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ISIS Report 20/08/08

Why Prince Charles is Right

We Need GMO-Free Food and Agriculture for Food Security. Dr. Vandana Shiva and Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

Counteracting biotech industry’s false claims

We are grateful to Prince Charles for cautioning the world on the blind, head long rush to spread GM seeds and crops worldwide, especially in the Third World [1]. It has become necessary for him to do so because the biotechnology industry is using the current food and fuel crisis to push GM crops on grounds that they will increase yields. This is doubly false.  First, the current crisis is a result of speculation and diversion of food crops to biofuels, it is not a crisis of production, at least not yet, even though industrial monoculture has been failing through decades of unsustainable practices [2] (Food Without Fossil Fuels Now, SiS 38).  Second, genetic engineering so far has only achieved the transfer of single gene traits such as herbicide resistance and Bt-toxin production.  Yield and environmental resilience – most relevant for food security - are complex multigenic traits, and there is no GM crop currently engineered for high yields or that produces higher yields. Quite the opposite is the case. GM crops have been a disastrous failure on all counts.

GM crops bring less income, less yield, more pesticides, more pests, and superweeds; and are far from safe

Data compiled by the United States Department of Agriculture and studies carried out in US universities consistently showed that GM crops not only failed to increase yields, but resulted in yield drags, reduced income for farmers, and increased pesticide use [3]. New data paint an even grimmer picture: the use of glyphosate on major crops went up more than 15-fold between 1994 and 2005, along with increases in other herbicides in order to cope with rising glyphosate resistant superweeds [4, 5]. Similarly, Roundup tolerant canola volunteers are top among the worries of Canadian farmers [6, 7] (Study Based on Farmers’ Experience Exposes Risks of GM Crops, SiS 38).

A Cornell University study of 481 Chinese farmers warned that the farmers were losing money due to secondary pests that have emerged after growing Bt cotton for seven years in the country. These pests have increased so much that farmers were spraying their crops up to 20 times during a growing season [8].

More direct evidence has come from witnesses in the fields. Monsanto has claimed that its Bt cotton in India yields 1 500 kg/acre.  Most independent studies have found an average of just 300-400 kg/acre [9, 10] (Organic Cotton Beats Bt Cotton in India, SiS 27; Message from Andra Predesh:Return to organic cotton & avoid the Bt cotton trap, SiS 29). Many farmers face total crop failure due to pest attacks, while some get more than 1 000 kg only if the weather was not too dry or too wet. Bt. cotton is supposed to control the bollworm, but the bollworm is evolving Bt resistance, while new pests that were not previously significant have exploded, requiring higher doses of pesticides [11] (Deadly gift from Monsanto to India, SiS 38), exactly as has been documented in China [6].  As a pest-control strategy, GM crops have decisively failed. Integrated pest management [9, 10] and pest control through mixed cropping have proven much more scientific and effective (see below).

Finally, despite the notorious failure of regulation and lack of funding for independent research on the health and environmental impacts of GMOs, substantial evidence has accumulated to indicate that GM food and feed are far from safe [12] (see GM Food Nightmare Unfolding in the Regulatory Sham, ISIS scientific publication). Allergy-like and other immune responses, illnesses, stunted development, sterility and deaths have been reported in the scientific literature and by farmers in the fields. This is the main reason why consumers in Europe and the rest of the world have been rejecting GM in our food chain.

It is supreme irony that the more the industry makes false claims about GM crops giving higher yields and using less pesticide, the more they appeal to “science”-based decisions, whereas they have consistently ignored and suppressed real scientific evidence.

GM crops, farmers’ suicides and global disaster in the making

The UK Environment Minister Phil Woolas was obviously speaking for the industry when he said that the government had a  “moral responsibility” to investigate whether genetically modified crops could help alleviate hunger in the developing world [13], and challenged Prince Charles to provide the evidence that GM crops have been a disaster.

Not only has Woolas ignored the scientific evidence on the abysmal failures of GM crops, he seems also oblivious to the massive farmers’ suicides in India [14] (Indias Agrarian Suicides, Navdanya Report).  The suicides are concentrated in the Bt. cotton belt.  Monsanto’s Bt. cotton is costly, non-renewable, and unreliable.  Farmers are getting trapped in unpayable debt and are ending their lives. Vandana visited Krishna Rao Vaidya’s widow on 10th Oct 2007, and it was evident he was driven to suicide because of debt induced by Bt. cotton.  One farmer like Vaidya takes his life every 8 hours in Vidarbha. Over the past decade, 200 000 farmers in India have committed suicide. 

