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Is GM food a scourge of our times – or a possible solution to world hunger?

Is GM food a scourge of our times – or a possible solution to world hunger?

He says …

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) one in seven of the world’s population is currently starving. Meanwhile, the United Nations Population Division predicts that the world’s population is set to increase from seven billion to more than ten billion by 2100, and go on rising.

The latest public relations drive from the genetically modified (GM) food industry claims the only way we can feed everyone is to give corporations free rein to experiment with the world’s natural resources and to produce and sell GM food.

But here’s the single fact that proves them wrong. Currently, about 1.3 billion tons of food, about a third of the global food production and much more than needed to feed the starving, are lost or wasted every year. The conclusion is obvious: we don’t need to genetically modify food, we need to share what we have more fairly.

This means introducing measures like controlling food speculation in the global financial market, halting the conversion of productive land to grow biofuels for inefficient cars, and removing wasteful government subsidies and repressive trade barriers. Most importantly, it means basing the system of food production on feeding the many, rather than on maximising profits for the shareholders of Monsanto and DuPont.

These companies have made it no secret that their business model is based on taking ownership of the world’s most lucrative crops by patenting and copyrighting them, just like any form of technology. Take, for example, the development of GM infertile crops, so called ‘terminator seeds’. These make it impossible to store seed for the next season, a practice relied on by the majority of the developing world’s 500 million small farms that currently support almost two billion people, nearly one-third of humanity.

In the GM near future, if you want more seed you’ll have to go back to the company to buy it. This adds a further cost to the already spiralling environmental and financial burden of the world’s addiction to the same companies’ pesticides and herbicides. And if you have a bad season and can’t afford more seed, you beg or you starve.

Surely these companies wouldn’t wilfully cause environmental destruction and human misery just for profit, would they? It’s worth remembering that Monsanto was a major manufacturer of DDT until it was banned in 1972 because it was so toxic to wildlife.

This company also mass-produced PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) from the 1920s until they were about to be banned in 1977, despite evidence dating back to the 1930s of their toxicity to people and animals as well as the fact that they had severely polluted the communities where production took place.

Monsanto and Dow Chemical were the major producers of Agent Orange, the chemical defoliant used by the US military to deliberately destroy and contaminate the forests and agriculture of huge swathes of Vietnam, and whose use has killed or disabled between 400,000 and one million people, depending on which report you read.

In 2001 Monsanto was successfully sued in France over its claims that its pesticide Roundup was biodegradable and would leave the soil clean, when in fact glyphosate, Roundup’s main ingredient, is classed as “dangerous for the environment” and “toxic for aquatic organisms” by the European Union.

I could go on. Personally, I just don’t trust anyone with the kind of power that genetic engineering represents, and if I did trust anybody, companies with this kind of track record would be last on my list.

Genetic modification is an expansion of the battle with nature that large-scale industrialised agriculture has become, and represents a shift from chemical warfare to biological warfare. It is a war in which ultimately everybody loses, because the collateral damage is the destruction of the natural biodiversity on which all life on Earth relies.

One of the successes trumpeted by Monsanto is the creation of GM potatoes and cotton plants that actually emit their own pesticide. But according to the World Health Organization, crop loss increased from 7 percent to 13 percent between 1940 and 1984, despite a 12-fold increase in pesticide use. This is largely due to pesticide and herbicide resistance by pest species. Meanwhile, cases of insects acquiring resistance to Monsanto’s ‘Bt cotton’ have already emerged in India, signalling that this war is ongoing.

Monsanto’s ‘Roundup ready’ crops are genetically altered to be pesticide-resistant and the company promises that they won’t breed with their native cousins and cause further problems. But this is the same company that spent 50 years saying that PCBs were fine and more years defending the widespread use of DDT.

It has been suggested that New Zealand could be left behind as an agricultural producer if we did not allow genetic modification. Thankfully an increasingly enormous number of people around the world are expressing their disagreement, and are voting with their wallets.

For example, in 2009 an estimated €3.4 billion (NZ$5.9 billion) was spent on Fairtrade products that effectively bypass corporate control and genetic modification. That’s a 15 percent increase in spite of the world’s economic crisis. By 2009, according to industry estimates, sales of organic food and other organic products topped US$54.9 billion, and research by global market researchers Marketsand Markets forecasts that the global organic market will be worth US$104.5 billion by 2015.

According to a 2010 report by the University of Otago, exports of certified organic products from New Zealand were valued at $170 million in 2009, a 42 percent increase from $120 million in 2007 – itself a 58 percent increase from $70 million in 2005.

Meanwhile advancements in permaculture design and small-scale integrated organic agricultural systems are demonstrating how we can dramatically increase both long-term yields and biodiversity.

So on the one hand it’s suggested that we should abandon our lucrative ‘clean and green’ image, jeopardise the environment upon which it rests and hand over control of our food production to international chemical companies with dubious reputations and outmoded exploitative thinking. And on the other we have the knowledge to be in a prime position to benefit economically, environmentally and socially from the ongoing rapid growth in one of the most positive megatrends in world history.

