IAASTD Report: GM crops not the solution to World Hunger. Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC

If GM crops are the panacea for solving the world food and energy crisis as Robin McKie alleges in The Observer (27 April, 2008) and Kevin Myers, “If Ever The World Needed GM Food production, It’s Right Now,” The Irish Independent, (April 29th 2008), its seems strange that it has not been endorsed by the recently released report from the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD).  The IAASTD report is a unique collaboration between public bodies, such as the World Bank, the United Nations Environment Programme, the World Health Organisation and representatives from governments, NGOs and scientific bodies.  It is a thorough sifting of the evidence about agriculture and food production, running to 2,500 pages.  It took four years to complete and involved the work of 400 scientists.

It does not endorse the claims of the biotech industry that GM crops will feed the world and produce sufficient biofuels for global transport. It argues that a drastic change in agricultural practices is necessary in order to counteract soaring food prices, hunger, social inequality and environmental degradation.  It maintains that GM crops are controversial and that they will not play a substantial role in addressing the challenge of climate change, loss of biodiversity, food security, poverty and hunger.  It did not rule out a role for GM crops in the future, but highlighted the problems which the current regime of patenting seeds has on farmers and researches.

Hans Herren the co-chair of IAASTD believes that, a business-as-usual approach, is not an option. The report maintains that the most pressing agricultural need was to support small-scale farmers who operate in diverse ecosystems. These farmers need to be given access to better knowledge, more appropriate technology which is geared to farming in their particular location as well as more credit, so that poor farmers are not at the mercy of loan-sharks. They also need and better roads and infrastructures, so that they can get their produce to markets.

Professor Janice Jiggins of Wageningen University, one of the contributors to the  IAASTD report questioned whether GM crops had been proven as safe.[1] Robert Watson, the director of the IAASTD, and chief scientist at the UK Department of Environment, Food, Rural Affairs,  responded to a question from the newspaper,  The Daily Mail – Are GM crops the simple answer to hunger and poverty? with the words,  I would argue, no. [2] The report concludes that; Assessment of the technology lags behind its development, information is anecdotal and contradictory, and uncertainty about possible benefits and damage is unavoidable.[3] The GM lobby often accuses those opposed to GM as being anti-science.  Nothing is further from the truth. Robert Watson has pointed out that, “investment in agriculture science has decreased, yet we urgently need sustainable ways to produce food. Incentives for science to address the issues that matter to the poor, are weak”. [4]

Guihem Calvo, who is an adviser with the Ecological and Earth Science division of UNESCO, one of the agencies which sponsored the report, told a Paris news conference that, we must develop agriculture which is less dependent on fossil fuels, favours the use of locally available resources and explores the use of natural processes such as crop rotation and the use of organic fertilizers. [5]

The IAASTD report argues that small-scale farmers and ecologically sensitive methods of farming are the way forward. Furthermore, it believes that the agricultural knowledge of indigenous people and peasant farmers can play an important role, along side more accessible agricultural science, in meeting the food demands of today.

This reinforces my experience gained working with tribal and peasant farmers in Mindanao, in the Southern Philippines, during the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s.  I, and many missionaries, who have worked on the ground in the Majority World, believe that famine and hunger have more to do with the absence of land reform, lack of access to cheap credit and basic technologies rather than with the lack of GM seeds.

The bias against women, which is so prevalent in both international and national agricultural policy,  is also a major factor.   Women,  who are often the central players in agricultural production in the Majority World (Third World), only receive a miniscule proportion of that credit.  According to the Nobel Prize winner, Wangari Maathai, African  woman receive less than 10% of the credit given to small farmers even though women are ‘the primary caretakers, holding  significant responsibility for tilling the land and feeding the children.

[1] Seán Poulter,  “GM food ‘not the answer’ to world’s food shortage crisis, says report”, The Daily Mail, 16 April, 2008.

[2] Ibid.

[3] John Vidal, “Change in Farming Can Feed the World”, The Guardian, April 16th 2008.

[4] John Vidal, “Change in Farming Can Feed the World”, The Guardian, April  16, 2008.

[5] Ibid.


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