Americans expect cutting-edge science to solve every conceivable problem, and that includes the global food supply, which has been radically altered in recent years by genetic engineering. This process involves splicing DNA from bacteria, viruses, and other organisms into plants, and is supposed to generate miracle crops to feed a hungry world. Promises of increased yield, extra nutrients, and drought-tolerance are made by the likes of the U.S. government, and influential donors like the Rockefeller and Gates Foundations, but after two decades are still unfulfilled. Enthralled by some highly publicized experiments, many well-meaning agricultural experts seem blind to the quite different reality in the field.
If biotech crops are not about feeding the world, what is the point? The operative formula is biotechnology = chemicals + seeds.
Far from feeding the world, the biotech “revolution” that began in the 1990s has largely bypassed the world’s poor farmers. Over half of all genetically engineered crops are grown in the U.S. and Canada, most of the rest in South America. Biotech soybeans and corn are most prevalent, and are grown primarily on large farms, for export, to feed livestock or fuel cars (“biofuels”) in rich nations. In Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, food crops and the small farmers who grow them are being displaced by GE soybean plantations to feed the cows of Europe and Japan. Rural poverty is rampant in all three countries.
The most widely planted type of biotech crop is engineered to withstand application of an herbicide to kill nearby weeds. With these “herbicide-tolerant” crops, weed-killing chemicals reduce labor needs for weed control, a particular benefit to larger growers. Monsanto has a near monopoly in this field with its Roundup Ready line of crops. Problems include an epidemic of Roundup-resistant weeds, and increased use of Roundup and other herbicides to kill them. Most of the world’s small farmers can’t afford pricey herbicides, anyway.
What about yield? Nothing to brag about here. The most widely cultivated biotech crop, Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybeans, actually suffers from a slight “yield drag” compared with conventional varieties. The Union of Concerned Scientists found that conventional breeding practices are responsible for yield increases in corn, while insect-resistant GE corn reduces yield losses only under conditions of heavy pest infestation, which are infrequent.
If biotech crops are not about feeding the world, what is the point? A look at the industry is instructive. The operative formula is biotechnology = chemicals + seeds. The world’s leading agrichemical companies—Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, and Bayer—have bought up a substantial chunk of the world’s seed supply. Genetic engineering is used primarily to develop herbicide-tolerant crops, and so exploit synergies between the firms’ chemical and seed divisions. On the horizon are biotech crops engineered to tolerate multiple—up to seven or more – herbicides.
Gene patents are another troubling development. While such patents normally apply to the foreign genes spliced into seeds, courts have perversely interpreted these gene patents as granting biotech firms comprehensive rights to the seeds that contain them. One consequence is that a farmer can be held liable for patent infringement even if the patented gene/plant appears in his fields through no fault of his own (e.g. cross-pollination or seed dispersal). Another consequence is that farmers can be sued for patent infringement if they save and replant seeds from their harvest, so-called second-generation seeds. In the U.S., Monsanto has pursued thousands of farmers for allegedly saving its patented Roundup Ready soybean seeds, extracting tens of millions of dollars in damages from them in the process. Monsanto claims that patents are necessary to ensure returns on its R&D in biotechnology, but this merely begs the question of whether the world really needs more GE crops.
Biotech firms also have “Terminator” technology waiting in the wings. Terminator is a genetic manipulation that renders harvested seeds sterile, and represents a biological means to achieve the same end as patents: elimination of seed-saving. While international opposition has thus far blocked deployment of Terminator, Monsanto recently purchased the seed company (Delta and Pine Land) that holds several major patents on the technology (together with the U.S. Department of Agriculture). And while Monsanto has pledged not to deploy Terminator, the company has stated that this “pledge” is revocable at any time.
Biotech seeds are also quite expensive, two to over four times as much as conventional varieties. The price ratchets up with each new “trait” that is introduced. Seeds with one trait were once the norm, but are rapidly being replaced with two- and three-trait versions. Monsanto and Dow recently announced plans to introduce GE corn with eight different traits. Farmers who want more affordable conventional seed, or even biotech seed with just one or two traits, may soon be out of luck. As University of Kentucky agronomist Chad Lee put it: “The cost of corn seed keeps getting higher and there doesn’t appear to be a stopping point in sight.” Developing countries that accept biotech crops can count on the same steeply rising seed prices that American farmers now face.
Last year, an exhaustive three-year appraisal of world agriculture sponsored by the United Nations and World Bank—the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development—concluded that biotech crops have little potential to alleviate hunger and poverty. Instead, the IAASTD’s experts recommended low-input agroecological techniques, empowerment of women, and trade reform as the way forward for developing countries' agriculture.
Those findings resonated with my experiences in agricultural development. Back in the early 1980s, when on a college program in India, I studied a low-tech irrigation project in drought-prone Maharashtra. The keys to success involved “harvesting” monsoon runoff in catchment zones to replenish the water table, inexpensive electric motors to pump the stored water for irrigation, and a firm commitment to grow water-sparing staples like millet rather than water-intensive cash crops like sugarcane. Such projects, sadly, were too few to stave off India’s current water crisis, caused in no small part by massive reliance on high-yielding but water-intensive “Green Revolution” crops. With world hunger on the rise despite GE crops, it’s time we look just as skeptically this new “biotech revolution” in agriculture.
Bill Freese is science policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit group that supports sustainable agriculture.