The UK environment secretary, Owen Paterson, says it would be immoral for rich countries like Britain tonot help developing countries adopt GM technology. In a powerful speech to research scientists, he claimed GM crops would prevent death, blindness, hunger, loss of wilderness and the overuse of herbicides, and would make farmers richer and the environment better.
|Owen Paterson MP|
Even the big GM companies never make all these claims, so who was Paterson speaking for and what is the British agenda? Is the UK government truly concerned about hungry people in Africa and south-east Asia, or is Paterson just doing the work of the few agribusiness giants that want a slice of the vast and growing developing world market?
Similar questions came up nearly 15 years ago when, after the Guardian ran several sceptical articles about the emerging technology, five Monsanto directors asked for a meeting. They came into the offices, met science, environment and business specialists, and within minutes were saying they wanted to feed the world with GM and that anyone who opposed them did not understand the potential of the technology. The impression they gave was that the company, which had just launched what it called a global food revolution, really believed that hunger was caused by a simple lack of food rather than poverty and/or exclusion.
Today, the silver techno-bullet they promised has still not emerged. The industry has failed to make much progress in Europe, but it has overwhelmed the US market, and the GM companies are now close to controlling the key seed supplies of many countries. Their patented GM seeds comprise more than 80% of the US seed market for major crops like soybeans, corn, canola and cotton. By last year, the global area of their crops had reached 170.3m hectares (420m acres) – a supposed 100-fold increase since commercialisation began in 1996.
But behind the rosy statistics another, bumpier, picture emerges of GM's progress. Billions of dollars of public and private money has been spent on research and development, lobbying and the acquisition of seed companies, yet only 17.3m out of a total 513m (3.4%) farmers have ever actually planted GM crops, and most of these have been growing cotton rather than food. Only 28 countries grow the crops, and in the US, where the technology is far and away the most adopted, GM has clearly failed to eradicate hunger and poverty.
Moreover, legitimate concerns over GM safety, the contamination of nearby crops, patents, the amount of pesticides used and the yields these seeds actually produce will not go away.
Paterson said the British public needs to be reassured about the crop's safety, but there is far more at stake in poor countries where agriculture makes up a much greater proportion of farmers. The real fear in many countries is that GM is being used to adopt a certain kind of farming, which inevitably means people being moved off the land, and the power and influence of the world's food and seed industries growing.
Just five companies – Monsanto, Dupont, Syngenta, BASF, Bayer and Dow – now control nearly all GM research, and nearly 60% of all the crops are resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, a product patented by Monsanto. In what may be a sign of what is to come elsewhere, the price of seeds has spiralled in the past five years as the market concentration of the companies has grown.
One big question is whether GM is now yesterday's technology and whether poor countries can leapfrog it to adopt better, more sophisticated, genetic techniques that do not carry the same risks and uncertainties.
In the 15 years since Monsanto commercialised the crops, conventional plant breeding has massively advanced and, thanks to developments in genetic sequencing and "marker assisted breeding", scientists can now combine genetics with conventional breeding, and avoid all the regulatory and political baggage of genetic engineering. In addition, there is much greater understanding that GM is not going to increase yields that much, and that the problem of hunger will not be solved by a few giant companies imposing a discredited technology on vulnerable populations. More