by CornerHouse | 15 Mar 1999

March 1999



The world’s genetech giants are adopting a messianic position on the importance of genetic engineering in agriculture to feed the world’s growing population. Those against genetically modified food are portrayed as being traitors to the poor and hungry, while the industry is painted as the benevolent farmers’ friend. But industry can not live up to its bold claims of providing large quantities of healthy food in an environmentally-friendly manner. Genetically-engineered crops are likely to make the world a hungrier place, not a happier, full-bellied one. In this article, the Cornerhouse, a UK NGO which aims to support the growth of democracy and equity in civil society, offers a critique of industry’s main arguments.


The genetech giants have been taken aback by the strength of public reaction in Europe against their recent attempts to introduce genetically-engineered crops. In response, the US company Monsanto launched a major public relations campaign. The key planks of Monsanto's PR campaign are perhaps best summed up in the three words of the newly-crafted company slogan which appear at the bottom of its advertisements: "Food·Health·Hope". According to Monsanto, genetic engineering is key to "feeding the world's increasing numbers of people." It will help to "restore a healthy environment and prevent further degradation." And it will provide farmers and consumers world-wide with "more choices and opportunities." But close analysis suggests that the widespread adoption of genetic engineering in agriculture would have precisely the opposite effects.

Denying food to the hungry

To a public confronted with television images of the starving in Sudan and elsewhere, the claim that genetically-engineered crops will feed growing numbers of people in the Third World has great moral appeal. Its proponents seem highly responsible, even altruistic. Yet the claim is deeply misleading. It seems plausible only if one overlooks the real causes of malnutrition, hunger, starvation and famine, and erroneously assumes that the hungry must be hungry because there is not enough food. By casting starvation as a problem of food shortage, proponents of genetic engineering offer a seductively simple, but false, analysis of world hunger.

Responding to a British scientist's claim that those who want to ban genetically-engineered crops are undermining the position of starving people in Africa, Tewolde Egziabher, one of Ethiopia's representatives at the ongoing Convention on Biological Diversity negotiations, points out: "There are still hungry people in Ethiopia, but they are hungry because they have no money, no longer because there is no food ..." According to Egziabher, "We strongly resent the abuse of our poverty to sway the interests of the European public."

While few doubt that more food will have to be grown in future if the increasing numbers of people in the world are to be adequately fed, those who starve or go hungry today (whether in Ethiopia or in Europe) do so primarily because they are denied access to food. A whole range of unjust and inequitable political and economic structures, especially those relating to land and trade, in combination with ecological degradation, marginalise poorer people and deprive them of the means to eat.

More than enough food is already being produced to provide everyone in the world with a nutritious and adequate diet - according to the United Nations' World Food Programme, one-and-a-half times the amount required. Yet at least one-seventh of the world's people - some 800 million people - go hungry. About one-quarter of these are children. They starve because they do not have access to land on which to grow food, or do not have the money to buy food, or do not live in a country with a state welfare system.

Indeed, hunger has seldom been the result of an aggregate shortage of food; it has consistently been one of inequalities in political and economic power. As economist Amartya Sen points out, hunger is the inevitable outcome of the normal workings of a market economy. In such an economy, food goes to those who have the money to buy it. Only those who have the income to translate their biological needs into "effective demand" get to eat. In today's global supermarket, people earning $25 a year - if they are lucky - must compete for food with people in the same or other countries who earn $25 a hour, or even $25 a minute.

In Costa Rica, for instance, while beef production doubled between 1959 and 1972, per capita beef consumption in the country fell from 30 pounds to less than 19. The reason? US consumers could pay higher prices for the meat than Costa Ricans. It is this market logic that explains why 20% of parents and 10% of children in Britain experience "food poverty;" why Ethiopia used its prime agricultural land at the height of the 1984 famine to produce livestock feed for European markets; and why insufficient food is a perennial feature of life for an increasing number of people. Genetic engineering in agriculture will do nothing to address these underlying structural causes of hunger. On the contrary, it is likely to do much to exacerbate them.

