|Thursday 22 March, 2001
GM Crops: Food For Thought
The first stage of the genetic revolution is well underway in global agriculture. Last year farmers around the world planted an area twice the size of the UK with genetically modified crops.
Whether you believe them to be the golden grains or the seeds of Satan, not since nuclear power, has a technology come upon the scene to stir up so many environmental and civil society groups.
In Seeds Of Contention, Andrew Luck-Baker explores the issues at the heart of what has arguably become the most controversial technology of our time. He talks to the proponents, opponents and those in the middle of the battleground, the farmers and the consumers.
From North America to Argentina, from south Africa to China, farmers are embracing new kinds of plants – for example, soya bean plants engineered to survive chemical weed-killer, and maize and potatoes that secrete a pesticide in their leaves and stems.
Many farmers are happy with their increased profits – so too are the companies such as Monsanto who have created the GM crops. The next generation of transgenic crops are approaching the fields, such as vegetables and fruits that stay fresher for longer and crops enriched with nutrients, such as Vitamin A and iron, which are lacking in many diets.
Not so happy are many consumers who are uneasy about the safety of GM food. Environmental organisations are irate at the sight of expanding areas of farmland planted with crops that they claim threaten to pollute wild plants with 'alien' genes, and to disrupt the ecological balance of the natural environment.
Many development organisations are also deeply sceptical of claims that transgenic crops are vital to boosting food security and improving nutrition for the poorest people in the less developed parts of the world.
Feed The World
It might be true that genetically engineered crops are perhaps unnecessary for a wealthy and well fed country such as the UK, but does the same apply to all other parts of the world?
Proponents argue that GM crops have the potential to be of enormous benefit to farmers and consumers in less developed nations – increasing the quantity and nutritional quality, of food where hunger and malnutrition are huge problems.
This case is yet to be proven and whilst few genetic engineers would argue that GM crops are the sole means to solve world hunger and counteract all the myriad causes of social and economic inequity, there are those who believe that it's premature to discount the contribution the new crops might make.
Susan McCouch – Professor of Plant Breeding in International Agriculture at Cornell University in the US explains:
|'We do not have well distributed resources… at this time, given the inequalities that exist, I think it is in fact naïve to pretend that we shouldn't look at all possible solutions.' |
Mexican Transgenic Maize
Someone, who would agree with Professor McCouch's sentiment, is Luis Herrera, a Mexican plant engineer who has developed transgenic maize, specifically for the poorest subsistence farmers in his country. These farmers are marginalized to the poorest lands, where the soils are acidic in nature. This soil chemistry results in the maize crop being deprived of nutrients and stunted in growth and yield.
But by transferring several genes from bacteria into maize plants, the crops overcome the chemical handicap they face and produce 30% more grain than they otherwise would. The intention is to make the maize freely available to farmers.
Herrera argues that opportunities will be lost by focussing only on issues such as land rights and indebtedness:
'One very important issue is that we need to increase food production and food production has to increase locally. Nowadays we have enough food in the world to feed everybody, but food does not reach the hands of the people who need it the most, so what we need to do is to make sure that technology reaches the small farmer, so that they can increase their own production.'
So here we have a crop, designed to overcome a specific and serious impediment to many of the poorest farmers – not just in Mexico, but also in many other parts of tropical Latin America, Africa and Asia, where millions have no choice but to grow their maize in unyielding, acidic soils.
The work has been funded by the charitable Rockefeller Foundation and the varieties to be engineered are the traditional range grown and exchanged in the centuries old traditions.
On the surface little would seem to be wrong with this view, but according to Miguel Altieri, Professor of Agricultural Ecology at the University of California, Berkley, the whole approach is too narrow-minded:
'Unfortunately today the whole emphasis is on varieties…The emphasis is on how do we suit the seed to the environment? Then how do we optimise the whole farming system so that it performs? … Here's where agro-ecology comes in which builds upon traditional knowledge. Farmers in my generation, especially throughout Latin America, Africa and Asia have been farming for centuries, so their input and their traditional knowledge is very important.'
Agro-ecology is the organic approach to farming - no GM, no man-made fertilisers, and no man-made pesticides. Instead the techniques include mixing traditional, pre Green revolution crop varieties that promote the growth and health of each other, and bio control – dealing with crop pests by encouraging their animal or plant enemies and so on.
For those who have witnessed the use of traditional farming methods and who have seen their families die of hunger, it is perhaps unsurprising that many remain sceptical of the benefits of agro-ecology.
The disproportionate amount of money spent on biotech and agro-ecological research however may make their negativity unfair. After all, companies and publicly funded institutes pour millions into transgenic research and development every year.
For some anti-GM campaigners the fear is that transgenic crops will lead to the world's farmers becoming slaves – bio serfs - for a small band of multinational companies controlling the entire planet's food production. But for those at grass roots level, agro-ecology also has social consequences as Mexican biochemist Luis Herrera explains:
'[It has] very negative social consequences. For instance I know of many children who do not attend school because they have to stay at home to help their parents, to take wheat by hand…What we need to do is to make more technology to be available to them, to be able to produce more.'
| Seeds Of Contention
|Broadcast over three weeks, Seeds Of Contention sets out to explore the issues at the heart of the GM crop controversy.
Part one examines the arguments that GM crops are going to be vital in ensuring food security in the developing world, as the global population rises.
Part two looks at the debates about whether GM crops pose a threat to the environment, or whether in fact they offer a greener kind of crop growing compared to the agriculture of the 20th century.
Part three investigates whether there are dangers for farmers from the degree of control, ownership and influence multinational companies have over GM technology.
To find out when you can hear the series in your region, click on our schedule pages here.