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Sunday, November 09, 2003 - Issues - Biotechnology - Background - The Case Against Agricultural Biotechnology: Why Are Transgenic Crops Incompatible With Sustainable

The Case Against Agricultural Biotechnology: Why Are Transgenic Crops Incompatible With Sustainable Agriculture In The Third World?

By Miguel A. Altieri
Contained in a briefing packet that was sent to ministers of the Sacramento Ministerial
June 10, 2003

The deployment of transgenic crops is occurring at a rapid pace, reaching about 44.5 million hectares in 2000. Although commercial cultivation is mostly confined to USA, Argentina, Canada, and China, biotechnology proponents argue that expansion of such crops to the Third World is essential to feed the poor in the Third World, reduce environmental degradation, and promote sustainable agriculture. Such promises do not match reality.

Biotechnology is a technology under corporate control, protected by patents and IPR, and thus contrary to farmers' millenary traditions of saving and exchanging seeds.

Hunger is linked to poverty, lack of access to land, and maldistribution of food. Biotechnology exacerbates inequalities underlying the causes of hunger.

Transgenic crops pose a range of potential environmental risks that threaten the sustainability of small farming systems. The ecological effects of engineered crops are not limited to pest resistance and creation of new weeds and pollution of landraces. Transgenic crops can produce environmental toxins that move through the food chain, and also may end up in the soil and water affecting invertebrates, and probably ecological processes such as nutrient cycling. Moreover, large-scale landscape homogenisation with transgenic crops will exacerbate the ecological vulnerability already associated with monoculture agriculture (Altieri 2000a).

There is widespread consensus that yields have not increased with transgenic crops. In the case of Bt corn the economic advantages are not clear, given that the occurrence of insect pests is unpredictable.

Savings in insecticide use are minimal when examined on a per hectare basis, and insignificant when compared to savings derived from Integrated Pest Management strategies. Herbicide use is up, locking farmers to broad spectrum herbicides that narrow weed management options and condemn farmers to monoculture.

There are agroecological alternatives to biotechnology that result in technologies that are cheap, accessible, risk averting, productive in marginal environments, environment and health enhancing, and culturally and socially acceptable.

Policies must be put in place to promote the upscaling of successful agroecological interventions, that are already reaching about nine million small farmers at one-tenth the cost incurred by official international agricultural subventions.

It is urgent that international donors recognise the gravity of the problem, take a chance on new institutional arrangements led by NGOs and farmers' organisations, and provide funding for a grassroots-based alternative agricultural development approach in the Third World.

Biotechnology companies often claim that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) - specifically genetically altered seeds - are essential scientific breakthroughs needed to feed the world and reduce poverty in developing countries. Such claims promoted by the biotech industry-created consortium, the 'Council for Biotechnology Information' with a $250 million budget, uses the issue of hunger in the developing world to justify GM crops without explaining how GM crops will actually mitigate hunger. Malthusian biotechnologists need first to explain why GM crops will feed hungry Indians when 36.6 million excess tons of grain stocks in 'godowns' (silos) of India will not. The world today produces more food per inhabitant than ever before. Enough food is available to provide 4.3 pounds for every person every day: 2.5 pounds of grain, beans, and nuts, about a pound of meat, milk, and eggs, and another of fruits and vegetables (Lapp et al.. 1998). Simply raising food output may be the last thing that is needed.

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