In a world of difficult decisions, this is an easy one.

Andy Kenworthy is a leading New Zealand writer on sustainability, business innovation and global wellbeing. Read more about him here

She says …

Dollars dominate consumer decisions. The Nielsen Global Survey of Grocery Purchase Impact (2012) indicates that globally price is the principal impact factor on grocery purchase choice. The food riots of 2008 and 2011 in more than two dozen countries were a reaction to huge price swings in staple crops.

New Zealanders didn’t riot, but have been complaining about food price increases for several years. This is despite the fact that the cost of food as a proportion of income has decreased yearly and the global population overall is better fed than it was 50 years ago.

The improved affordability of food is due to new technologies. The Green Revolution in the 1960s was associated with the development of new cultivars of cereal crops, which put the products of photosynthesis into the grain rather than long stalks. Nutrient inputs (through different types of fertiliser), the use of pesticides and herbicides, and irrigation produced huge gains in yield.

Ongoing technological developments, including harvesting techniques and post-harvest management, meant that food became cheaper and more plentiful.

Now that the world’s population is increasing faster than food production, concern about food security is on the rise again. Food prices go up when stocks fall because of changes in production systems (such as a subsidy-induced switch to producing biofuel rather than food crops) or crop failure (such as after a drought).

It’s been suggested that improving food distribution and reducing waste can help meet escalating global food requirements. It’s a point worth making – except that it doesn’t take into consideration the challenge of predicted changes in global temperatures and restrictions in water availability, or costs associated with restricting the use of fertilisers as a result of environmental policies. These factors will have a major and potentially detrimental effect on current yields.

It’s likely that for a couple of decades New Zealand will benefit from warmer temperatures and increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but most grain-growing areas in the world are expected to be adversely affected. The result will be harvest failure, and increased food scarcity.

Add to this the increasing cost of fuel and power, used in large amounts directly and indirectly in agriculture, and it’s clear that food prices will dramatically increase. The use of genetic technologies could assist in overcoming some of the problems.

The Royal Society of New Zealand (www.royalsociety.org.nz) published an Emerging Issues paper on GM forages in 2010. It’s available on their website and outlines the potential benefits as increasing farm productivity (yield per hectare), drought resistance and reduced intensity of greenhouse gas emissions. The paper notes that although some consumers “retain a preference for non-GM products, such opposition is decreasing”.

Dr Mike Dunbier, a plant geneticist who works for Pastoral Genomics, also acknowledges the levels of concern in some sectors of society, but is keen to explain the potential benefits of GM forage. In an interview earlier this year he said that the “conundrum New Zealand faces is that research on GM pastures is showing great promise in improving environmental sustainability – fewer fertilisers needed, less water and reduced greenhouse gases. There is strong endorsement in society that grass with reduced environmental footprint is compatible with a clean green image.”

Dr Dunbier also points out that current technologies are using cisgenics – that is manipulation of genetic material within the species, not an introduction of genetic material from outside the species: “When we add up the benefits … achieved with the use of drought-tolerant ryegrasses in New Zealand, we’re talking about potentially almost $1.5 billion extra to our GDP annually.”

Achieving that using less fertiliser and without any extra land in production would improve food security while reducing environmental impact. These benefits could be introduced into any food production system, but so far New Zealand has “not achieved the level of debate that acknowledges this”, says Dr Dunbier. What is increasingly clear is the effect that price has on grocery purchase decisions. Take for example our purchasing with respect to animal welfare.

While most New Zealanders believe that we have similar standards of animal welfare to, or better than, the rest of the world, a survey by the Ministry for Primary Industries released last year reported that “many consumers claim to be willing to pay extra for animal-friendly products, but most do not when actually shopping”. The main reason given was “price”.

Egg consumption is a good example. Although free-range eggs are held as the ideal, they are more expensive to produce than those from constrained systems (such as battery cages). Before the economic downturn, 19 percent of eggs consumed in New Zealand were from non-battery sources; since then, the figure has decreased to approximately 11 percent.

Price dictates decisions.

In a discussion about the use of science in policy, Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, the Prime Minister’s Science Advisor, uses the GM food debate as an example of public concerns overriding the science. He points out that “the safety of GM food, under appropriate regulation, is now unequivocal and past concerns over ecological problems have now really boiled down to those associated with monoculture in general”.

New technologies will assist with monoculture problems. They will also assist with food production, food security, and improving environmental impact, plus assisting with keeping down the price of food to the consumer.

I’m with Dr Dunbier and Sir Peter in raising the level of debate around possible future food production.

Jacqueline Rowarth has a PhD in soil science and is Professor of Agribusiness at Waikato Management School, Waikato University. In 2008 she was awarded a CNZM for services to agricultural science, is a Fellow of the New Zealand Institute of Agricultural Science and is a Companion of the Royal Society of New Zealand

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