Feeding Animals, Not People

The biotech industry's claim that its research is motivated by a need to feed the hungry is not substantiated. Few of the foods it has produced so far are likely to benefit poorer people in the South. The two main genetically-engineered crops being grown commercially in the United States, for example, are soybeans and maize. Some 90-95% of soybean harvests and 60% of traded maize are not consumed by humans but by livestock.

The development of genetically-engineered feed crops will do little to relieve hunger in those countries where many people do not eat meat. Worldwide, it is estimated that two out of every three human beings have a primarily vegetarian diet. Even in countries where meat is more widely eaten, feed crops do little to alleviate hunger. In the first place, converting animal feed to meat is a singularly inefficient means of supplying people with protein. Second, meat tends to be consumed by people who are already well-fed and who have the money to buy it.

Moreover, livestock production in many Southern countries has often been at the direct expense of poorer people's diets. Egypt is a case in point. Encouraged by the US government's Agency for International Development (USAID), the Egyptian government invested heavily in livestock. Feeding the country's expanding population of animals required an enormous and costly diversion of staple food supplies from humans to animals. Egypt now grows more food for animals than for humans. Human supplies of grain have been made up through US imports which contributed to Egypt's external debt. The consistent beneficiaries of Egypt's switch to livestock production have been large US grain merchants such as Cargill which have exported US grains at hugely subsidised prices to Egypt.


Northern governments have long subsidised their industrialised farming systems for many decades to ensure national food self-sufficiency (at least in per capita terms rather than in distributional ones). But the subsidies have also caused these systems to generate vast surpluses of food which has been dumped on world markets at artificially low prices. Smaller farmers in the countries of the South find it hard to compete with cheaper imported grains and local production of staple foods in many places has declined.

Subsidised food dumping is clearly connected to the creation of food dependence in sub-Saharan Africa. Three decades ago, the region was self-sufficient in basic food staples. Since the 1970s, however, wheat imports have increased by over 200%. Net food staple imports have risen three-fold from three million to nine million tons.

Food dumping played a key role in this surge in import demand. In the latter half of the 1980s, the US and the EU were selling wheat at $60 per ton in West Africa - one quarter of the price paid to EU farmers for their crop. Local producers of staple food crops could not compete with these imports. Local markets collapsed, household incomes fell, and investment in agriculture declined, widening the gap between local production and demand - a gap which imports could step in to fill.

Food deficits in the South have been assiduously cultivated by policymakers in the North. During the 1960s, a central objective of the US food aid programme was to translate demand for food in the South into demand for US wheat. By the mid-1960s, this programme accounted for over one-third of US cereal exports, laying the foundation for multi-million dollar markets in countries such as the Philippines and Colombia.

Agricultural liberalisation - encouraging or requiring countries to drop their restrictions on food imports - is the latest tactic being pursued by Northern countries to create further markets for their production. The US Department of Agriculture estimates that liberalisation will create substantial market opportunities for US agricultural exporters.

In South-East Asia, for instance, US policy makers expect consumers in South-East Asia to start eating products made from US wheat such as bread and pizza instead of locally-produced rice, cassava and maize. Kevin Watkins of Oxfam UK concludes that "South-East Asia is being sized up - and cultivated - as a dependent market for US food exporters." The Philippine government plans to cut by mmore than half the amount of land planted to maize and rice, reducing it from five million hectares to two million hectares. The rest will be diverted to cash crop production and livestock. An estimated half a million people ware likely to lose their livelihoods if these plans go ahead.

The claim that genetically engineered food grown in the North will help to feed the hungry in the South ignores these dynamics of the global trade in foodstuffs.

Engineering for Retail Convenience

Much genetic engineering research in food has been directed at meeting the commercial needs of food processors rather than the nutritional needs of poorer consumers. Monsanto's high-starch potato, for example, has been developed to make commercially-grown potatoes more suitable for the deep-fry vats of Northern fast food outlets, not to be a better or cheaper food. Much of the soya that is not used for animal feed, meanwhile, goes into processed foods; an estimated 60% of processed foods, ranging from bread, ready-meals and sauces to biscuits, cakes and chocolate, now contain substances derived from genetically-engineered soya. Such processed foods cannot provide many of the health benefits associated with eating fresh foods.

