As the researcher Susan Freidberg once said, “In the solutions to one era’s problems lie the seed of the next era’s plagues”, a statement that can be considered particularly relevant in the ongoing struggle of global food insecurity.
With the global population reaching 7.6 billion people as of 2017 , we are facing huge environmental, social and economic strains. So the real question for the current generation is: how are we going to feed a population of this size? Let alone the estimated 9.1 billion predicted by 2050 .
Previous reports have suggested the ‘war on hunger’ can be won using biotechnology, claims following on from the ‘success’ of the Green Revolution in the late 20th century. Despite these views, biotechnology such as Genetically Modified Foods have led the way to a whole host of new issues.
“The arrival of GM crops has, however, not occurred quietly. Over the past decade, a storm of protest has erupted”
Like many new scientific technologies, Genetically Modified Crops (GMO’s) have faced criticism from the public. Concerned by issues of transparency, health risks, environmental impacts and religion, It is easy to understand why people are so distrustful of this unfamiliar technology. This type of biotechnology has been used in the global south since the 1960s , when modern varieties (MV’s) of cereal crops were sold to rural farmers with the promise of a high yield. While there has since been media coverage on the environmental and ethical issues caused by GMO’s, the attention on socioeconomic impacts of individual farmers has been vague.
“Intellectual property rights and the patentability of life raise ethical and legal issues regarding patents on living organisms”
As highlighted in the above quote, intellectual property rights (or more commonly known as ‘patenting’), have caused recent controversy with agri-businesses placing legal claims on the genetic makeup of seeds. Not only does this bring to account moral and ethical issues, but also concerns that these agri-businesses are monopolizing the food sector so as to privatize crops and therefore control the farmers.
“GM genocide: Genetically modified cotton blamed for wave of farmer suicides”
Several days ago, I came across an article with the above title, it claimed GM crops had led to the suicides of thousands of Indian farmers across central India, it gave light to the extent of the debt farmers are facing from investing in GM farming processes. Labelled a “GM Genocide”, the article claims that many Indian farmers were forced to take out a loan to cover the initial expenses of the GM seeds which promised a high yield, so when the crops failed and income stopped, farmers were left unable to pay off their debts. A similar article by the renowned environmentalist Vandana Shiva, claimed over 200,000 Indian farmers had taken their own lives since 1997, with the most effected area being in Maharashtra (4000 suicides per year), interestingly where the majority of agriculture is Monsanto’s GM Bt Cotton. In 2002, after the World Bank had required India to “open up its seed sector” , Monsanto worked with Indian seed companies to develop and introduce Bt Cotton to India. Since then, multiple anti-GMO sources have suggested that farmers lost approximately 1 billion rupees when the crops failed and this led to farmers taking their own lives through swallowing insecticide.
Regardless of your opinion on GMO’s, this should be taken with a pinch of salt. Issues such as these are not always straight forward, therefore it is important to consider the following factors:
- The levels of suicides first started to increase in 1995, seven years prior to the introduction of GM Bt cotton .
- The results of numerous studies, suggest that implementation of Bt Cotton has actually resulted in a cost saving for farmers, due to a reduction in pesticide spraying .
- The increase in suicides has been linked to the bank reforms in the 1990s, which resulted in fewer loans available to farmers .
- Globally, suicide in farmers is high, attributed to factors such as social isolation, insufficient access to mental health clinics and a lack of opportunities.
- Farmer suicides decreased in the first year of Bt Cotton being introduced .
Comparably, in the USA there has been a significant increase in the amount of GM soy, corn and cotton produced. The companies spearheading the push for biotechnology are threatening the livelihood of American farmers, who are finding themselves more and more indebted to these Agri-businesses and facing bankruptcy. The aggressive nature of these businesses has led to multiple lawsuits against small farmers, exercising their control over the agriculture sector. More often than not, these farmers lose the lawsuit despite whether or not they are actually guilty, due to high costs of court fees. Before the use of GM seeds, if a crop failed, farmers would still have access to seeds to sow the following season. However, due to a technology agreement that farmers are forced to sign with the seed supplier, it is illegal for them to do this. Seeds are seen as the property of the GM company and therefore need to be re-purchased at the beginning of each season. Farmers that are caught or thought to be re-sowing their seeds are taken to court and fined heavily. All things considered, this brings to attention the moral obligations these companies have towards their customers, but as we all know, big businesses have very small consciences.
An increase in the global crop yield does not necessarily equate to a food secure world. Quite the opposite, biotechnology and GM farming systems can not guarantee an annual successful yield, but all too often do increase inequality for rural farmers. Putting aside the potential environmental issues, without addressing the need for policy reforms and social and financial support for farmers, GMOs will continue to be protested against. As food insecurity is a complex issue, influenced by numerous social, environmental and economic factors, it is not surprising that finding a solution is equally as complex.