Genetically modified (GM) plants are a hot topic since their introduction in the 1980’s. For some it is the only way towards sustainable agriculture, food security and feeding the future world population of 9 billion. For the opposing side it is a technological fix that might bring unintended consequences, more insecurity and inequality. I think we must consider the possible advantages that bioengineering might bring in the future such as plants with higher nutritional value or crops thriving in flooded/dry areas, especially in the context of climate change impacts. My main issue with GM is that it focuses too much on the technological solution leaving behind the context – structure of politics, society and economy. The often neglected point is that no technology is neutral. The questions are who benefits from it, how is it developed and distributed? The main question is why there are still millions of people suffering from hunger and inequality? What really lies behind food insecurity and injustice?
We live in an age that is very scientific and technology driven and we are used to accepting most of the innovations without questioning them. It’s progress, yay! But when it comes to food, something is different. Although genetic modifications are used e.g. in medicine, GM crops gain the most attention and criticism because food is something very cultural and emotional. It still carries a strong connection to the environment and traditional way of life in harmony with nature – although the prevailing agriculture system nowadays is far away from that idea. Promoters of GM crops claim they can be used for another green revolution and save lives of thousands. But we now see some of the negative impacts of industrial agriculture, like loss of biodiversity, soil degradation or disrupted nitrogen cycle. The world and global market also functions differently than during the time of green revolution. In today’s globalized market controlled very much by transnational corporations (TNCs) the situation is different. TNCs have a lot of money and money equals power. There are regulations regarding GMO development and testing, but these actually favour corporations, because they make research very time and money intensive. Although Monsanto and others claim to do it for the poor and solve the problem of rising population, the truth is probably more complex. Corporations aren’t pure devils like they are sometimes portrayed, but we must be honest and admit to ourselves that they are in the first place business entities that seek profit. Profit is achieved through property rights on seeds and agrochemicals.
The whole system of being forced to buy seeds (instead of using your own) is highly controversial and creates dependency. The issue with such market structure is that more than 60% of the market with agriculture inputs is now controlled by six companies, and it will get even more monopolized in the future, as merger negotiations are taking place. There are fears that this might lead not to hunger eradication, but in contrast actually to increased food insecurity, as the companies might push the prices as they like. They also control most of the research and can influence policy in favour of large scale industrial agriculture, threatening small scale farmers that actually feed most of the world. There are concerns about the safety of GM crops and the possibility to neglect or even manipulate the testing. Although most of the rational scientific argument is quite clear about the benefits of GMO, let’s not forget tobacco also used to be advocated for its benefits. It might not be exactly the same case, but the point is that huge companies can afford expensive lobbying to benefit their aims. A good illustration of this power struggle has been the latest issue of glyphosate in Europe – against multiple protests its usage was allowed for 5 more years and some voices claim that TNC’s lobby played a big role in this decision.
The latest star of biotechnology is the “golden rice” that contains higher amount of vitamin A to help fight malnutrition. It was supposed to be distributed for free, but this will not happen after the introduction phase is over. Some argue that the golden rice maybe claims to help the poor, but it is actually helping the image of biotechnology. Again, it overlooks the true causes of vitamin deficiency, which are poverty and a lack of access to healthy diet. Most of GM plants used so far aren’t staple foods like rice or wheat (which was the case during the green revolution), but cash crops or crops used for animal feed like soy, maize, cotton or tobacco. The value generated from higher yields of these crops is said to resolve into income growth that will improve lives of farmers. The main issue with this growth idea, as we have seen in history, is that it isn’t so straight forward. Focus on the technological/market solution leaves behind the complex structure of socioeconomic and political contexts of each location. It is important not to forget that huge famines in history weren’t caused purely by lack of food, but by denied access to it – either through political decision or by simply not having enough money to buy it. The question of food distribution is important. Apparently, nowadays we manage to produce enough food to feed every human in the world, but 1/3 of it is wasted each year, due to multiple reasons at the consumption, retail, manufacturing and farm level. Shouldn’t we focus also on the structure of our food system and re-do that, before trying to re-do the Earth?
I am not 100 % against genetically modified crops. I think that a big part of GM rejection happens because of fear, miscommunication and a lack of good explanation by scientists. The main point is biotechnology is an industry – there is a commercial incentive, it is not purely scientific. In my opinion it is healthy to question it and the discourse that comes with it. For once it shouldn’t be about the “simple” fix, but we should try to take more steps toward (re)distribution and change in the market and agriculture systems that would lead to more/better food security and justice.