Biotech Snake Oil: A Quack Cure for Hunger

By Freese, Bill | Multinational Monitor, September-October 2008 | Go to article overview

Biotech Snake Oil: A Quack Cure for Hunger


Freese, Bill, Multinational Monitor


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RISING GLOBAL FOOD PRICES reached a flash point this spring, sparking food riots in over a dozen countries. Mexican tortillas have quadrupled in price; Haiti's prime minister was ousted amid rice riots; African countries were especially hard hit. According to the World Bank, global food prices have risen a shocking 83 percent over the past three years. And for the world's poor, high prices mean hunger.

The global food crisis has many causes, but according to the biotechnology industry, there's a simple solution--genetically modified, or biotech, crops. Biotech multinationals have been in media blitz mode ever since the food crisis first made headlines, touting miracle crops that will purportedly increase yields, tolerate droughts, grow in saline soils, and be chockfull of nutrients, to boot.

"If we are to achieve the Millennium Development Goals of cutting hunger and poverty in half by 2015," says Clive James, founder of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), an organization whose funders include all the major biotech companies, "biotech crops must play an even bigger role in the next decade."

Not everyone is convinced. In fact, the UN and World Bank recently completed an unprecedentedly broad scientific assessment of world agriculture, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), which concluded that biotech crops have very little potential to alleviate poverty and hunger. This four-year effort, which engaged some 400 experts from multiple disciplines, originally included industry representatives. Just three months before the final report was released, however, Monsanto, Syngenta and chemical giant BASF pulled out of the process, miffed by the poor marks given their favorite technology. This withdrawal upset even the industry-friendly journal Nature, which chided the companies in an editorial entitled, "Deserting the Hungry?"

SERVING THE WEALTHY

Genetic engineering involves the laboratory-based transfer of DNA derived from bacteria, viruses or virtually any living organism into plants to endow them with a desired trait. As implemented by biotechnology firms, critics say genetic engineering has trod the well-worn path of previous innovations of industrial agriculture--serving wealthier farmers growing commodity crops in huge monocultures by saving labor through the use of expensive inputs.

Biotech proponents insist genetically modified (GM) seeds are delivering results for farmers. "Already in its first 12 years, this technology has made a significant impact by lifting the incomes of farmers," says James.

But genetically modified crops are heavily concentrated in a handful of countries with industrialized, export-oriented agricultural sectors. Nearly 90 percent of biotech acres in 2007 were found in just six countries of North and South America, with the United States, Argentina and Brazil accounting for 80 percent. For most other countries, including India and China, biotech crops account for 3 percent or less of total harvested crop area.

Commercialized GM crops are confined to soybeans, corn, cotton and canola. Soybeans and corn predominate, and are used mainly to feed animals or fuel cars in rich nations. For instance, Argentina and Brazil export the great majority of their soybeans as livestock feed, mainly to Europe and Japan, while more than three fourths of the U.S. corn crop is either fed to animals or used to generate ethanol for automobiles. Expanding soybean monocultures in South America are displacing small farmers, who grow food crops for local consumption, and thus contribute to food insecurity, especially in Argentina and Paraguay. The only other commercial GM crops are papaya and squash, both grown on miniscule acreage.

Most revealing, however, is what the biotech industry has engineered these crops for. …

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