Challenging GMOs – 1

March 5th, 2011

Paper One

Challenging the claim that GMOs are needed to feed the world

Dr. Ricardo Ramírez, Guelph. ON. Feb. 2011 (working draft)

Technical approaches don’t exist in a vacuum.  Every technology is both embedded and can influence the social, environmental and economic context where it is introduced.

The Green Revolution in India and Mexico led to productivity increases. The better-off farmers with flat land, irrigation and access to inputs enjoyed higher yields. While their production enhanced national food stocks -at the same time, food shortages affected the poor in the very same locations. Often ignored are the externalities: biodiversity was eroded with associated loss of nutritional balances in diets, and social and economic stratification increased in rural areas, to name a few.

Farming systems can reflect agronomic along with the socio-economic realities.   Farming systems like Mexico’s “milpa-migración” (traditional corn production & migration – for construction work in cities) cannot be improved merely through agronomic solutions.  The access to land, the need for off-farm incomes, and other roles in household, all need to be addressed in tandem. Southern Ontario’s predominant farming system could be referred to as corn+soy-farmland-concentration system, to reflect the prevalent loss of mixed family farms.

There is growing consensus that production is only one component of agricultural and rural development policies. Productivity on its own it is an insufficient proposal. A central issue is community wellbeing that is associated with distribution, especially with regards to land tenure and the sharing of wealth.  The State of Kerala in India has long been famous for its above average socio-economic indicators, and it happens to be the one with the most even distribution of wealth. In contrast, Chile, the often-admired fruit exporter, has one of the worst Gini coefficients in Latin America (a measure of inequality of distribution).

The combined advent of peak oil and climate change place further challenges to food production systems. In developing a response, a growing consensus is the need for production and distribution systems that are equitable, ecological, resilient, bio-diverse, localized and with sovereignty over genetic resources (IAASTD, 2009).  The Green Economy Report released in February 2011 by UNEP summarizes the findings of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) Global Report in one paragraph:

The key message of the Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, published in 2009 is: “The way the world grows its food will have to change radically to better serve the poor and hungry if the world is to cope with a growing population and climate change while avoiding social breakdown and environmental collapse.” The Assessment calls for a fundamental shift in agricultural knowledge, science and technology (AKST) to successfully meet development and sustainability objectives. Such a shift should emphasize the importance of the multi-functionality of agriculture, accounting for the complexity of agricultural systems within diverse social and ecological contexts and recognizing farming communities, farm households, and farmers as producers and managers of ecosystems. Innovative institutional and organizational arrangements to promote an integrated approach to the development and deployment of AKST are required as well. Incentives along the value chain should internalize as many negative externalities as possible, to account for the full cost of agricultural production to society. Policy and institutional changes should focus on those least served in the current AKST approaches, including resource- poor farmers, women and ethnic minorities. It emphasizes that small-scale farms across diverse ecosystems need realistic opportunities to increase productivity and access markets. (UNEP, 2011, p.41)

Those advocating GMOs as a solution to world hunger ignore the lessons of the Green Revolution, especially the distribution dimension.  Most alarming, is that they lack a track record in poverty alleviation. Instead their track record is evident in promoting monoculture agriculture, economies of scale that require large concentration of land, global market access that depends on cheap oil, increased farmers’ dependence on patented seed, and irreversible genetic contamination.    The corporations that produce GM crops are accountable to their shareholders, not to governments let alone citizens.  The approaches that they promote call for concentration of land; not redistribution ( McKinsey & Company, 2010). They propose to modernize -as opposed to build from- existing subsistence systems that may have low yields, but are less dependent on inputs that are rising along with peak oil, and are more ecological, diversified, distributional and resilient.

Those promoting GMOs as a solution to world hunger must be challenged to address the complex nature of food security and rural development.  They need to respond to the key questions facing global food today, not merely the technological potential of their varieties. A recent article summarizes the top 100 questions of importance to the future of global agriculture; asking them to respond would be a place to start (Pretty et al., 2010).

I share two personal experiences to drive home my argument.

In the early 1990s, when I worked for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, we were able to help farmers in the Philippines improve yields significantly through a participatory extension system to transfer technology from research to the field. However, the production increases subsequently led to higher rent prices charged by the landlords.  Our approach focused only on transferring technology, with no regard to underlying land tenure. We learned a hard lesson: improving agricultural productivity does not mean that people will get out of poverty (Quarry & Ramírez, 2009) .The support needs to address the wider challenge of distribution, of land, and of affordability to the products we derive from it.  Who ever said rural development would be easy?