Prince Charles said that GM crops and corporate control over agriculture “risked creating the biggest disaster environmentally of all time.”  Two things were clear in the Prince’s statement.  He was addressing the risk of creating a disaster, not a disaster that has already occurred.  He was also addressing the issue of disaster in a broad and comprehensive sense not just in a narrow perspective of safety.  As he stated [1] “Relying on gigantic corporations for mass production of food would threaten, not boost future food supplies.”  He warned that we would end up with “millions of small farmers all over the world being driven off their land into unsustainable, unmanageable, degraded and dysfunctional conurbations of unmentionable awfulness. I think it will be an absolute disaster.”

For Prince Charles, the large scale uprooting of peasants and small farmers is a social and human rights disaster and tragedy, as it is for most ordinary people.  Corporate monopoly over our food systems is a food security disaster.  And while in some places like India these disasters have already occurred, at a global level, they are a disaster in the making.

Given all the other agronomic and environmental failures of GM crops, and large doubts over safety, we have little doubt that further indulgence in GM crops will seriously damage our chances of surviving the food crisis especially as global warming is taking its toll on food production. [15] (see Ban GMOs Now, ISIS Lecture)

It is therefore unscientific and irresponsible of Phil Woolas to say that Prince Charles must provide “proof” that a disaster has happened. We would expect the Environment Minister to be aware of the environmental principle on which the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change rest.  It is called the Precautionary Principle: where there is scientific evidence that an activity raises threats of serious harm to human health or the environment, measures to halt or modify the activity may be taken even in the absence of scientific certainty [16] (see Use and Abuse of the Precautionary Principle, ISIS Report).

Organic non-GM agriculture is the answer

The Environment Minister would be far better advised to investigate whether biodiverse and ecological farming could help provide a solution to hunger in the developing countries, especially in Africa, and he would find a lot of supporting evidence in a comprehensive report presented to the UK Parliament earlier this year [17, 18] (Food Futures Now: *Organic *Sustainable *Fossil Fuel Free, ISIS publication; Full House for Food Futures Now, SiS 38). The report documents how organic biodiverse agriculture out-produces industrial chemically fertilized monoculture by 30 percent. It came to much the same conclusions as the recently completed International Assessment on Agriculture Science and Technology: that neither GMOs nor industrial agriculture is the solution; instead, small scale ecological agriculture is the answer to poverty and hunger.  Mr. Woolas should at least read that report [19] (see “GM-Free Organic Agriculture to Feed the World”, SiS 38).

Yes we want a science-based policy on GMOs

The Environment Minister also said [13]: “Government Ministers have a responsibility to base policy on science and I do strongly believe that we have a moral responsibility to the developing world to ask the question: can GM crops help?”

If the Minister could travel with Vandana through Vidarbha and see the tears in the eyes of Bt. cotton widows, you would be compelled to ask the question “Can GM crops harm?”  That is your moral responsibility.

It is also your responsibility to sincerely base your decisions on real science, not pseudo-science supporting corporate interests.  Science-based policy would recognize that an agriculture that conserves biodiversity also produces more food and nutrition in the same plot of land.  Science based policy would recognize that if Bt. cotton traps farmers in debt, it is not an instrument for ending poverty, but has become a recipe for suicides.  A science based policy would not blindly spread GM crops to Africa or anywhere else without assessing their role in India’s agrarian crisis.  A science based policy would not rely on the unscientific principle of “substantial equivalence” [20] that prevented independent and serious testing on the safety of GM food and feed before they are widely released.

The Supreme Court of India has served notice on the Government of India to ask why a GMO Moratorium should not be imposed till proper testing protocols and tests and facilities for biosafety are in place [21].

We want a science for peace and sustainability

We are proud that Prince Charles will be delivering the Ninth Howard Memorial lecture for Navdanya this year on 2nd October.  Navdanya has organized the lecture to honour Sir Albert Howard, the imperial agriculturist sent to India early last century. His Agricultural Testament published in 1940 was based on the knowledge on sustainable farming he learnt from India’s peasants.  The lecture will take place on Gandhi’s birth anniversary to celebrate non-violent farming which protects all species, the farmers, the soil and our health [2, 17].

