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:
In a globalized economy, the poorest countries of the world are exporting
their food to the already well-fed countries.
Global agribusiness corporations, including those involved in biotechnology,
are helping to dispossess millions of small, self-sufficient farmers who
once sustained their families and communities. The best lands have been converted
to grow luxury crops for the global market: potted plants, flowers, beef,
cotton, soya, and exotic fruits and vegetables. Global corporations rarely
grow inexpensive staple foods for local people and communities.
Left without their own land to grow food, without jobs on high-tech farms
(that emphasize technology rather than workers), and with no cash to buy
food, the former self-sufficient farmers now swell the ranks of the world's
800 million hungry.
The issues are not merely about technology. The issues are:
Who has access to land?
Who grows the food?
What food do they grow?
To be consumed by whom?
In a globalized economy, food self-sufficiency is replaced by food dependency.
Is biotechnology the answer?
No, it's part of the problem.
Here are four reasons why:
I. Biotechnology threatens farmers
Much of the world's remaining biodiversity now exists in the forests and
fields of the southern, poor nations. It's here that small farmers have,
for millennia, been cultivating, saving and refining seeds to better feed
their communities. But now, global biotechnology companies are on frenzied
searches for seeds that they can patent and monopolize. They make small genetic
alterations in the seeds, calling those "inventions" to gain the patents.
In the U.S., for example, it is now illegal for farmers to save patented
seeds without permission or payment of royalties.
Corporate ownership of seeds can make it very expensive for poor farmers
to survive; millions may soon have to give up their lands, move to cities,
seek urban jobs, and join the hunger lines. In 1997, a million such small
farmers in India took to the streets to protest seed patenting. They called
it "biopiracy." All over the world (including India and England), protesters
have ripped up biotech crops.
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
If anyone still believes that the biotechnology industry is motivated by
a desire to feed a hungry world, consider the new "terminator" technology
being developed by several companies and the U.S. government. This is a plant
that's genetically engineered to produce a sterile seed. A "suicide plant."
Why would they want to create such a thing? Here's why.
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
For all the billions that have gone into biotechnology, its performance is
pathetic. Some biotech crops have been spectacular failures, leading to lawsuits
against biotech companies. For example, in 1997, tens of thousands of acres
of biotech cotton withered and died. Farmers sued the companies that produced
the biotech product, finally settling for up to $5 million. Similar problems
have been seen with other biotech products including rBGH, which some dairy
farmers inject into their animals to increase the milk supply.
According to a 1998 report commissioned by Health Canada, cows injected with
rBGH showed about a 50% increase in the risk of clinical lameness, a 25%
increase in the risk of mastitis, a 40% increase in the risk of infertility,
and a 20-25% increase in the risk of being "culled" (slaughtered for
under-productivity). Several U.S. dairy farmer associations and consumer
groups have recently taken action to rescind the FDA's approval of this hormone
based on its adverse affects to animal and human health.
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
The biotech industry says it is "ecological" because biotech decreases the
need to use chemical sprays. At the same time they make that case, one biotech
giant, Monsanto, is marketing the number one chemical herbicide in the world:
Roundup. And they are genetically engineering certain crops to resist Roundup.
It's a pretty slick deal. On the one hand, Monsanto sells the Roundup to
farmers to kill weeds. On the other hand, it sells a genetically engineered
herbicide resistant crop that Roundup can't kill.
As a result, farmers use even more Roundup since the cash crop is protected
from it. Other biotech companies are doing the same thing with their own
herbicide products. Is this what they call ecological agriculture? Are we
missing something here?
The true effect is to increase the use of pesticides and thereby increase
pollution of the soil, air, water table, rivers and oceans. Pesticides make
water undrinkable, kill fish by the millions, and in the long run can turn
the soil sterile.
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
International Center for Technology Assessment
Organic Consumers Association
Friends of the Earth
Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy
Humane Society USA
International Forum on Food and Agriculture
Pesticide Action Network
Religious Campaign for Forest Conservation
Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology
International Forum on Globalization
Mothers & Others for a Livable Planet
Mothers for Natural Law
Council for Responsible Genetics
Earth Island Institute
Food & Water
Center for Ethics and Toxics
Center for Food Safety
Idaho Sporting Congress
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