Genetic engineering is also making "fresh" food less fresh. A report by the US Biotechnology Industry Organization suggests that effort in future will be devoted to genetic techniques for delaying ripening or rotting of fruits and vegetables and for improving their appearance, thereby allowing them to be transported over ever longer distances and kept on supermarket shelves for longer. These technologies may allow some fruits and vegetables grown by commercial producers in the South, such as mangoes, papayas and Charentais melons, to reach Northern niche consumers more easily. But the establishment and extension of trade between high-tech producers in the South and well-off Northern consumers is unlikely to contribute much to the nutritional health of hungry people in either South or North. Maintaining a system whereby food has to travel such long distances may be good news for oil companies, airlines and motor manufacturers, but it is nonetheless an energy- and resource-intensive system which is highly polluting.

Several applications of biotechnology are aimed at growing tropical cash crops in the North, or at producing in laboratories the substances currently derived from such crops. If these applications work, they could have a severe impact on the national incomes of many Southern countries and on the incomes and employment opportunities for many individuals and communities in those countries.

Canola (or spring rape) has been genetically-engineered to produce oils which would replace the use of coconut and palm oils. This could dramatically reduce export earnings of countries such as the Philippines, the world's largest exporter of coconut oil. Coconut oil provides 7% of the Philippine's total export income and direct or indirect employment for 21 million people, about 30% of the country's population. An estimated 10 million people in Kerala, India, who rely directly and indirectly on coconuts are also at risk from the new technology.

Although some of these cash crop producers will be able to switch to growing other crops, many will not - either because they lack the money to buy the equipment needed to diversify or because they are unable to service the loans they have incurred in growing the cash crops and must therefore forfeit their land. Still others - landless labourers on commercial farms, for example - are likely to find themselves without work. With their income from export earnings slashed, few Southern countries will be in a position to compensate such workers and farmers. They will be left to fend for themselves: many are likely to become malnourished for lack of cash to buy food.

Promoting Inefficient Farming

A further threat posed by genetically-engineered crops to the livelihoods of small farmers, not only in the South but also in the North, comes from attempts by the industry to deny farmers' their ancient right to save and exchange seeds from previous harvests, whether through use of the "terminator technology" or individual contracts with farmers or through international legislation. For many farmers, the need to buy seeds every year (instead of using saved ones) will lead to a steep rise in their input costs and, in many cases, bankruptcy. Without land on which to grow food, many small producers will face destitution and hunger - hardly a policy for "feeding the world."

For farmers who have large amounts of well-endowed land, rises in seed costs may not be problematic. Such farmers may well be able to use their buying power to obtain substantial discounts. Roundup Ready seeds may also bring larger farmers substantial “herbicide-driven” economies of scale, either by reducing the number of times a crop requires spraying to get rid of weeds or by reducing labour costs. For smaller farmers, however, the increased costs of seeds could prove ruinous.

Growers in the South, whose economic survival relies on being able to save seed from one year to the next, are also likely to be ruined by the added input costs. Not only will they have to pay for their seeds every year: they will also have to buy chemical herbicides and fertilizers. Herbicide use in Southern countries, particularly on smaller farms, is low because it is cheaper to employ people to get rid of weeds. Many small farmers, who are already hard pressed by competition from heavily-subsidised food imports from the EU and the US (see Box) and by the removal of subsidies on water and energy due to structural adjustment programmes, will slide into debt. The result is likely to be yet another wave of farm bankruptcies, leading to landlessness for poorer farmers and an increased concentration of land as wealthier farmers and speculators buy up bankrupted farms.


Landlessness and hunger go hand-in-hand. Today in the Philippines, three-fifths of the Philippine population are landless or near-landless. In Costa Rica, a country where the cattle owned by 2,000 politically-powerful ranching families occupy more than half of the nation's most fertile land, the figure is 55%.