The so-called “new vision for agriculture” prepared for the Davos Economic Development Forum calls, among other things, for the concentration of land; not its redistribution (McKinsey & Company, 2010). During the last year I have worked in the land sector in Mozambique, where the phenomenon of land grabbing is taking place, with communities coerced to give up their rightful ownership of vast tracks of land.  The “new vision” report states:

Businesses allied with the government and international donors to build infrastructure in central Mozambique, where over 10 million hectares of high-potential land remain commercially underdeveloped. The Beira Agricultural Growth Corridor is intended to reduce early-mover risk and create economies of scale for investors by coordinating projects in advance – literally laying the groundwork for an active rural economy. (p. 20)

The reference to “commercially underdeveloped” lands hides the fact that subsistence farmer families already occupy those lands, and have traditional and modern rights to them as confirmed by the Land Law.  The reference to economies of scale signals the need to consolidate land.  Moreover, the statement suggests that an active rural economy does not yet exist; more shocking is the implied transformation of farmers into plantation workers.   This approach brings me back to my Philippines experience – a déjà vu.

The “new vision” document is prepared by the same corporations that promote GMOs and junk food; the very ones that now proclaim to be interested in solving the global food crisis with their technology and know-how[1].   Their claims need to be met with a careful scrutiny of their track record, especially their concentration of power and the loss of farmer sovereignty over seed.

The sad irony is that over the last thirty years, farmer movements, civil society in Asia, Latin America and Africa have built up solid to counter the expensive seed and fertilizer inputs being offered by agribusiness based on the concept of “food sovereignty”– the right of people to determine their own food and agricultural systems. These methods are effectively resistant to climate change and are efficiently passed farmer-to-farmer with the help of NGOs, farmer organizations and sometimes, enlightened governments (Holt Gimenez, 2011).

Stringent regulation; coupled with independent, third party verification of their research, is the only way forward.  The stakes are too high to blindly follow their claim. The evidence of an agro-ecological way forward is well substantiated – and it is radically different from their proposed “modernization” of farming.

A recent UNEP report on “green agriculture” proposes the following:

The greening of agriculture refers to the increasing use of farming practices and technologies that simultaneously:

  • maintain and increase farm productivity and profitability while ensuring the provision of food on a sustainable basis;
  • reduce negative externalities and gradually lead to positive ones; and
  • rebuild ecological resources (i.e. soil, water, air and biodiversity “natural capital” assets) by reducing pollution and using resources more efficiently. A diverse, locally adaptable set of agricultural techniques, practices and market branding certifications such as Good Agricultural Practices (GAP), Organic/Biodynamic Agriculture, Fair Trade, Ecological Agriculture, Conservation Agriculture and related techniques and food supply protocols exemplify the varying shades of “green” agriculture.
  • farming practices and technologies that are instrumental in greening agriculture include:
  • restoring and enhancing soil fertility through the increased use of naturally and sustainably produced nutrient inputs; diversified crop rotations; and livestock and crop integration;
  • reducing soil erosion and improving the efficiency of water use by applying minimum tillage and cover crop cultivation techniques;
  • reducing chemical pesticide and herbicide use by implementing integrated biological pest and weed management practices; and
  • reducing food spoilage and loss by expanding the use of post-harvest storage and processing facilities.

Although organic sources of fertilizer and natural methods of pest and weed management are central elements of green agricultural practices, the highly efficient and precise use of inorganic fertilizers and pest controls may also be included in the broad spectrum of sustainable farming practices that need to be adopted to achieve global food security. This far more efficient use of inorganic agriculture inputs is particularly required in the initial phase of a long- term transition to a green agriculture paradigm. (UNEP, 2011: 42-43)


Holt Gimenez, E. (2011). Onward corporate food crusaders. The Huffington Post, Feb. 10.

IAASTD. (2009). Agriculture at a crossroads: Global Report. Washington, DC: International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development Secretariat.

McKinsey & Company, M. &. (2010). Realizing a new vision for agriculture: A roadmap for stakeholders. Davos: World Economic Forum.

Pretty, et al., 2010. The top 100 questions of importance to the future of global agriculture. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability 8(4): 219-236.

Quarry, W., & Ramírez, R. (2009). Communication for another development: Listening before telling. London: Zed Books.

UNEP, 2011. Towards a green economy: Pathways to sustainable development and poverty eradication. Geneva: United Nations Environment Program.

[1] “The 17 global companies that championed the initiative are Archer Daniels Midland, BASF, Bunge, Cargill, The Coca-Cola Company, DuPont, General Mills, Kraft Foods, Metro, Monsanto Company, Nestlé, PepsiCo, SABMiller, Syngenta, Unilever, Wal-Mart Stores and Yara International.” (p.3)

Posted in Food Protection, GMO | Comments (1)

One Response to “Challenging GMOs – 1”

  1. John A. Ferner Says:

    Nice writing on this blog. I’ve been looking for a gardening blog to follow. BTW, I found you on Bing.

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