s/r home  | issues  | authors  | 19 contents
Synthesis/Regeneration home page | S/R 19 Contents
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.
More than enough food is already being produced...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.
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.
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 Program, one-and-a-half times the amount required. Yet at least one-seventh of the world's people-some 800 million-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.
Responding to a British scientist's claim that those who want to ban genetically engineered crops are undermining the position of starving people in Ethiopia, Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher, Ethiopia's representative at the ongoing negotiations to draw up a biosafety protocol as part of the Convention on Biological Diversity, recently stated:There are still hungry people in Ethiopia, but they are hungry because they have no money, no longer because there is no food to buy . . . 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 the United States) 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, marginalize poorer people and deprive them of the means to eat.
Genetic engineering in agriculture will do nothing to address the underlying structural causes of hunger, nor the inequalities that support them. In fact, far from staving off world starvation, genetic engineering is set to threaten crop yields; to force farmers to pay for their rights to fertile seed; to undercut foreign demand for some Third World produce; and to undermine poorer farmers' access to land on which to grow food. Its cruelly deceptive promise of a technical fix for many people's lack of food not only conceals the unjust distribution of land and of economic and political power which underpin world hunger today; if adopted widely, genetic engineering technologies in agriculture would also entrench and extend these forces.
Genetic engineering in agriculture will do nothing to address the underlying structural causes of hunger, nor the inequalities that support them.
The high costs of genetically engineered crops are likely to squeeze many small and medium-sized farmers out of business, with the result that still more people will be unable to grow or pay for the food they need. As long as access to food depends upon money, and poorer people are excluded from food markets or land, significant numbers of people will be malnourished, hungry and starving-whatever happens to the global food supply and whatever happens to the number of people in the world.
Feeding Animals, Not People
The two main genetically engineered crops being grown commercially in the United States are soybeans and maize (corn). Some 90-95% of soybean harvests and 60% of traded maize are not consumed by humans but by livestock.
Animal feed is likely to continue to be an important focus of genetic research. In 1998, Monsanto announced a joint venture with the world's largest grain merchant, Cargill, to create and market new grain processing and animal feed products "enhanced though biotechnology".
The development of genetically engineered feed crops will do little to relieve hunger in countries such as India 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. World hunger could be lessened if people ate the plant protein directly rather than eating meat. An acre of cereal is estimated to produce 5 times more protein than an acre devoted to meat production; an acre of legumes (such as beans, peas, lentils) 10 times more; and of leafy vegetables, 15 times more.
Second, meat tends to be consumed by people who are already well fed and who have the money to buy it. A 1987 survey of consumption patterns in over 50 countries found that higher income groups consistently derived more of their fat, proteins and calories from animal sources than lower income groups.
The high costs of genetically engineered crops are likely to squeeze many small and medium-sized farmers out of business, with the result that still more people will be unable to grow or pay for the food they need.
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 U.S. government's Agency for International Development (USAID) and other development agencies, 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-almost 40% of the total agricultural land is under animal fodder crops. Human supplies of grain have been made up through U.S. imports that contributed to Egypt's external debt; in 1988, the country's debt was five times the value of its exports. The consistent beneficiaries of Egypt's switch to livestock production have been large U.S. grain merchants such as Cargill which have exported U.S. grains at hugely subsidized prices to Egypt.
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.
Calgene (now part of Monsanto) engineered Flavr Savr tomatoes for delayed ripening so that they would have a longer supermarket shelf life. In the U.S., they had to be withdrawn from sale because the texture and taste did not meet with public approval and because they bruised during transport.
The European Union has funded research into engineering the leaves of cauliflower to stay green for longer so that the vegetables appear fresher-even though people don't usually eat the leaves.
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.
The fact that the average consumption of fresh fruit is declining amongst low-income groups stems partly from the retailing systems associated with the long-distance transport of foods that genetic engineering will facilitate. More and more food in Northern countries is now transported farther and farther away from its point of production by road-trucks effectively becoming mobile warehouses. Supermarket chains have built new out-of-town stores as close as possible to major roads.
Some 90-95% of soybean harvests and 60% of traded maize are not consumed by humans but by livestock.
Poorer people who do not have cars are left to buy food at corner shops, convenience stores or independent small supermarkets where prices are on average 23% higher than those in large supermarket chains and discount stores-and where food may be even less fresh than in out-of-town stores. Significantly, a 1996 study of malnutrition among poorer families in Britain points out that "by far the most energetic action" to address the problem of expensive low-quality food has come "from within deprived communities, which have set up projects to improve access to healthier food, for instance, food-buying cooperatives, bartering projects and subsistence agriculture."
A report by the U.S. Biotechnology Industry Organization, meanwhile, 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 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 that is highly polluting.
The interests of all consumers would be better served not by promoting genetically engineered food but by encouraging food to be grown and consumed as close as possible to the point of production, giving consumers and growers, not transnationals, greater control over their markets.
For many farmers, the need to buy seeds every year (instead of using saved ones) and to buy the chemical herbicides and fertilizers that go with them will lead to a steep rise in their input costs. Many small farmers in the countries of the South who are already hard pressed by competition from heavily-subsidized food imports from the EU and the U.S. and by the removal of subsidies on water and energy due to structural adjustment programs, will slide into debt.
The result is likely to be a new 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.
For many farmers, the need to buy seeds every year (instead of using saved ones) and to buy the chemical herbicides and fertilizers that go with them will lead to a steep rise in their input costs.
Without land on which to grow food, genetically engineered or not, many people in the countries of the South are likely to go hungry.
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 labor market. If they could get jobs, they would probably be low-paid, insecure ones in the cities or on larger farms where workers are generally paid piece rates. Real wages for laborers have been rapidly declining in many Third World countries.
Those working as laborers 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 bad for business since profits do not depend on the ability to sell domestic products to wage earners or peasants.
When food goes to those who have the money to buy it, however, 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.
It is this market logic that explains why Ethiopia was using some of its prime agricultural land at the height of the 1984 famine in the Horn of Africa to produce linseed cake, cottonseed cake and rapeseed meal for export to Britain and other European nations as feed for livestock.
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 allowing 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 liberalize 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. The agricultural agreements of the WTO, which require countries to open up their agricultural markets to imports, should be renegotiated.
Instead of encouraging the further industrialization of agriculture, food security worldwide demands policies that favor non-chemical production with the genuine goal (as opposed to the biotech version) of reducing or eliminating the use of pesticides and other agrochemicals.
This article is abridged from "Food? Health? Hope? Genetic Engineering and World Hunger," published by The Corner House, PO Box 3137, Station Road, Sturminster Newton, Dorset DT10 1YJ, BRITAIN. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org . Electronic versions available free from the publishers; printed copies available upon receipt of 5 international reply coupons.