In Guatemala, huge swathes of land owned by the biggest landlords - an estimated 1.2 million hectares - lie idle, either because the price of export crops is too low to justify planting or because the land is being held for speculation. Eight out of ten farmers in Central America do not have enough land to sustain their families, forcing them to look for seasonal jobs.

Even where people have nominal access to land, this hold is often insecure. In many countries of the South, for instance, women do not have legal land titles to the land they cultivate. Discriminatory legislation and practices concerning inheritance, access and ownership are still widespread. Land that women do own tends to be the smaller, less valuable plots. This is not a trivial issue given that women produce more than half of all the food that is grown in the world. After the harvest, they are also almost entirely responsible for storage, handling, stocking, marketing and processing.

If land reform were to be carried out in Egypt, a country dominated by large landholdings, by setting a ceiling on landholdings at just over three acres (almost five times the minimum required to support a family) landlessness and near-landlessness could be eliminated. Total agricultural production might also increase, as small landholdings produce higher yields per acre than large ones.

In many places, large-scale commercial farms tend to be on the best agricultural land. The sale of their produce is often controlled by national and transnational interests whose profits do not usually go towards feeding the hungry. In Brazil, more land is owned by multinationals than all the peasants put together. Most of the TNC land is used to grow cash crops for export abroad. While famines occurred in the Sahel countries of Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Chad in the mid-1980s, these countries produced record harvests of cotton for export to industrialised countries.

If people are hungry because they do not have land on which to grow food, either for themselves or to sell, genetically engineered food crops will do nothing to lessen their hunger - they may well exacerbate their problems.

Proponents of genetic engineering in agriculture may argue that farm bankruptcies are a regrettable but necessary price of greater efficiency in agriculture. In terms of output per unit of labour, small farms do tend to be less "efficient" than large modernised ones. But in terms of gross output per unit of land, smaller farms often outdo larger ones (see Box). Reports from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization repeatedly show that small farms in the Third World are more productive than large holdings. In Thailand, holdings under one hectare have been found to be almost twice as productive as holdings over 40 hectares; in Sudan, holdings of less than half a hectare are four times as productive as those of 15 hectares; and, in Bangladesh, holdings of just 0.3-0.4 hectares are six times more productive than those of three hectares.


Although proponents of genetic engineering in agriculture argue that biotechnology “holds out our greatest hope of dramatically increasing yields,” experience to date suggests otherwise. The genetically-engineered crops now being cultivated have not significantly increased yields. In some cases, yields are lower than those for conventional varieties of the same crop.

In the first large-scale field trials in Puerto Rico in 1992 of Roundup Ready plants, Monsanto scientists found statistically significant reduced yields, averaging some 11.5% in three of seven trials. Many of the first growers of Roundup Ready cotton in the Mississippi Delta of the US complained in 1997 of low yields and poor quality, noting that bolls dropped prematurely and were deformed. More than 50 growers filed complaints with the newly-formed US Seed Arbitration Council; Monsanto has since paid out substantial compensation.

In 30 out of 38 tests, Roundup Ready soybeans yielded nearly 10 per cent less than conventional soybeans. In another four cases, the yield of the Roundup Ready crop could do no better than match the yields of the highest yielding conventional soybean appropriate for the region.

The gap may be even wider where conditions are not ideal. Several analysts have concluded that "any further increases in crop yields in modern food crops will almost certainly come from building on traditional breeding methods - not from transgenics."

Claims that the current generation of genetically-engineered crops will increase yields also need to be set against predictions of the food that is likely to be lost as a result of the use of the new technologies, particularly those that require the use of herbicides.

In Southern countries, for example, much of the output from household plots comes in the form not of cultivated crops but of uncultivated "weeds." Were farmers in these regions to adopt genetically-engineered herbicide tolerant crops, their harvest of uncultivated plants would cease, since the herbicides would destroy the "weeds." In many cases, the result would be a severe reduction in the availability of food - particularly for poorer people.

