Are Genetically Altered Foods The Answer to World Hunger?

The Monsanto Roundup - Book Excerpt: The Food Revolution

Biotechnology is one of tomorrow’s tools in our hands today. Slowing its acceptance is a luxury our hungry world cannot afford.

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Genetically engineered crops were created not because they’re productive but because they’re patentable. Their economic value is oriented not toward helping subsistence farmers to feed themselves but toward feeding more livestock for the already overfed rich.

Amory and Hunter Lovins,
Founders of the Rocky Mountain Institute

The global acreage planted in genetically engineered foods grew nearly 25-fold in the three years after 1996, the first year of large-scale commercialization. Yet this enormous growth took place almost entirely in only three countries.

Soybeans. Photo by Alabama Extension.
Soybeans. Photo by Alabama Extension.

In 1999, the United States by itself accounted for 72 percent of the crops. Argentina was responsible for another 17 percent and Canada weighed in with another 10 percent. These three countries together accounted for 99 percent of the entire planet’s genetically engineered plantings.

Monsanto and other proponents of biotechnology continually tell the public that genetic engineering is necessary if the world’s food supply is to keep up with population growth. But even with nearly 100 million acres planted, their products have yet to do a thing to reverse the spread of hunger. There is no more food available for the world’s less fortunate. In fact, most of the fields were growing transgenic soybeans and corn that are destined for livestock feed.

One of the clearest independent voices in the sometimes raucous debate about genetically modified foods is Rachel’s Environment and Health Weekly [Environmental Research Foundation, Annapolis, PO Box 5036, Annapolis, MD 21403-7036, (888) 272-2435, fax: (410) 263-8944,]. In 1999, the journal noted that “Neither Monsanto nor any of the other genetic engineering companies appears to be developing genetically engineered crops that might solve global food shortages.” If genetically engineered crops were aimed at feeding the hungry, Rachel’s noted, Monsanto would be developing seeds with certain predictable characteristics including:

  • able to grow on substandard or marginal soils;
  • able to produce more high-quality protein with increased per-acre yield, without the need for expensive machinery, chemicals, fertilizers or water;
  • engineered to favor small farms over larger farms;
  • cheap and freely available without restrictive licensing; and
  • designed for crops that feed people, not meat animals.

“None of the genetically engineered crops now available, or in development (to the extent that these have been announced) has any of these desirable characteristics,“ Rachel’s reports. “The genetic engineering revolution has nothing to do with feeding the world’s hungry.”

If genetically engineered (GE) plants were designed to reverse world hunger, you would expect them to bring higher yields. But there is increasing evidence that they do just the opposite. Ed Oplinger, a professor of agronomy at the University of Wisconsin, has been conducting performance trials for soybean varieties for the past 25 years. In 1999, he compared the soybean yields in the 12 states that grew 80 percent of US soybeans and found that the yields from genetically modified soybeans were 4 percent lower than conventional varieties.

When other researchers compared the performance of Monsanto’s transgenic soybeans (the world’s number-one GE crop in terms of acreage planted) with those of conventional varieties grown under the same conditions, they found nearly a 10 percent yield reduction for the genetically engineered soybeans. And research done by the University of Nebraska in 2000 found the yields of GE soybeans were 6 to 11 percent lower than conventional plants.

Not that this research has hampered Dick Goddown, vice-president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, from repeating the refrain that genetic engineering “is the best hope we have, as denizens of this planet, of being able to feed the people who are going to be on it.”

If genetically modified foods really were an answer to world hunger, it would be a powerful and persuasive argument in their favor. How could anyone stand in the way of feeding desperate and starving people? But Dr. Vandana Shiva, one of the world’s foremost experts on world hunger and transgenic crops, claims that the argument that biotechnology will help feed the world “is on every level a deception… Soybeans go to feed the pigs and the cattle of the North. All the investments in agriculture are about increasing chemical sales and increasing monopoly control. All this is taking place in the private domain, by corporations that are not in the business of charity. They are in the business of selling. The food they will produce will be even more costly.”

Similarly, delegates from 18 African countries at a meeting of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization responded to Monsanto’s advertisements with a clear statement: “We… strongly object that the image of the poor and hungry from our countries is being used by giant multinational corporations to push a technology that is neither safe, environmentally friendly, nor economically beneficial to us. We do not believe that such companies or gene technologies will help our farmers to produce the food that is needed… On the contrary… it will undermine our capacity to feed ourselves.”

In 2000, a coalition of biotech companies began a $50 million media campaign to keep fears about genetically altered foods from spreading through the US. Bankrolling the campaign (which included $32 million in TV and print advertising) were Monsanto, Dow Chemical, DuPont, Swiss-based Novartis, the British Zeneca, Germany’s BASF and Aventis of France. The ads, complete with soft-focus fields and smiling children, pitched “solutions that could improve our world tomorrow” and could help end world hunger.

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