Wednesday, April 16, 2008

GMO Will Not Save the Planet From Hunger

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By Anne Bauer

With no offense to certain parliamentarians piqued after the tumultuous vote in the National Assembly, GMO will not save the planet from famine. It’s not Secretary of State for Ecology Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet who says so. Nor even José Bové. But a group of 400 experts who met last week in Johannesburg, under the leadership of UN agencies and the World Bank. How to feed 9.2 billion people in 2050 without causing irreversible environmental damage and without accentuating the gap between the starving and the obese still further? That’s the question which intergovernmental work groups brought together by Professor Robert Watson, former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, have been trying to answer the past four years.

Tomorrow, they will publish their final report on "The International Evaluation of Agricultural Sciences and Technology in the Service of Development." Lovers of recent miracles will be in for shock. As will be notably those agro-chemists, unhappy with the conclusions, who have practiced various blocking tactics to exert pressure. Thus, at the very moment when the minister lost her temper in Paris after several days of punishing debate in the National Assembly, the president of the United Nations Program for the Environment, Achim Steiner, shattered the customary diplomatic purring of UN meetings in Johannesburg. "Those who slam the door are wrong; we need everyone’s perspective, since there is no simple answer to the challenges of twenty-first century agriculture," he declared immediately in his opening speech, addressing Monsanto, Syngenta and BASF’s agro-chemists most particularly.

GMOs are controversial not only in France. To develop twenty-first century agriculture, the experts emphasize, we must first guarantee small farmers access to land, better organize local and export markets, open access to credit, find equitable mechanisms for conflict resolution, invest in research on local plants such as millet, promote training, etc. In short, engage in an unprecedented effort for better governance. Important productivity reserves exist everywhere, restricted by war, corruption, ignorance, the absence of financing, equipment, or infrastructure.... Although important, technology alone is inadequate. So why, twelve years after their commercialization, do GMOs still represent the path of the future for the resolution of hunger in the world to some people?

Largely because GMOs inspire people’s dreams. They represent the simple, scientific, ideal solution. The miracle GMO is like an AIDS vaccine: an objective, a hope, but still not a reality. Today, no genetic manipulation allows wheat to grow in the Sahara. Research on plants more resistant to salt or drought continues, but at the moment, only herbicide or pesticide plants are commercialized for four major crops: soy, corn, colza, and cotton - 95 percent of the patents for which are held by one company, Monsanto.

One main actor, four crops: the balance sheet should be easy to draw up, the record transparent. Yet, in spite of a decade of development, there exists no reliable international review that allows a realistic balance sheet to be drawn up with respect to the advances promised by transgenic crops. "The data collected for certain years and certain genetically modified plants indicate gains in yield of 10-13 percent in some regions and drops in yields in others," highlights the international report (1). Some farmers have adopted them and grown wealthy; others have tried them and become impoverished.... The International Convention on Biosafety lauded the establishment of some kind of international review body, but none of the big GMO-producing countries, starting with the United States, has ratified that convention.

The experts assembled by Professor Watson also prove highly suspicious with respect to patents for transgenic varieties. "It is to be feared that the instruments in place concerning intellectual property rights will in the end strangle seed conservation, as well as the exchange, sale, and access to patented material needed by independent researchers to effect their analysis and experiments with respect to the impacts of those materials." Finally, the scientists are worried about future problems between neighboring pro- and anti-GMO producers in case of contamination. Which is precisely the issue in play in the proposed French GMO law, charged with organizing the rules of a possible coexistence between GMO, conventional and organic crops. According to whether the obligations and new rules of responsibility between the "contaminating" and the "contaminated" will be more or less strict, GMO crops could develop more or less easily in the Hexagon. That’s why the text of the law, supposed to be nothing but the technical transposition of a European directive on the cohabitation of crops, arouses so many passions. It will be considered on second reading in the Senate this week, with each of the pro- and anti- lobbies determined to do battle to the end.

For or against, as Achim Steiner reminded us, even though prices are soaring (soy up 87 percent in a year, corn up 31 percent, and wheat, 130 percent) and even though hunger riots are breaking out one after the other, we must not lose sight of the fact that agricultural production is, at present, adequate to feed the planet. If we strictly divide the number of calories by inhabitant, it would even feed close to 10 billion people. "The good news is that we have enough food, technology, techniques, and science. The bad news is the horrible ecological footprint industrial agriculture causes," he prompted, while emphasizing that there will not be a single solution in the future, organic agriculture or transgenic agriculture, but different models and diversified ecosystems. All of which will require a great deal more effort than a simple slogan about GMO, humanity’s future.

  • Quotations are from the advance-proposal synthesis report before the final meeting which took place in Johannesburg from April 7 to 12, the conclusions of which will be published April 15.
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