Arguments for replacing "inefficient" small producers with "efficient" large producers also fail to take account of the key role that small farms (particularly household gardens) play in efficiently supplying informal household networks with food, particularly in rural areas of the South - food which never reaches the market and thus tends to be omitted from official figures of production. To displace such networks would almost certainly result in a dramatic fall in the amount of unmarketed food available to poorer people. It would also mean that many households would have to buy their food. How much food and what kind of food people get to eat would depend on their ability to earn money or on the state's willingness to support them.

If vulnerable smallholder producers are displaced as a result of growing genetically-engineered crops, there is the threat of more poverty and food insecurity. Many of those displaced would probably find themselves in a saturated labour market. If they could get jobs, they would no doubt be low-paid, insecure ones in the cities or on larger farms where workers are generally paid piece rates.

Real wages for labourers have been rapidly declining in many Third World countries. Those working as labourers in export crop plantations have been particularly vulnerable to exploitative wages and working conditions. Because exporters rely on markets abroad rather than at home for the sale of their crops, low wages are not necessarily so bad for business since profits do not necessarily significantly depend on the ability to sell domestic products to wage earners or peasants. The overall result of displacing “inefficient” small farmers is thus likely to be increased famine and malnutrition - not a reduction in hunger as the proponents of genetic engineering promise.

Choice? What choice?

Given these economic and social risks, many farmers - if they had access to full information - might prefer not to grow genetically-engineered crops. But genetic engineering companies and their allies are moving rapidly to deny farmers the opportunity of planting non-engineered crops. Several tactics are likely in both the North and the South. Taken together, they contradict the assertions that “traditional seeds will continue to be available just as they are now” or that concerns about farmers losing access to seeds, not being able to save or exchange seeds and becoming dependent on plant breeders are “largely unfounded.”

Mergers, takeovers, joint ventures and licensing agreements between plant breeding companies, seed distributors, grain traders, chemical companies and genetic engineering interests have resulted in some genetic engineering companies gaining near-monopoly control over the growing and marketing of some agricultural commodities. Monsanto's chair and chief executive, Bob Shapiro, is candid about his company's aims: “In the past, we've supplied agricultural inputs to help farmers grow crops … Increasingly, we're looking instead at creating value throughout the chain, running from seed and inputs all the way through to consumers.”

Just ten multinationals (including Monsanto) have now cornered nearly 40% of the world seed market. Monsanto itself estimates that half the US grain industry is now using its genetically-engineered seed; it expects that by the year 2000, all soybeans planted in the United States will be of its Roundup Ready variety. In the immediate future, it is likely that farmers in the North will be most directly affected by such monopoly control. Within a few years, the only soybeans Monsanto is likely to offer in Japan will be genetically-engineered ones.

The advent of technology to prevent seeds from germinating will hasten the eagerness of the major genetic engineering firms to exploit the potential market of some 1.4 billion households in developing countries who currently save their seeds from year to year rather than buying them in. The companies feared that, without the technology, they would be unable to enforce royalty payments on any farm-saved seed in countries without effective legislation to “protect” plant breeders, or to enforce contracts forbidding such seed saving.

For the companies, the commercial potential is huge. As Monsanto's Bob Shapiro recently told readers of the house magazine of the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private sector wing of the World Bank which focuses on private investment in developing countries, “It is truly easy to make a great deal of money dealing with very primary needs: food, shelter, clothing.”

Government agencies, banks and other credit agencies are likely to be persuaded to make the adoption of genetically-engineered crops a condition of obtaining credit. This practice was widely encouraged during the Green Revolution. Monsanto is already seeking to foster strategic alliances with microcredit organisations which provide small loans to poor farmers, many of whom are women. Its company reports state that it is “striving to have at least one microcredit project operating in each of its world areas by the end of 1998,” is “working with third-party organizations in Indonesia, India and Mexico” and “is also in the early stages of investigating partnerships in such areas as Eastern Europe, China, South Africa, sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Latin America.”

Seed companies may well take conventional varieties off the market - a grave threat to organic farmers - or use existing seed and patent legislation to restrict farmers growing such varieties. The recent experience of Scottish seed potato growers may be a portent of things to come. In the early 1990s, the corporate holders of plant breeding rights over certain varieties of potato began to enforce their rights (which had been enshrined in British law for some 30 years but had not been exercised) to stipulate who could grow the seed potatoes and to whom they could be sold. A number of growers were forced out of business. It is not inconceivable that similar legislation could be used to prevent farmers growing conventional varieties that were seen to be in competition with genetically-engineered varieties marketed by the same seed firm.

