Biotechnology = Hunger

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.
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   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.
= Hunger advert., New York Times, Nov 8 1999
   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
Greenpeace USA
Humane Society USA
International Forum on Food and Agriculture
Pesticide Action Network
Religious Campaign for Forest Conservation
Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology
Sierra Club
International Forum on Globalization
Mothers & Others for a Livable Planet
Mothers for Natural Law
Council for Responsible Genetics
Earth Island Institute
Food & Water
Rural Vermont
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 email:
New York Times, advertisement, Nov 8 1999
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