fold since 1930, also stagnated in the U.S. as GM varieties took over 80 per cent of the crop in the late Nineties.
Modified corn did better: yields continued growing at the same rate while it was introduced, but still did not accelerate as proponents would have us believe. And studies have shown that some GM varieties suffer drops of up to 12 per cent.
Confronted by this evidence, the industry beats a hasty retreat. The question of yields is a 'sideshow', you are told, modified crops were never intended to increase them. True enough, if a long way from the hype about GM feeding the world.
All varieties now being grown were developed for two purposes, tolerating weedkillers so they can be sprayed more abundantly, and resisting pests.
Yet drenching the crops with chemicals has caused the development of resistant superweeds which have been found in more than 3,250 places in the U.S. alone.
Similarly, GM cotton developed to resist bollworm has been attacked by other pests, causing an increase of spraying with insecticide.
All that is in the past, retorts the industry. What we do in the future will tackle world hunger. Earlier this month, Hugh Grant, Monsanto's chief executive, announced a 'commitment' to double yields of corn, soybeans and cotton by 2030 and, at the same time, to develop crops that will need 30 per cent less water, land and energy to grow.
Experts doubt any of this will happen, saying it is a much more difficult undertaking than developing the present modified varieties. Lester Brown, president of Washington's Earth Policy Institute, says the physiology of plants is approaching its practical limit.
For comparison, he points out how runners have only slightly improved on Roger Bannister's first four-minute mile of more than 50 years ago. As for drought-resistant crops, they have been researched for at least ten years without success.
Experts say that, at best, they are decades away from being grown. And even then the developing world would have to wait: Monsanto has previously made it clear that the miracle varieties would be used in the U.S. 'well before they become available in other countries'.
Indeed, the biotech companies are already hard at work to ensure they, not the hungry, would benefit. An investigation has found they have filed for no fewer than 532 patents around the world on genes that might confer drought resistance.
If successful, these will enable them to monopolise the seeds needed to grow crops in a warmer, drier world, charge what they like and, by ensuring the seeds are 'infertile', make farmers buy new ones every year by stopping their age-old practice of saving seeds from one harvest to sow for the next one.
These so-called 'terminator' crops would mean the poorest farmers would be driven to the wall, increasing destitution.
Studies of modified soya in Latin America and cotton in India show poor farmers and labourers are already suffering, as bigger ones take over the land and reduce their workforces.
Professor Ossama El-Tayeb, of Cairo University, condemns 'big business' for claiming that 'GM crops will alleviate poverty soon, while currently available ones mostly contribute negatively to poverty alleviation and food security, and positively to the stock market'.
This is all the more scandalous because the small farmers of the Third World really are the key to reducing hunger. They produce up to 20 times more food per acre than the biggest ones, partly because they work the land more intensively.
Big, technologically advanced farms produce more per person employed, but that is not what is needed where land is scarce and labour is plentiful. Indeed, in developing countries it is organic agriculture that offers the real promise of increasing yields.
Even some biotech chiefs seem to be admitting the truth. Hans Kast, managing director of the plant science branch of the chemical giant BASF, said: 'Genetically modified agriculture will not solve the world's hunger problem.'
How long will it be before the increasingly noisy British GM lobby display similar honesty? If I were you, I wouldn't hold your breath.
Geoffrey Lean is Environment Editor of the Independent On Sunday