|ecoglobe: Genetically engineered "food for the world"?|
|Will genetic engineering provide food for the future? [further issues]|
September 1, 1999
NEW YORK TIMES
Why Genetically Altered Food Won't Conquer Hunger
By PETER ROSSET
AKLAND, Calif. -- In the debate over genetically altered foods, proponents like Senator Richard Luger, the Indiana Republican, argue that such products will be essential if we are to feed the world. But this claim rests on two persistent misconceptions about hunger: first, that people are hungry because of high population density, and second, that genetic engineering is the best or only way to meet our future needs.
In fact, there is no relationship between the prevalence of hunger in a given country and its population. For every densely populated and hungry nation like Bangladesh, there is a sparsely populated and hungry nation like Brazil.
The world today produces more food per inhabitant than ever before. Enough is available to provide 4.3 pounds to every person every day: two and a half pounds of grain, beans and nuts, about a pound of meat, milk and eggs, and another of fruits and vegetables -- more than anyone could ever eat.
The real problems are poverty and inequality. Too many people are too poor to buy the food that is available or lack land on which to grow it themselves.
The second misconception is that genetic engineering is the best way to boost food production. There are two principal technologies on the market. Monsanto makes "Roundup Ready" seeds, which are engineered to withstand its herbicide, Roundup. These seeds -- usually soybeans, canola or cotton -- allow farmers to apply the herbicide widely.
Monsanto and several other companies also produce "Bt" seeds -- usually corn, potatoes and cotton -- which are engineered so that each plant produces its own insecticide.
Some researchers have shown that none of the genetically engineered seeds significantly increase the yield of crops. Indeed, in more than 8,200 field trials, the Roundup Ready seeds produced fewer bushels of soybeans than similar natural varieties, according to a study by Dr. Charles Benbrook, the former director of the Board on Agriculture at the National Academy of Sciences.
Far from being a solution to the world's hunger problem, the rapid introduction of genetically engineered crops may actually threaten agriculture and food security.
First, widespread adoption of herbicide-resistant seeds may lead to greater use of chemicals that kill weeds. Yet, many noncrop plants are used by small farmers in the third world as supplemental food sources and as animal feed. In the United States, the Fish and Wildlife Service has found that Roundup already threatens 74 endangered plant species.
Biological pollution from genetically engineered organisms may be another problem. Monsanto is poised to acquire the rights to a genetic engineering technique that renders a crop's seeds sterile, insuring that farmers are dependent on Monsanto for new seed every year. Farming in the third world could be crippled if these genes contaminate other local crops that the poor depend on. And such genes could unintentionally sterilize other plants, according to a study by Martha Crouch, an associate professor of biology at Indiana University. Half the world's farmers rely on their own saved seed for each year's harvest.
A true solution to the problem of hunger depends on attacking poverty and inequality among both producers and consumers of food. A food system increasingly dependent on genetically altered seeds takes us in the wrong direction.
Peter Rosset is director of the Institute for Food and Development Policy and co-author of "World Hunger: Twelve Myths."
The biotechnology industry promotes itself as the solution to world hunger. In reality, the industry's practices may drive self-sufficient farmers off their land and undermine their food security - increasing poverty and hunger.
The biotechnology industry claims it holds the answer to world hunger: high technology to increase production. But according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), this badly misstates the problem. There is no shortage of food in the world. Per capita food production has never been higher.
The real problem is this:
The issues are not merely about technology. The issues are:
Is biotechnology the answer?
Corporate scientists are also working toward the day when food won't be grown in fields by farmers at all. In the high tech, biotech future, your broccoli may be grown indoors, from tissue cultures. The companies will no longer worry about weather or nature (or protesters); they will have total control. Real farmers may become obsolete.
II. Biotech suicide plants
For millennia, small farmers have cut costs and bred for local conditions by saving seeds for later replanting. "Terminator" seeds will make that impossible. Small farmers will have to buy new seeds annually from biotech companies. The cost could drive many out of business.
III. Vulnerable to failure
Another risk comes from the fact that biotech farming promotes monoculture, a single crop covering many acres. As happened with the infamous Green Revolution's chemical technologies that once promised to "feed the hungry," new chemical dependent biotech monocultures have replaced mixed, rotational cropping which formerly kept the soil healthy. Monocultures are notoriously vulnerable to weather events and to insect blights. Failures can be catastrophic.
IV. Ecological roulette
One more point. Genetically engineered crops are difficult to control. They can cross-pollinate with other plants, or migrate, or mutate. If a pest- or herbicide-resistant strain one day spreads from crops to weeds, a super weed could multiply and be nearly impossible to stop, threatening the world food supply. One hundred U.S. scientists took this danger seriously enough to warn that "it could lead to irreversible, devastating damage to the ecology."
Obviously, the biotechnology industry is not trying to feed the hungry. That's just their advertising theme. They are trying to feed themselves. If the world really wants to feed the hungry, the way to do it is to put farmers back on the land, growing staple crops for themselves, their families and communities, not export crops for wealthy nations. Rather than destroying people's abilities to feed themselves, we should be encouraging it.
If you would like further information on how you can help the many organizations really trying to feed the hungry, and to regulate the behaviors of the biotechnology industry, please contact us at the number below.
Food First / Institute for Food & Development Policy
Signers are all part of a coalition of more than 60 non-profit organizations that favor democratic, localized, ecologically sound alternatives to current practices and policies. This advertisement is the last in a series on Genetic Engineering. Other ad series discuss the extinction crisis, economic globalization, industrial agriculture and megatechnology. For more information, please contact
Turning Point Project, 310 D St. NE, Washington, DC 20002 1-800-249-8712 www.turnpoint.org email: email@example.com
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