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RISKS OF

GENETICALLY ENGINEERED CROPS

Genetically engineered crops cost more and produce less, are environmentally risky, and may eclipse more affordable and practical alternatives, claims a new scientific report released by the food policy think tank, Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy.

"Biotechnology companies and associated scientific bodies are making false promises that genetic engineering will move agriculture away from a dependence on chemical inputs, reduce environmental problems, and solve world hunger," writes University of California biologist and author of the report, Dr. Miguel Altieri. "Such promises are founded on philosophical and scientific premises that are fundamentally flawed, and need to be exposed."

The report documents how genetically engineered (GE) crops are little more than a technological band-aid solution to the environmental problems of agriculture. For example, insect-resistant GE crops reduce agricultural problems to single gene solutions in the same way the Green Revolution reduced pest control to single pesticide solutions, overlooking the pest's ability to develop resistance to these pesticides. At the same time, these external chemical inputs are prohibitively expensive for most farmers in poor countries.

Other findings of the report include:

Golden Rice is not a viable solution to Vitamin A deficiency. The microbial insecticide Bacillus thuringeinsus, widely used to fight pests in organic farming, could be rendered useless because of its genetic introduction into GE corn; thus potentially building resistance in the pests it is supposed to control. In Illinois, genetically modified herbicide resistant soybean seed and weed management systems were the most expensive in modern history, doubling costs for farmers in three years.

The report advocates for "agroecological" technologies, developed by farmers, local governments, and non-profits throughout the world. These technologies are being eclipsed by the mad rush to do research on genetic engineering. The report argues for a major push to "upscale" these alternatives through changes in policies, research institutions and resource allocations.

BACKGROUND

Until about four decades ago, crop yields in US agriculture depended on internal resources: recycling of organic matter, built-in biological control mechanisms, and rainfall patterns. Agricultural yields were modest but stable. Production was safeguarded by growing more than one crop or variety in space and time in a field as insurance against pest outbreaks or severe weather. Nitrogen was replaced in the soil by rotating major field crops with legumes. Rotations suppressed insects, weeds, and diseases by effectively breaking the life cycles of these pests. A typical Corn Belt farmer grew corn in rotation with several crops, including soybeans, and small grain production was intrinsic to maintain livestock. Most of the labor was done by the family who owned the farm, with occasional hired help. No specialized equipment or services were purchased from off-farm sources (Altieri 1996).

In the developing world, small farmers developed even more complex and biodiverse farming systems, guided by indigenous knowledge that has stood the test of time (Thrupp 1998). In this type of farming, the link between agriculture and ecology was quite strong and signs of environmental degradation were seldom evident.

But as agricultural modernization progressed, the ecology-farming linkage was often broken as ecological principles were ignored and/or overridden. Profit, rather than people's needs or environmental concerns, has shaped agricultural production. Agribusiness interests and prevailing policies favored large farm size, specialized production, crop monocultures, and mechanization.

Today monocultures have increased dramatically worldwide, mainly through the geographical expansion of land annually devoted to single crops. Monoculture has implied the simplification and loss of biodiversity, the end result being an artificial ecosystem requiring constant human intervention in the form of agrochemical inputs, which, in addition to temporarily boosting yields, result in a number of undesirable environmental and social costs. Aware of such impacts, several agricultural scientists have arrived at a general consensus that modern agriculture confronts an ecological crisis (Conway and Pretty 1991).

The yearly loss of yields due to pests in many crops (reaching about 30 percent in most crops), despite the substantial increase in the use of pesticides (about 500 million kg of active ingredient worldwide) is a symptom of the environmental crisis affecting agriculture. Cultivated plants grown in genetically homogenous monocultures do not possess the necessary ecological defense mechanisms to tolerate the impact of outbreaking pest populations (Altieri 1994).

When these agricultural models were exported to Third World countries through the so-called Green Revolution, environmental and social problems were exacerbated. Most resource-poor farmers of Latin America, Asia, and Africa gained very little from the process of development and technology transfer of the Green Revolution, as proposed technologies were not scale-neutral. Farmers with larger and better-endowed lands gained the most, but farmers with fewer resources and located in marginal environments often lost, and income disparities were often accentuated (Conway 1997).

Technological change has mainly favored the production of export and/or commercial crops produced primarily in the large farm sector, with a marginal impact on productivity of crops for food security, which are largely grown by the peasant sector (Pretty 1995). In areas where conversion from subsistence to a cash agricultural economy progressively occurred, a number of ecological and social problems became evident: loss of food self-sufficiency, genetic erosion, loss of biodiversity and traditional farming knowledge, and permanence of rural poverty (Conroy et al. 1996).

In order to sustain such agro-export systems, many developing countries have become net importers of chemical inputs and agricultural machinery, increasing government expenditures and exacerbating technological dependence. For example, between 1980 and 1984, Latin America imported about US $430 million worth of pesticides and used about 6.5 million tons of fertilizers (Nicholls and Altieri 1997). Such massive use of agrochemicals led to a major environmental crisis of yet unmeasured social and economic proportions.

What is ironic is that the same economic interests that promoted the first wave of agrochemically-based agriculture are now celebrating and promoting the emergence of biotechnology as the latest "magic bullet." Biotechnology, they say, will revolutionize agriculture with products based on nature's own methods, making farming more environmentally friendly and more profitable for farmers and healthy and nutritious to consumers (Hobbelink 1991).

The global fight for market share is leading major corporations to massively deploy genetically engineered (GE) plants (also known as genetically modified [GM] or transgenic crops) around the world (more than 40 million hectares in 1999) without proper advance testing of short- or long-term impacts on human health and ecosystems. This expansion has been helped along by marketing and distribution agreements entered into by corporations and marketers (i.e. Ciba Seeds with Growmark, and Mycogen Plant Sciences with Cargill), and the absence of regulations in many developing countries.

In the US, the policies of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) consider genetically modified crops "substantially equivalent" to conventional crops. These policies have been developed in the context of a regulatory framework that is inadequate and, in some cases, completely absent.

The agrochemical corporations who increasingly control the direction and goals of agricultural innovation claim that genetic engineering will enhance the sustainability of agriculture by solving the very problems affecting conventional farming, and will spare the Third World from low productivity, poverty, and hunger.

By confronting myth with reality, the objective of this book is to challenge the false promises made by the genetic engineering industry. The industry has promised that genetically engineered crops will move agriculture away from a dependence on chemical inputs, increase productivity, decrease input costs, and help reduce environmental problems (Office of Technology Assessment 1992). By challenging the myths of biotechnology, we expose genetic engineering for what it really is: another technological fix or "magic bullet" aimed at circumventing the environmental problems of agriculture (which are the outcome of an earlier round of technological fixes) without questioning the flawed assumptions that gave rise to the problems in the first place (Hindmarsh 1991). Biotechnology promotes single gene solutions for problems derived from ecologically unstable monoculture systems designed on industrial models of efficiency. Such a unilateral and reductionist approach has already proven ecologically unsound in the case of pesticides, whose promoters espoused a reductionist approach, using one chemical­one pest as opposed to the one gene­one pest approach now promoted by biotechnology.

The alliance of reductionist science and multinational monopolistic industry will take agriculture further down a misguided road. Biotechnology perceives agricultural problems as genetic deficiencies of organisms and treats nature as a commodity, while in the process making farmers more dependent on an agribusiness sector that increasingly concentrates power over the food system.

Written by: Food First


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