Genetic Engineering Is Not the Answer

In 1992 the then-chief executive of Monsanto, Robert Shapiro, told the Harvard Business Review that genetically modified crops will be necessary to feed a growing world population. He predicted that if population levels were to rise to 10 billion, humanity would face two options: either open up new land for cultivation or increase crop yields. Since the first choice was not feasible, because we were already cultivating marginal land and in the process creating unprecedented levels of soil erosion, we would have to choose genetic engineering. This option, Shapiro argued, was merely a further improvement on the agricultural technologies that gave rise to the Green Revolution that saved Asia from food shortages in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Genetically engineered crops might seem an ideal solution. Yet both current data and past examples show problems and provoke doubts as to their necessity.


The Green Revolution

The Green Revolution involved the production of hybrid seeds by crossing two genetically distant parents, which produced an offspring plant that gave increased yield. Critics of genetic engineering question the accepted wisdom that its impact has been entirely positive. Hybrid seeds are expensive and heavily reliant on fertilizers and pesticides. And because they lose their vigor after the first planting, the farmer must purchase new seeds for each successive planting.

In his book Geopolitics and the Green Revolution, John H. Perkins describes the environmentally destructive and socially unjust aspects of the Green Revolution. One of its most important negative effects, he says, is that it has contributed to the loss of three-quarters of the genetic diversity of major food crops and that the rate of erosion continues at close to 2 percent per year. The fundamental importance of genetic diversity is illustrated by the fact that when a virulent fungus began to destroy wheat fields in the United States and Canada in 1950, plant breeders staved off disaster by cross-breeding five Mexican wheat varieties with 12 imported ones. In the process they created a new strain that was able to resist so-called stem rust. The loss of these varieties would have been a catastrophe for wheat production globally.

The Terminator Gene

The development by a Monsanto-owned company of what is benignly called a Technology Protection Systema more apt name is terminator technologyis another reason for asserting that the feed-the-world argument is completely spurious. Genetically engineered seeds that contain the terminator gene self-destruct after the first crop. Once again, this forces farmers to return to the seed companies at the beginning of each planting season. If this technology becomes widely used, it will harm the two billion subsistence farmers who live mainly in the poor countries of the world. Sharing seeds among farmers has been at the very heart of subsistence farming since the domestication of staple food crops 11,000 years ago. The terminator technology will lock farmers into a regime of buying genetically engineered seeds that are herbicide tolerant and insect resistant, tethering them to the chemical treadmill.

On an ethical level, a technology that, according to Professor Richard Lewontin of Harvard University, introduces a killer’ transgene that prevents the germ of the harvested grain from developing must be considered grossly immoral. It is a sin against the poor, against previous generations who freely shared their knowledge of plant life with us, against nature itself and finally against the God of all creativity. To set out deliberately to create seeds that self-destruct is an abomination no civilized society should tolerate. Furthermore, there is danger that the terminator genes could spread to neighboring crops and to the wild and weedy relatives of the plant that has been engineered to commit suicide. This would jeopardize the food security of many poor people.

The current situation promoting genetically modified organisms also means supporting the patenting of living organismsboth crops and animals. I find it difficult to understand the support that Cardinal Renato Martino, prefect of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, seems to be giving to genetically modified organisms, given the Catholic Church’s strong pro-life position. In my book Patenting Life? Stop! I argue that patenting life is a fundamental attack on the understanding of life as interconnected, mutually dependent and a gift of God to be shared with everyone. Patenting opts for an atomized, isolated understanding of life. The Indian scientist and activist Dr. Vandana Shiva believes that patented crops will lead to food dictatorship by a handful of northern transnational corporations. This would certainly be a recipe for hunger and starvationin conflict with Catholic social teaching on food and agriculture.

No Higher Yield, No Reduction in Chemicals

Early in 2003 a researcher at the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex University in England published an analysis of the G.M.O. crops that biotech companies are developing for Africa. Among the plants studied were cotton, maize and the sweet potato. The G.M.O. research on the sweet potato is now approaching its 12th year and has involved the work of 19 scientists; to date it has cost $6 million. Results indicated that yield has increased by 18 percent. On the other hand, conventional sweet potato breeding, working with a small budget, has produced a virus-resistant variety with a 100 percent yield increase.

Claims that G.M.O.’s lead to fewer chemicals in agriculture are also being challenged. A comprehensive study using U.S. government data on the use of chemicals on genetically engineered crops was carried out by Charles Benbrook, head of the Northwest Science and Environmental Policy Center in Sandpoint, Idaho. He found that when G.M.O.’s were first introduced, they needed 25 percent fewer chemicals for the first three years. But in 2001, 5 percent more chemicals were sprayed compared with conventional crop varieties. Dr. Benbrook stated: The proponents of biotechnology claim G.M.O. varieties substantially reduce pesticide use. While true in the first few years of widespread planting, it is not the case now. There’s now clear evidence that the average pound of herbicide applied per acre planted to herbicide-tolerant varieties have increased compared to the first few years.

Toward a Solution

Hunger and famine around the world have more to do with the absence of land reform, social inequality, bias against women farmers and the scarcity of cheap credit and basic agricultural tools than with lack of agribusiness super-seeds. This fact was recognized by those who attended the World Food Summit in Rome in November 1996. People are hungry because they do not have access to food production processes or the money to buy food. Brazil, for example, is the third largest exporter of food in the world, yet one-fifth of its population, over 30 million people, do not have enough food to eat. Clearly hunger there is not due to lack of food but to the unequal distribution of wealth and the fact that a huge number of people are landless.

Do the proponents of genetically engineered food think that agribusiness companies will distribute such food free to the hungry poor who have no money? There was food in Ireland during the famine in the 1840’s, for example, but those who were starving had no access to it or money to buy it.

As a Columban missionary in the Philippines, I saw something similar during the drought caused by El Niño in 1983. There was a severe food shortage among the tribal people in the highlands of Mindanao. The drought destroyed their cereal crops, and they could no longer harvest food in the tropical forest because it had been cleared during the previous decades. Even during the height of the drought, an agribusiness corporation was exporting tropical fruit from the lowlands. There was also sufficient rice and corn in the lowlands, but the tribal people did not have the money to buy it. Had it not been for food aid from nongovernmental organizations, many of the tribal people would have starved.

In 1990 the World Food Program at Brown University calculated that if the global food harvest over the previous few years were distributed equitably among all the people of the world, it could provide a vegetarian diet for over 6 billion people. In contrast, a meat-rich diet, favored by affluent countries and currently available to the global elite, could feed only 2.6 billion people. Human society is going to be faced with the option of getting protein from plants or from animals. If we opt for animal protein, the consequence will be a much less equitable world, with increasing levels of human misery.

Those who wish to banish hunger should address the social and economic inequalities that create poverty and not claim that a magic-bullet technology will solve all the problems.

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