Genetically Modified Crops Are Not the Answer

By Dr. Hans Herren and Dr. Marcia Ishii-Eiteman
April 22, 2010

The Senate is considering a bill that would overhaul the way Americans deliver foreign aid. With more people going hungry than ever before, the bill’s attention to global hunger could not come at a better time. The Global Food Security Act would streamline the aid process and focus on long-term agricultural development. But something has gone awry inside the bill. A closer look reveals that its otherwise commendable focus may be seriously undermined by a new clause lobbied for by one of America’s largest seed and chemical companies.

This bill includes a mandate that we spend foreign aid dollars developing genetically modified (GM) crops. No other kind of agricultural technology is mentioned. Unsurprisingly, Monsanto has lobbied more frequently on this bill than any other entity.

The trouble with a mandate for GM crops is this: it won’t work. A recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists demonstrates that GM crops don’t increase crop yields. USAID has already spent millions of taxpayer dollars developing GM crops over the past two decades, without a single success story to show for it, and plenty of failures. A recent, highly touted partnership between USAID and Monsanto to develop a virus-resistant sweet potato in Kenya failed to deliver anything useful for farmers. After 14 years and $6 million, local varieties vastly outperformed their genetically modified cousins in field trials. Another 10-year USAID project for GM eggplant in India recently met with such outcry — from scientists and Indian farmers alike — that the government put a moratorium on its release. Growing insect resistance to genetically modified cotton and corn shows that the technology is already failing farmers and will continue to fail over the long term. Sadly, today’s GM obsession shows every indication of duplicating the first ill-fated “Green Revolution” that trapped millions of farmers on a pesticide treadmill while devastating the functioning of the ecosystems on which we depend.

Fortunately, we have alternatives. Improved farming practices, conventional breeding and agro-ecological techniques deliver far better results, without the risks and high input costs that accompany GM seeds. A 2008 study by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development found that “organic agriculture can be more conducive to food security in Africa than most conventional production systems, and … is more likely to be sustainable in the long term.” Even the chief agricultural scientist of Punjab — a home of the Green Revolution —argues that Indian farmers should farm organically.

Meanwhile, the World Bank and UN agencies have completed the most comprehensive analysis of world agriculture to date: the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). This four-year study — by more than 400 scientists and development experts from 80 countries and approved by 58 governments — found that reliance on resource-extractive industrial agriculture is risky and unsustainable, particularly in the face of worsening climate, energy and water crises. It noted that expensive, quick fixes — including GM crops —fail to address the complex challenges that farmers face, and often exacerbate already bad conditions. Instead, the IAASTD highlighted the need to build more resilience into our food systems by increasing investments in agro-ecological sciences, small-scale biodiverse farming methods and farmer-led participatory breeding programs.

The success of ecological agriculture rests not only in its immediate outcomes of better and more reliable performance, but also in its ability to address the underlying cause of hunger: poverty. Congress could learn from the thousands of Kenyan farmers who have obtained bumper crops and higher household income through the ecological pest management system known as “push-pull.” By planting a variety of grasses in and around their cornfields, these farmers have suppressed insect pest and weed populations, reduced input costs, doubled or tripled their corn harvest, increased forage for livestock, supplied their families and local markets, paid off debts and set aside money to pay for school, medicines and other needs. No amount of gene-splicing (or lobbying or advertising) by Monsanto has ever accomplished this much for an African family.

Ultimately, tackling global hunger and poverty requires more than a focus on production technologies. The bigger, more fundamental challenge today is about restoring fairness and democratic control over our food systems. This requires strengthening local food economies, increasing small-scale farmers’ control of seed and land, and —importantly — breaking up corporate monopolies in agriculture and establishing fairer regional and global trade arrangements.

If Congress is serious about addressing world hunger, they should take their lead from the most comprehensive science and from farmers on the ground — not from Monsanto lobbyists.

Herren is co-chairman of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) and president of the Millennium Institute and BioVision. Ishii-Eiteman is a lead author of the UN-sponsored IAASTD Global Report. She is senior scientist and director of the Sustainable Food Systems Program at Pesticide Action Network.