Genetically Modified Food is the Wrong Answer to the Wrong Question

Focusing on the future of our food system, in particular, the role of GMOs in helping us achieve a sustainable and food-secure future. Vice interviewed IATP's Director of Agroecology and Agriculture Policy, Dr. Jahi Chappell, to respond to the claims they heard directly from Monsanto about how useful, necessary, and safe GMO crops are. Dr. Chappell's arguments follow:

       ALTHOUGH recent pieces in the popular media and press have dismissed critics of GMOs as being anti-science or ideological, many credentialed scientists, myself included, argue that the “GMO = Science” line is incorrect. I would point to three reasons why:

1. GMOs are different: Genetic modification is not, as the National Academy of Science review argued, simply the same as all other breeding techniques used by humankind for 10,000 years of agriculture. It is not that there is a clear and established danger from them—it is rather the fact that we do not have a good science-based process in place to regularly determine the safety of most crops and foods, and genetic modification does introduce new techniques and new risks that could produce unforeseen harm to people and the environment without much more careful scrutiny across our food system. This includes GMOs, but—as often is called for by GMO advocates—it would also include looking much more carefully at all of our food, because while GMOs do present new risks and challenges, it is true that there are many risks that we simply do little or nothing to gauge throughout the “traditional” parts of our system.

2. GMOs don't help small farmers or the environment: That said, the potential unintended or unknown health risks are not the most pertinent or important part of the conversation about GMOs. As Vice's documentary will discuss, Monsanto and its fellow companies often discuss how beneficial their products are for farmers and the environment. At best, the results are actually quite mixed The question of why and when farmers will use GM crops is relatively complicated, and it's pretty definite that it hasn't always brought advantages to farmers, particularly small farmers. For example, anthropologist Glenn Stone points out that even though the horrific trend of farmer suicides in India cannot be laid at the feet of GM crops, it is also true that "Bt seed also appears to be exacerbating a key problem underlying the suicides: technology treadmills."

     In short: GM crops do not necessarily help small farmers, and in many ways contribute to existing trends that hurt them by tying them to a “modern” system that drives up debts, pushes farmers to ever expand their territory no matter the cost to the environment, often hurts already-poor farmers and the landless, and exacts huge costs on the environment and human health—such as the recent classification of Glyphosate as a “probable human carcinogen” and its implication in contributing to antibiotic resistance. Given that the vast majority of GMOs in the world either incorporate a pesticide (Bt) directly into crops, or only work alongside continued heavy application of a pesticide (RoundupReady crops – Roundup is the brand name for glyphosate), the idea that GMOs decrease environmental impact or pesticide use is questionable, at best: insecticide use has decreased throughout the world, “but more profoundly in France (also Germany and Switzerland) that do not use GM plants and only modestly in the U.S. Total insecticide use is not decreased in the U.S. when insecticidal plants are included in total insecticide use.” At the same time, herbicide use (like glyphosate) has unsurprisingly increased over recent years—and increased more than insecticide use has decreased.

3. We don’t need GMOs! But perhaps the most important point of all is the fact that, in order to have a future that nourishes everyone in the world and doesn’t harm the environment, GMOs are not only not the best tool, they're not even a necessary or important one. As a team of agronomists wrote in the scientific journal Agronomy for Sustainable Development:

     "Existing biodiversity in combination with plant breeding has much more to offer the many [sic] world’s farmers and consumers, while GMOs have more to offer the agro-industry and some large-scale farms, and this explains why they have received so much attention and research funding. GMO research should be seen as basic research, very much worth pursuing as such and with potential applications over the long term, but it cannot be seen as good strategic research directed at increasing world food production within the coming decades. Rather, emphasis on (1.) improved agricultural practices in hunger-prone developing countries, (2.) development of agro biodiversity resources through plant breeding, and (3.) more sustainable consumption as production of foodstuffs, could be the basis for a much better strategy if the goal is to feed the world’s population in the coming decades.

     " What's more, it is very, very clear that the most important ways to improve food security lie in improving gender equality, women’s access to education, and increasing dietary diversity—something I’ve written about before and that was re-confirmed in a recent peer-reviewed study by established food system researchers Lisa Smith and Lawrence Haddad. So given that GMOs are, in fact, different than the breeding we have traditionally done, that they do not necessarily help farmers or the environment and that we actually don’t need them to nourish the world, what should we do? * BTNewspaper/iatp/d

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