After the news that Americans are turning to GM-free foods, most of which have to be imported, came another item; Vicki Hird, who works on food and farming issues at Friends of the Earth, noted in the Financial Times recently that Tom Vilsack, the US agriculture secretary and founder/former chair of the Governor’s Biotechnology Partnership, implied that adopting GM technology is the way to feed a growing world population.
Vicki points out that in reality:
- most GM crops are grown for animal feed and biofuels,
- western European farmers have achieved higher yields than US farmers without GM crops
- viable and safe options for feeding the world are already known.
An agency of the UN’s environmental programme (UNEP), the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), issued a Synthesis Report on all aspects of agriculture which summarised the problems of GM crops on page 14. It is valid today.The pdf may be downloaded here.
The editorial of the journal Nature Biotechnology (Nature Biotechnology 26, 247 (2008) doi:10.1038/nbt0308-247) was critical: “its conclusions about biotech are at best equivocal and at worst downright negative”.
Indian analyst Devinder Sharma took part in a heated 2013 Delhi TV debate on a biotech regulatory authority bill, with two pro GM scientists, a Maharashtrian whose state has been conducting GM field trials and a Greenpeace spokesman.
He stressed the importance of studying the research findings of independent scientists, not – as at present – relying on the industry’s data.
During the debate the pro-GM scientists said emphatically that India needs GM edible oil crops because it has to import most of this crop.
The scientists’ misinformation was immediately exposed by Sharma during the debate. As he explained in a 2008 article: in 1984, the late Rajiv Gandhi expressed concern at the growing import bill for edible oils. A technology mission for oilseeds was set up. Between 1986-87 and 1994-95, there was a spectacular increase in the production of oilseeds: from 11 million tonnes in 1986-87, to 22 million tonnes in 1994-95, thereby making the country almost self-sufficient (97% mentioned in the TV debate) in edible oil production. But then India began importing cheaper edible oil from Malaysia, Indonesia and the US and domestic production capacity dwindled. Import duties are lowered periodically, making it uneconomical for the domestic industry to survive.
In a paper on the subject, Lawrence Woodward of the Organic Research Centre (Elm Farm) says:
“What are the technical problems involved in (feeding the world) organically? There are no really significant ones in the developed world. Of course there is room for improvement – for example weed control techniques could be better, progress can still be made on certain disease problems such as finding more blight resistant potato varieties – but there are no technical obstacles that would prevent organic farming producing enough food in the developed world. Just as long as it is not expected to maintain the chicken at 36p per pound type of diet. The obstacles to organic farming are economic and are governed by policy. Where this is sympathetic as in Germany and Denmark, a significantly large switch from conventional to organic production can occur without major difficulty.
“In resource poor countries organic farming, with its emphasis on biological nitrogen supply, on maintenance and enhancement of organic matter, and on soil and water protection, is arguably the most appropriate farming system and the most sensible approach to feeding people”.
In a civilised trading system, each country would aim to produce its own staple food; surpluses and exotics could be exported. Speculation in food by unproductive middlemen would be outlawed and vitally important food producers encouraged at every turn.