In 2013, Owen Paterson (the then Minister of Environment in the UK), publicly spoke out in favour of genetically modified crops, stating that GM opposition is “absolutely wicked”, due to the potential health benefits and feeding capacity that GM crops hold. However, what Paterson and numerous supporters of GM crops fail to consider, is the way in which GM crops propagate a new form of eco-imperialism, leaving no room for indigenous voices or knowledge as western science is imposed upon them. By imposing the (self proclaimed) ‘superior’ western knowledges upon them, many crucial traditional knowledges and practices within indigenous communities, which are crucial to productivity in farming their unique environments, are overlooked. Thus, GM crops leave open the potential for exponentially deepening the power divide between wealthy western countries and indigenous communities who find their voices increasingly undervalued and ignored.

Eco-imperialism: A broad concept:

Eco-imperialism by definition is a broad concept which can be left open to interpretation by numerous actors pursuing different objectives. In essence though, it is critical framework which highlights inequities within international relations. In terms of GM crops, this interpretative framework has been used by both sides, that is the side which is supportive of GM crops and also the side against GM crops.

Photo Credit: William Murphy

Paul Driessen, an outspoken advocate of GM crops, argues that denying or lobbying against the use of GM crops to developing countries is an act of eco-imperialism as, it results in the imposition of ideologies and unfounded phobias of affluent western activists upon the developing world, leading to a continuation in the starvation of the masses, instead of using technologies which could easily end food poverty. Now although this seems to be a valid argument, what it fails to take into consideration is looking at the way in which the use of GM crops fundamentally benefit the western corporations who develop and sell these crops, first and foremost to generate profit for themselves. This is particularly prominent when looking at the leading global seed and pesticide companies, all six of them being based in Europe and USA, making a combined revenue (as of 2016) totalling just short of USD$60 billion. This highlights how, although it may be warranted to suggest that GM crops do have the potential to help towards eradicating food poverty, the reality is they mainly economically benefit western organisations. Additionally, they cause developing countries to become reliant on their techniques rather than developing their own techniques which support the local economy first and foremost.

Moreover, Driessen’s comments do not pay any credence in traditional small-holder farming methods of developing countries. He arrogantly over looks the way in which these local communities can sustainably find more appropriate methods which, not only have the potential to produce yields of crops which are non-reliant on the export industry, thus ensuring the local community is fed as a priority, but also allow for the continuation of Indigenous practices and room for indigenous voices to be heard and empowered through these schemes.

This leads us onto the second, and more convincing application of eco-imperialism in regards to the use of GM crops. That is to say, the way in which they harbour the potential to mute indigenous voices, and disrupt traditional practices. The imposition of expensive GM crops and technologies on indigenous communities, has the potential to be devastating, economically, socially and culturally as it allows for the disruption of the cultures and knowledge systems of farmers, whilst also placing them into an economic system which is reliant on exports. Thus, globalising resources which were once provisions for the local and causing economic gains to be had by elites within the country, who can afford GM technology, and the large-scale western corporations which develop those technologies. By supporting the GM agenda over small-holder farming (which will be highlighted as equally productive in terms of crop yields later on in this post), it is essentially leaving indigenous communities open to epistemic racism, that is to say that credence is giving to western forms of knowledge over ‘other’ forms, unless these ‘other’ forms fall in line with the western way of thinking. In other words, the supporters of GM crops fail to grasp that there are other ways of knowing the world, which are vital in these indigenous communities where small-scale farming takes place, as they have specific knowledges of their unique environments which large-scale western companies fail to recognise as being significant.

An example of biological pesticide: Photo Credits: Scott Bauer

For example, as highlighted by Devinder Sharma, women within one community can identify the difference between non-vegetarian and vegetarian insects, this knowledge can then be used to ensure that the insects around the area can work as natural pesticides or pollinators meaning that little external input is required in those farming techniques. This highlights the importance of indigenous knowledge that the west so blatantly ignores, showing how well farmers in these communities understand their own ecosystems, thus, not only knowing what types of crops are best to plant at specific times allowing for increased crop rotation but also keeping biodiversity within the local ecosystem ensuring that soil erosion is kept to a minimum helping to keep a healthy soil structure within their farms.

The benefits of agroecology and small-holder farming:

Previously within this post, small-holder farming was named as an advantageous alternative to the use of GM crops. The importance of small-holder farming in increasing food security within developing countries cannot be understated, they have the potential to not only outperform conventional, input intensive systems, but also to empower the local communities by providing localised income and increasing food sovereignty in the area. For example, studies have shown that in Latin America, 25 years ago, small-holder farms contributed to 41% of the overall agricultural output even though the average farm size was 1.8 hectares. This was due to the fact that small-holder farms use local knowledge to ensure that there is a year round crop-yield, thus resulting in overall a higher crop yield, rather than relying on one or two cash-crops to make economic gains in order to import other food sources to make up the gap.  

These figures highlight how small-holder farming can be seen as a promising starting point in tackling food insecurity. Take Africa for instance, as of 2009, 80% of all farms in Africa were considered as small-holder farms. Although admittedly the African continent is the most insecure in terms of food security, the study of small-holder farming alongside agroecology (which seeks to incorporate local knowledges into small-scale farming systems, by identifying natural resources within those ecosystems which can be used to increase crop yields, rather than expensive external inputs and chemical fertilisers), holds a promising future if more local backing from the states which the farms are located in is put behind it.

This promise is shown by the fact that, in purchasing a GM crop on a large farm, a farmer may find themselves yielding more of that particular crop overall. However, where small-holder farms are advantageous, is the fact that they use polycultures (where more than one type of crop, plant, fruit or fodder is grown in one small area), thus increasing productivity in harvestable products per unit. Studies have shown the yield advantages of these types of farms as ranging from 20-60% which is, not only significant in terms of economic gains, but also brings empowerment to the farmers who harvest them which, for the large part in rural African communities are women.

Photo Credits: Timo Newton-Syms

Additionally, using agroecology and small-holder farming can increase food sovereignty to a community. Where GM crops force communities to become reliant on western technologies, small-holder farming combined with agroecology, allows communities to control the way in which food is produced, traded and consumed. In essence it removes the power from western corporations and ensures that the local community is in full control of the food produced, thus empowering the community and giving them more of a voice in government, as they would be in control of the food supplies rather than relying on imports.

Thoughts for the future:

In the future, rather than relying on the imposition of GM crops to ‘solve world hunger’, the alternative method focussing on agroecology and small-holder farms should be focussed on as a priority for a number of reasons:

  • Firstly, it lends credence to Indigenous knowledges and practices which have been ignored for far too long in favour of western sciences;
  • Secondly, the overall crop yield of these farms offers a more advantageous solution than the use of GM crops, whilst also ensuring biodiversity and health of the soil;
  • Thirdly, small-holder farms propagate food sovereignty, empowering the farmers and giving them a voice in society;
  • And finally, economic gains do not find their way to western corporations, but stay within local communities ensuring that they alone reap the rewards of their labour.