Once heralded as an environmentally friendly “silver bullet” in the fight against poverty and hunger, genetically-modified (GM) crops today generate huge controversy over their safety and impact.
The debate widened on Thursday with the release of two conflicting reports, one by the pro-GM International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), the other from the environmental group Friends of the Earth International (FEI).
ISAAA’s ‘Global Status of Commercialised Biotech Applications’ reported a growth in the use of GM crops worldwide, mainly soya, maize and cotton, and said this had raised farmers’ incomes. “At a time when you have soaring commodity prices and sky-rocketing energy prices, you want a technology that will increase the supply side and bring down the cost of production, and that is what you have with this technology,” Clive James, chairman and founder of ISAAA, was quoted as saying in the Financial Times newspaper.
The ISAAA presents itself as a not-for-profit organisation but is widely regarded as lobbyists for the GM industry.
GM crops are produced from genetically modified organisms (GMO), altered through genetic engineering. The GM debate commonly focuses on human and environmental safety issues, intellectual property rights and food security. FEI’s study, ‘Who Benefits from GM Crops – the Rise in Pesticide Use’, released to coincide with the annual ISAAA report, concluded that GM crops “have caused an increase rather than a decrease in toxic pesticide use, and have failed to tackle hunger and poverty”.
“GM crops have been researched for 25 to 30 years but they are not bringing the promised results, they are not a silver bullet solution [to global hunger],” Helen Holder, European coordinator of FEI’s GMOs, food and farming campaign, told IRIN.
No chance on small farms?
“The problem is general in Africa: what the industry has been trumpeting has not happened, especially for small-scale farmers,” Nnimmo Bassey, of Environmental Rights Action and FEI Nigeria, said. “GM crops would not solve poverty in Africa but would rather entrench poverty,” he added. The main reason was that the scale of farming in Africa was too small to reap the benefits.
According to Margaret Karembu, Director of the ISAAA Africentre in Nairobi, the criticism was unfounded because GM crops had not yet been given a fair chance on the continent. “We don’t have many countries in Africa using GM crops so we can’t yet demonstrate the impact,” she said.
“African farmers don’t have the hands on experience,” but based on experience in countries like China and India, “farmers in Africa will start demanding GM seeds,” Karembu told IRIN.
According to an FEI statement, “Large scale commercial farmers in the US and Argentina, who represent a small minority of the world’s farmers, have benefited from GM crops due mainly to the ‘convenience effect’. This includes reduction in farm labour and increased flexibility in the timing of herbicide applications. The ability to farm more acres with less labour has facilitated the worldwide trend to fewer and bigger industrial-style farms.”
These benefits would not translate in the African context, Bassey argued. As an example he noted: “the longest and best documented example of GM crops in Africa is the case of GM cotton in the Makhatini Flats area of South Africa. The ISAAA had portrayed this as a success story that proves the benefits of GM crops for small farmers in the continent.” But, after more than eight years of growing GM insect resistant (Bt) cotton, the number of small cotton farmers in the area had plummeted from 3,229 in 2001/02 to just 853 in 2006/2007.
Yes, no, maybe?
“Clearly GM crops could not have benefited these farmers,” commented Bassey.
However, the Makhatini Flats experience remains a contested issue, as drought also played a part in the decline in cotton production in the area.
Karembu acknowledged that GM crops were no panacea for African food insecurity. GM crops were “part of a bigger package,” where other farm inputs such as irrigation, fertilizer and knowledge also played an important role. “It’s a technology that needs to be complemented,” she explained.
The main obstacle to expanding GM crop use in Africa was now the wait for governments to develop and pass “regulation to guide the safe and responsible use of GM crops,” she added.
Biowatch South Africa, an NGO concerned with food security and promoting organic farming methods, has long been opposed to the use of GM crops in the region. In an earlier interview with IRIN, Biowatch Director Leslie Liddell said: “By and large, those farmers don’t understand the contracts they sign with multinationals supplying the seeds. They are not allowed to replant the seeds because of copyright laws. These companies are beginning to own our agricultural systems, and farmers are no longer storing their seeds.”
According to an FEI statement, hunger and poverty are complex political and social challenges. “They are exacerbated more by lack of access to land, illiteracy and poor healthcare than by deficient agricultural production techniques.”
And while increasing crop yields was a good idea, food insecurity in Africa was more an issue of access, according to Bessey: “Food shortages tend to be localised. When there is a shortage in one part of the continent there is a surplus elsewhere, but a lack of infrastructure means there is a problem of access.”