Dominating Agricultural Research

Companies are channelling agricultural research towards biotechnology through the judicious use of grants to university and agricultural colleges. Monsanto, for example, has donated at least $23.5 million to Washington University for biotech research; the German company Bayer is contributing to the Max Planck Institute in Cologne for the same purpose; while another German-based company, Hoechst, built an entire $70 million biotech research laboratory for the Massachusetts General Hospital where research on crop genetics is also carried out. Concern is spreading that research on staple foods will follow the genetically-engineered direction as well.

By sucking up vast research funds, genetic engineering is denying money for research into other forms of agriculture - such as intercropping and crop rotation - that are far more effective in alleviating the problem of pests. Inevitably, these donations not only give companies some control over what is researched; they also help direct the curricula of educational colleges, particularly agricultural colleges, creating an institutional framework that is broadly sympathetic to the industry's aims and views. As the research filters down into the agricultural extension services, it also helps take the companies' message out into the fields, extension officers being a major source of advice for farmers both North and increasingly South.

Finally, companies will hope to create “peer pressure” on farmers to adopt the new crops through public relations campaigns, some of them paid for with public money. In Europe, for example, Hoechst and other major genetic engineering companies have contributed £1 million each to the European Commission's FACTT project which aims to familiarise “farmers, extension organisations, the processing industry, regulatory organisations, consumer groups and public interest groups” with crops incorporating transgenic technologies such that they come to accept them. The project - to which the EU has contributed £1 million of public funds - is little more that “a sales promotion for the GE oilseed rape developed by Hoechst subsidiaries, AgroEvo and Plant Genetic Systems.”

Alternative routes

Ensuring food security worldwide in fact requires an approach to agriculture that is, in almost every respect, the reverse of that being promoted by biotech companies and their allies in government and regulatory authorities. People's movements have demanded that legislation permitting patents to be taken out on genes and genetically-engineered organisms, including plants and animals, should be revoked, and that farmers' rights to save seeds freely should be enshrined in international law.

Instead of policies that concentrate control over agriculture in the hands of large landowners, corporations and distant bureaucrats, food security demands policies that increase the ability of smallholders and family farmers to exercise local and regional control over food production, distribution and marketing. Such policies would include redistributive agrarian reforms, strengthened tenancy legislation, a redirection of public investment towards staple food crops, and the enforcement of competition policies to break up corporate monopolies. Instead of requiring countries to liberalise their agricultural markets, food security demands respect for the rights of nations to achieve the level of food self-sufficiency and nutritional quality they consider appropriate without suffering retaliation of any kind.

Instead of encouraging the further industrialisation of agriculture, food security worldwide demands policies that favour non-chemical production with the genuine goal (as opposed to the biotech version) of reducing or eliminating the use of pesticides and other agrochemicals. Farmers all over the world have developed, and continue to develop, highly-sophisticated multiple-cropping systems that combine up to 20 crops in the same plot, thus optimising resource use, conserving soil fertility and avoiding major pest, fungal and viral problems. Many farmers across the globe are already turning their backs on chemical agriculture to embrace regenerative methods of farming that often bring higher yields whilst still sustaining the soils and other aspects of the agroecosystem on which long-term food production depends.

Monsanto has claimed in its advertisements that the implications of food biotechnology for “the sustainable development of food production are massive.” This is certainly true - but not in the ways Monsanto has in mind.

This article is edited from “Food? Health? Hope? Genetic Engineering and World Hunger,” a briefing paper prepared and published by The CornerHouse. Printed copies available upon receipt of 2 pounds sterling or 5 international reply coupons; email versions free. Contact: The Corner House, PO Box 3137, Station Road, Sturminster Newton, Dorset DT10 1YJ, UK. E-mail: [email protected]


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Author: CornerHouse
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