GMOs are the latest offerings in a violent tradition of industrial agriculture that has its roots in war and has become a war against the farmers, the land, and our bodies. All that the biotech industry and its allies in governments can talk about is the smartness of their weapons in a war against nature. Prince Charles, like many of us, wants this war to end.

It is time they realized the debate is much wider and deeper.  It is about the planet we live on, the societies we are shaping, the billions condemned to exclusion, the super profits for the gene giants and giant grain harvesters, while the real harvest in the fields of real farmers shrink.

GMOs have failed the test of both ecological sustainability and socio-economic accountability. They have the worst features of industrial monocultures and more. They are therefore a greater driver of climate change as well as being more vulnerable to climate change [2]. Prince Charles is right to warn of this impending catastrophe, and we must take heed.

References

  1. “Prince Charles warns GM crops biggest-ever environmental disaster”, Jeff Randall, 12 August 2008, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/main.jhtml?xml=/earth/2008/08/12/eacharles112.xml
  2. Ho MW. Food without fossil fuels now. Science in Society 39, 8-13, 2008.
  3. Benbrook CM. Genetically Engineered Crops and Pesticide Use in the United States: The First Nine Years”, BioTech InfoNet, Technical Paper Number 7, 2004
  4. Who benefits from gm crops? The rise in pesticide use, executive summary, Friends of the Earth International, Amsterdam, January 2008.
  5. “Report raises alarm over ‘superweeds’”, Brian Hindo, Business Week, 13 February 2008, http://www.businessweek.com/bwdaily/dnflash/content/feb2008/db20080212_435043.htm?chan=top+news_top+news+index_businessweek+exclusives%20
  6. Mauro IJ and McLachlan SM. Farmer knowledge and risk analysis: postrelease evalulation of herbicide-tolerant canola in Western Canada. Risk Analysis 2008, 28, DOI:10.1111/j.1539-6924.200801027.x
  7. Ho MW. Canadian farmers’ experience exposes risks of GM crops. Science in Society 38,  44-45, 2008.
  8. “Seven-year glitch: Cronell warns that Chinese GM cotton farmers are losing moneyBts”, Susan Lang, Chronicleonline, 25 July 2006, http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/July06/Bt.cotton.China.ssl.html
  9. Gala R. Organic cotton beats Bt cotton. Science in Society 27, 49-50, 2005.
  10. Gala R. Return to organic cotton & avoid the Bt-cotton trap. Science in Society 29, 38-39, 2006.
  11. “Deadly gift from Monsanto to India”, Ram Kalaspurkar, eye witness report with photographs, Letter to the Editor, Science in Society 38, SIS 36 - Letters to the editor), 51, 2008.
  12. Ho MW, Cummins J and Saunders PT. GM food nightmare unfolding in the regulatory sham. Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease 2007, Disease 2007, 19, 66-77.
  13. “Minister challenges Prince Charles to prove GM crops threat”, Jenny Percival, The Guardian, 17 August 2007, http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/aug/17/gmcrops.greenpolitics
  14. India’s Agrarian Suicides, Navdanya, 15 July 2004, http://www.navdanya.org/news/04july15.htm
  15. Ho MW. Ban GM crops now. ISIS invited Lecture, 4 June 2008, http://www.i-sis.org.uk/banGMOsNow.php
  16. Saunders PT. Use and abuse fo the Precautionary Principle, ISIS Report, 11 July 2000, http://www.i-sis.org.uk/prec.php
  17. Ho MW,  Burcher S, Lim LC, et al. Food Futures Now, Organic, Sustainable, Fossil Fuel Free, ISIS and TWN, London, 2008.
  18. Burcher S. Full house for Food Futures Now. Science in Society 38, 3-7, 2008.
  19. Ho MW. “GM-free organic agriculture to feed the world”, Science in Society 38, 14-15, 2008.
  20. Ho MW and Steinbrecher R. Journal of Nutritional and Environmental Interactions 1998, 2, 51-84.
  21. “SC issues notice to Centre on plea for GM crops' moratorium” Press Trust India, August 12 2008, http://www.hindu.com/thehindu/holnus/001200808121921.htm
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