Will GM crops lead to fewer chemicals? Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC

As the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FA0) Summit on the Food Crisis began meeting in Rome, on June 4th , The Times of India, carried an article entitled, “As  Food Crisis Worsens; Firms Push GM Seeds” The article went on to point out that, as the world grapples with the worse food crisis in recent years, agribusiness corporations such as Cargil, Archer Daniels, Midlands, were reaping huge profits.  In Europe the agribusiness corporation Syngenta posted profits of $1.1 billion an increase of 75% over the previous year.  Both Syngenta and the US-based Corporation, Monsanto, are now using the current situation to vigorously promote GM technology.

Writing in this paper on June 1st 2008, I challenged the contention of the agribusiness lobby that GM crops are essential in order to meet the current food crisis. I pointed out that there are no credible claims that GM crops give greater yield and, therefore, at least in theory, provide more food.

GM crops suffers from the same problems which beset conventional agriculture. They are very dependent on petrochemicals. Every calorie of good energy requires at least ten calories of fossil fuel energy. This condition becomes unsustainable when what is called ‘peak-oil’ happens. GM crops exacerbates the dependence on petrochemical. Many GM crops are specifically designed to be resistant to a particular glyphosate, in the case of  Monsanto, it is called, ‘Roundup Ready’.

Proponents of GMO crops claim that they lessen the amount of chemicals used.  Charles Benbrook, at that time the head of Northwest Science and Environment Policy Center at Sandpoint, Idaho, carried out a comprehensive study using US Government data on the use of chemicals in GM crops.  He found that when these crops were first introduced in the mid-1990s they needed 25% fewer chemicals for the first three years.  By 2001, however, they received between 5% and 30% more spraying, compared with conventional crop varieties.  Dr. Benbrook stated that: the proponents of biotechnology claim GMO varieties substantially reduced pesticide use. While this was true in the first years of widespread planting ….. it is not the case now. There’s been clear evidence that the average pound of herbicide applied per acre planted to herbicide tolerant varieties has increased compared to the first few years.[1]

For years biotech corporations were claiming that their herbicides were not injurious to animal life.  However, in April 2009, Andres Carrasco, an Argentinian embryologist, who worked for the Ministry of Science’s Conicet (National Council of Scientific and Technical Investigations)gave an interview with a Buenos Aires newspaper called Pagina 12, in which he described that alarming results of his research project on the impact of herbicide glyphosate on the foetuses of amphibians.  He found that the herbicides could cause brain, intestinal and heart defects in foetuses.  Dr. Carrasco claimed that the doses of herbicides which were used in his study were much lower than  those used in fields where Monsanto’s genetically modified soya was growing.

Three days after the interview, the Association of Environmental Lawyers filed a petition with the Argentine Supreme Court, calling for a ban on the use and  sale of glyphosate until its impact on health and on the environment had been thoroughly investigated.  This evoked a strong reaction from the multinational biotechnology companies.  Similar to what happened to Dr. Arpad Pusztai in Britain in 1999, they mounted an attack on Carrasco, ridiculing  his research.  He was accused of inventing his study as his results had not been peer-reviewed and published in a scientific journal. [2]

In the light of the current food crisis, people might think that there is not enough food to feed hungry people.  In reality there is plenty of food.  In 2007, the global grain harvest reached 2.1 billion tonnes.[3] This broke all previous records and was a 5% increase on the 2006 harvest. [4] The real problem is that this food does not reach the people who need it.  In fact, according to the FAO, less than half of it, 1.01 billion tonnes, went directly to meeting human needs. The bulk of GM crops grown during the past 10 years has gone to animal feed.  This has led to a boom in meat consumption in Asia and Latin America. So, ironically, GM crops, rather than solving the food crisis, are exacerbating it.  If the world is going to feed a population of around 9 billion by the year 2050, then there needs to be a drastic reduction in the amount of meat consumed.

One other major cause of the current crisis is the speculation on food in the  commodity markets.  According to GRAIN, a network of NGOs working for sustainable agriculture, speculative investment in agricultural commodity futures has increased from $5 billion in the year 2000 to €175 billion in 2007.  Annual sales at the French private commodity firm, Louis Dreyfus, exceeded $22 billion in 2007.

An indication of the scale at which the speculative futures markets operate can be gleaned by looking at the trading volumes in the world’s largest commodity exchange, the Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT). In its April 2008 update on futures markets covering the period from January to  April 2008, 644,741 contracts were traded on average every day. This is an increase of 17% over last year. The average notional value for a day’s trading was about $2.8 billion for wheat, $8.9 billion for corn and $11.2 billion for soya beans.  During the past few months such speculation has driven up the price of food. There is something particularly ugly about the fact that what amounts to gambling on the future price of food has such an impact on what poor people have to pay for their food.  These markets need to be challenged and regulated if the human community is going to overcome the current food crisis.

[1] John Vidal, ‘GM crops linked to rise in pesticide use’, The Guardian, January 8, 2004, page 45.

See also: Benbrook, C.M. 2004, “Genetically Engineered Crops and Pesticide Use in the United States: The First Nine Years”, BioTech InfoNet Technical Paper No.7, www.biotechinfo.net/Full_version_first_.pdf> Accessed November 30, 2004.

[2] “U expected a reaction but not such a violent  one,” Grain, Seedling, July 2009, www.grain.org/seedling/?d=618 downloaded on August 8, 2009

[3] Food and Agriculture Organisation, April 2008, “Crop Prospect and Food Situation”, www.fao.org/docrep.010/ai465e01.htm>

[4] Ibid.


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