World hunger not on GM agenda

June 11, 1999

The biotech industry is desperate to sell the argument that we need genetically modified crops to feed the world ("Seeds of hope, kernels of truth", THES, June 4). I have no doubt that Michael Lipton is correct that there is very little research representing serious efforts towards this aim.

But he fails to follow his argument through. In fact, his observation is a good demonstration of the disingenuity of the biotech industry's claims.

Lipton is right: the massive investments of the industry in patents, seed companies and pesticide production are not designed to provide benefits for the developing world. The opposite is true. An estimated 10 million sugar farmers in the South face loss of livelihood because of GM sugars and sweeteners being grown in the North. At least 31 million people in the Philippines and India whose livelihoods depend on coconut and palm oil are similarly at risk.

According to the United Nations World Food Programme, the world produces 1.5 times the amount of food required to provide us all with an adequate, nutritious diet, and yet at least one-seventh of the world population is hungry. The problem is lack of access to food. No one has explained how GM technology will address this.

Research has repeatedly shown that land reform and irrigation can boost crops by up to 50 per cent, as against 10 per cent and falling for GM technology - not to mention the environmental damage that will be caused by more pesticide and herbicide use.

And what about the many rural areas in the South where vital portions of diets are uncultivated "weeds"?

The biotech companies are buying seed companies and have patents on terminator technology in more than 90 countries. Monsanto employs private detectives to catch farmers who "illegally" plant saved GM seed in the United States. And yet, 80 per cent of crops in the developing world are grown from saved seeds, accounting for 15 per cent to 20 per cent of the world's food.

Far from heralding the end of world hunger, the new technologies will bring waves of bankrupt farmers and more concentration of land in the hands of a rich few. A recent Christian Aid report concluded that GM crops are creating classic preconditions for widespread hunger and famine.

For more detailed information, I recommend the briefing Food? Health? Hope? Genetic Engineering and World Hunger, obtainable from cornerhouse@gn.acp.org or www.icaap.org/Cornerhouse/ Caroline Series

Mathematics Institute Warwick University

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