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Column: Will GM crops save the world, or just make a lot of money?

Modified seeds are touted as the answer to a growing global population – but they come with sinister consequences, writes Kevin Downey.

Kevin Downey

THE WORLD’S POPULATION is rising at a pace that is unprecedented.

The most up to date figures from the UN suggest the population will be 9billion by 2050. That is 400million more than previously expected. There is a looming question over how to feed this mass of people; with the problem being all the greater in developing and poorer nations.

Genetically modified (GM) crops have been put forward as a potential solution to the hunger problem, with some suggesting that advancements in technology, managed correctly, can bring a life-changing increase in food production for the world’s poor.

One very ambitious plan to address hunger is called the Alliance for the Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). Supported by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the scheme aims to tackle the area of food security in Africa by, amongst other things, improving access to more resilient seeds that produce higher and more stable yields.

Unfortunately, there are side effects to this seemingly positive development. During the 1960s, there was a similar movement to get third-world countries to produce high yielding crops with the use of hybrid seeds and corresponding technology. Much of this was geared towards large-scale farms, but more importantly, it favored mono cropping. This created a dangerous situation for farmers if either the market for their crop were to collapse, or if the crop failed due to disease or blight. This method of farming also bypassed the poorest farmers altogether.

Companies producing GM seeds also tout their higher yields and disease resistance. But the seeds have not always lived up to their promises. In India in 2005, the state of Andhra Pradesh, with a population of 75 million, banned Monsanto – currently one of the worlds leading companies in pesticides and GM seeds – from licensing genetically modified cottonseed on the grounds that the seed had been ineffective.

‘Unhelpful developing countries’

Yields were lower and more prone to disease than non-GM crops. Raj Patel in his fantastic book Stuffed and Starved reported that the experiment had a terrible human cost: ninety per cent of farmers who committed suicide in the state had been growing genetically modified cotton, and were plunged into extreme poverty as a result.

There are also pressures on a global scale. In a 2002 World Bank report titled Implications For Small Farmers, the institution made clear that countries exporting GM seed did not need to give the importing country notification of the seeds’ genetic origin. The World Bank encouraged politicians in Africa not to hinder progress in the area of biotechnology, in the quest to feed the worlds poor.

The World Bank also asked seed companies to inform them if developing countries were being unhelpful with regard to allowing them to conduct experiments or introduce transgenic seed varieties. If resistance was met, the World Bank saw it fit to withhold money for public research until these countries saw the relevance of such technology for modern agriculture.

Monsanto had already been testing markets in the developing world prior to 2002, including Africa, with a scheme entitled The Monsanto Smallholder Programme. Monsanto believed that by introducing GM seed to developing countries, guided by the right technology and training, markets such as sub-Saharan Africa would potentially become long-term customers for the organisation. The reason being, the sterile seeds that companies such as Monsanto produce only produce one crop and cannot be saved for the following year, in complete opposition to the natural traditional method of farming.

Poorer farmers inevitably ended up hooked on the GM supply chain. Another sinister aspect to this ‘dealer/supplier’ relationship is that Monsanto sets aside vast quantities of capital and a dedicated team to deal with litigation of farmers who try to keep naturally reproducing seed, or farmers whose non-GM seed has infected their crops through cross-pollination.

It has been suggested that the World Bank is a major player in the push for Africa to accept the area of GM crops for a food-secure future, and that it paves the way by prescribing liberalisation and deregulation policies to debtor countries. This facilitates the entry of private sector investments in Africa’s agriculture.

Worrying trends

There is concern within Africa that this framework for agricultural development is flawed and while from the outside. Although increased outputs due to technological advancements seem positive, little thought is given to the effects created to food sovereignty and the dependence on multinational seed companies.

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Perhaps one of the most sinister recent developments in the AFGA is the announcement that Bill Gates, part of the backbone of this organisation that aims to tackle the hunger epidemic in Africa, has become a shareholder in Monsanto. This is a major blow to the once altruistic vision of the Alliance for the Green Revolution in Africa.

The emergence of major international food companies in Africa who are leasing huge tracts of fertile land to produce food for export is also a worrying trend. This has recently been the case in Ethiopia where Kuruturi Global, one of the world’s top 25 agri-businesses, has leased 2,500 square kilometres to grow palm oil, rice and sugar. This type of farming is not only causing the displacement of farmers, who are forced to move to urban areas, but it is also causing centuries of local knowledge of horticulture to be lost. At the same time, Ethiopia still remains one of the world’s largest recipients of humanitarian food and development assistance. Last year, it received more than 700,000 tonnes of food and €2billion in aid.

Many African countries would argue the fact that they have the human capital, the knowledge and the will to raise themselves out of hunger. Trans-national companies with hybrid seeds and expensive fertilisers are not necessary.

What is needed instead is a reform in policy in African countries in order to provide access to micro-finance and subsidies and to train African professionals in the field of biodiversity with an emphasis on utilising native species and tried and tested methods of farming. This will ensure that all agricultural knowledge remains in the public domain and is not privatised to generate profits for the corporate sector.

But for now, the push to embrace the GM model of agriculture continues to gain strength, giving the corporate sector the upper hand and allowing the further industrialisation of farming, pushing peasant farmers to the edge of extinction.

Kevin Downey holds a masters degree in Third World Development from Dublin City University and is the founder of Summer Row Community Garden in Dublin’s north inner city.

About the author:

Kevin Downey

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