Are GM crop necessary to Feed the Poor? Fr. Seán McDonagh, January 16, 2009.

The introductory page for the Pontifical Academy of Sciences Study Week on GM crops states that “poverty in developing countries is usually linked with low agricultural productivity. Inadequate quantity and quality of food impacts human development potential, physically and mentally.” The author. Ingo Potrukus, goes on to claim that “plant biotechnology has a great potential to improve the lives of the poor.”

Anyone submitting a paper or thesis in any graduate institute worth its salt, would be expected to begin with a review of recent literature on the particular subject.  No where in the above documentation have I seen any reference to two recent, independent studies on sustainable agriculture and providing food for a growing population world population.  In 2008, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) produced a document entitled “Organic Agriculture and Food Security in Africa.  The researchers found that, contrary to conventional wisdom which claims that the only way to increase agricultural output is through modernising agriculture, organic farming holds the key to food security in Africa.  An exhaustive report from the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) published in April 2008, came to the same conclusion. [1]

These documents admits that modern agricultural methods have increased output in spectacular ways. It has resulted in more cereals and animals per hectare and more output per person of those involved in agriculture. Therefore, it is easy to see how anyone wishing to increase food production would immediately opt to further modernise agriculture, especially in the majority world.  However such technological progress in the past half-century, has not led to a major reduction in hunger and poverty in the majority world. This has led the authors to conclude that the “most sustainable choice for agricultural development and food security is therefore to increase total farm productivity in situ in developing countries. .  Incidentally, I came to the same conclusion myself during the 10 years I spent working with the T’boli in the Southern Philippines in the 1980s.

Whereas the biotechnologists would have us believe that there is a  single, silver bullet solution to world hunger, namely  their GM crops, both these studies and my own experience, point out that food production is a much more complex process. In reality hunger, malnutrition and starvation around the world has much more to do with the absence of land reform, social inequality, lack of access to cheap credit and basic technology, rather than the lack of agribusiness super seeds.  Banishing hunger is also about distributing food to those who need it. The authors state that: “Increased food supply does not automatically mean increased food security for all.” [2]

According to “Organic Agriculture and Food Security in Africa, organic farming builds up five crucial sets of capital assets in communities where it is practiced. While I have reservations about using economic language to describe human skills or environmental well-being, the claim that organic farming builds up five crucial sets of capital is accurate.  Over time organic agriculture builds up stocks of natural, social, human, physical and financial capital which reduces many of the factors that lead to food insecurity in the first place.

The research found that agricultural yields in organic farming do not fall, and during the period when the farmer is moving from convention, petrochemical driven agriculture to organic practices. The authors found that organic farming increases access to food on several levels. Firstly, the increase in the quantity of food per farm means that everyone in the household has access to enough food throughout the year. Secondly, the production and marketing of food surpluses means that farmers benefit from high incomes and have money to spend in the local economy. Finally, organic agriculture creates niches for other members of the community to get involved other aspects of agriculture or horticultural production. This might involve growing fruit or coffee or any other cash crop.

Organic agriculture is based on the fact that individuals and family must be embedded in vibrant, functioning human communities. The study found that this leads to improvement in social capital with stronger social organisations and many co-operative ventures.

Organic agriculture also improves the environment.  In 93% of the case studies there was improvement in soil fertility, water supply, flood control and biodiversity.  All of this underpins local food security. The Pontifical Academy of Sciences would be better employed disseminating these initiatives, which are in line with Catholic Social Teaching, than on giving a platform for biotech corporations to make more money on the backs of the poor.


[1] “Organic Agriculture and Food Security in Africa,” United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), United Nations, New York and Geneva, page vii, 2008.

[2] Ibid, page viii

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