Science in Society Archive

“GM-Free Organic Agriculture to Feed the World”

International Panel of 400 Agricultural Scientists Call for Fundamental Change in Farming Practice. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

International panel dispels aggressive corporate propaganda

A fundamental change in farming practice is needed to counteract soaring food prices, hunger, social inequities and environmental disasters. Genetically modified (GM) crops are highly controversial and will not play a substantial role in addressing the challenges of climate change, loss of biodiversity, hunger and poverty. Instead, small-scale farmers and agro-ecological methods are the way forward; with indigenous and local knowledge playing as important a role as formal science. Furthermore, the rush to grow crops for biofuels could exacerbate food shortages and price rises.

These are the conclusions to the most thorough examination of global agriculture, on a scale comparable to the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change. Its final report, The International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), was formally launched at a plenary in Johannesburg, South Africa on 15 April 2008 [1-3] and simultaneously released in London, Washington, Delhi, Paris, Nairobi and a number of other cities around the world.

The IAASTD is a unique collaboration initiated by the World Bank in partnership with a multi-stakeholder group of organisations, including the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environmental Programme, the World Health Organisation and representatives of governments, civil society, private sector and scientific institutions from around the world [2]. The actual report runs to 2 500 pages, and has taken more than 400 scientists 4 years to complete.

In one mighty stroke, it has swept aside years of corporate propaganda that served as a major diversion from urgent task of implementing sustainable food production for the world. As UK’s Daily Mail editorial commented [4]: “For years, biotech companies have answered critics by insisting genetically modified crops are essential to bringing down food prices and feeding the world's hungry. Well, now we know they’re not.” 

The overarching question is how to reduce hunger and poverty

The overarching question addressed was [5]: “How can we reduce hunger and poverty, improve rural livelihoods, and facilitate equitable, environmentally, socially and economically sustainable development through the generation, access to and use of agricultural knowledge, science and technology?”

The question was prompted by “the unintended social and environmental consequences” of past successes in increasing agricultural productivity through science and technology, and the enormous challenges ahead in providing food and livelihood security [6].

Apart from the depletion of fossil fuels and water, the pressure of population growth, and not least, climate change and a food crisis that has led to food riots and outbreaks of violence in an increasing number of developing countries [7] (see Food Without Fossil Fuels Now, SiS 38).

Both scientific knowledge and traditional skills were evaluated under the IAASTD, which marked the first mainstream attempt at so doing. (Coincidentally, that is just what our ISIS/TWN report, Food Futures Now *Organic *Sustainable *Fossil Fuel Free  [8] has also accomplished, which may be why we have come to very similar conclusions.) Contributors produced five regional assessments, and a 126-page synthesis report [6].

 “Given the future challenges it was very clear to everyone that business as usual was not an option,” IAASTD Co-chair Hans Herren said [1]. He was speaking at an intergovernmental plenary in South Africa’s commercial hub, Johannesburg, where the assessment findings were reviewed ahead of the presentation of the report.

An estimated 850 million people are hungry and malnourished today because they can’t get access to, or afford the supplies they need, Herren added. “We need better quality food in the right places.”

Later he told the BBC [9] that “contentious political and economic stances” were affecting attempts to address some of the imbalances. Specifically, many OECD member countries are deeply opposed to any changes in trade regimes or subsidy systems. He said. “Without reforms, many poorer countries will have a very hard time.”

The report said that efforts should focus on the needs of small-scale farmers in diverse ecosystems, and areas with the greatest needs. Measures would include giving farmers better access to knowledge, technology and credit. It would also require investment to bring the necessary information and infrastructure to rural areas.

Biotech industry and US out in the cold

The plenary was marked by some perennial disagreement over biotechnology and trade. During a long debate over biotechnology, the meeting very nearly collapsed [1]. The United States and Australian government delegates objected to the wording in the synthesis report that highlighted concerns over whether the use of GM in food is healthy and safe.

Syngenta and the other biotech and pesticide companies had already abandoned the assessment process late last year. The impasse at the plenary was broken when the two countries agreed to a footnote in the report indicating their reservations about the wording, and to accept the report as a whole, along with Canada and Swaziland, but without adopting the report.

GM biotechnology and trade had been thoroughly debated over the four-year IAASTD process, and the final wording reflected scientific evidence. The report says biotechnology has a role to play in future though it remains a contentious matter. It further notes that patenting of genes causes problems for farmers and researchers.

The other 60 countries represented at the plenary adopted the report.

UK scientist a leading light

IAASTD director of the Secretariat Robert Watson, chief scientist at the World Bank (also independently chief scientist of UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Agriculture), spoke at the launch of the Report in London [9].
            “We tried to assess the implications of agricultural knowledge, science and technology both past, present and future on a series of very critical issues,” Watson explained “These issues are hunger and poverty; rural livelihoods; nutrition and human health…The key point is how do we address these issues in a way that is environmentally, socially and economically sustainable?”

Agriculture could no longer be approached as a single issue, he warned. We need to consider the environmental issues of biodiversity and water; the economic issues of marketing and trade, and the social concerns of gender and culture.

Watson outlined some of the challenges facing the sector over the coming 50 years: “We need to enhance rural livelihoods where most of the poor live on one or two dollars a day. We also need to stimulate economic growth because half of the countries in Africa have a significant percentage of their GDP in the agricultural sector. At the same time, we need to meet food safety standards and make sure that we do not have pesticide residues, unacceptable levels of hormones or heavy metals. All of this must be done in an environmentally and socially sustainable manner.”

He later told John Vidal of The Guardian [10] that governments and industry focused too narrowly on increasing food production, with little regard for natural resources or food security. “Continuing with current trends would mean the earth’s haves and have-nots splitting further apart,” he said. “ It would leave us facing a world nobody would want to inhabit. We have to make food more affordable and nutritious without degrading the land.”

The UK Government has not among the 60 countries that have signed up to the report, but Watson indicated that it has the full support of the Prime Minister [3].

GM crops not the answer

Biotech companies, trade bodies and associated scientists have exploited the food crisis to step up their propaganda for GM crops. And the UK government’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) has been exposed for misusing substantial public funds to support marketing GM crops to UK farmers and issuing a misleading press release on how UK farmers are “upbeat” about GM crops [11, 12] (Marketing Masquerading as Scientific Survey and "UK Farmers Upbeat about GM Crops" Debunked, SiS 38)

Professor Watson told the Daily Mail [3]: “Are transgenics the simple answer to hunger and poverty? I would argue, no.”

He said much more research was needed to establish whether they offer benefits and do not harm the environment. The industrialisation of agriculture, of which GM is a part, has led to the heavy use of artificial fertilisers and other chemicals, and these have harmed the soil structure and polluted waterways. The leeching of the soil of essential minerals means food is less healthy than 60 years ago.

The IAASTD states [10]: “Assessment of the technology lags behind its development, information is anecdotal and contradictory, and uncertainty about possible benefits and damage is unavoidable.”

The authors also warned that the global rush to biofuels was not sustainable. “The diversion of crops to fuel can raise food prices and reduce our ability to alleviate hunger. The negative social effects risk being exacerbated in cases where small-scale farmers are marginalised or displaced from their land.”

Professor Janice Jiggins of Wageningen University, one of the scientists co-authoring the IAASTD, questioned whether GM crops have been proven as safe [3]: “There are many legitimate concerns about the presence of transgenics in food, as well as the safety standards that might be appropriate as these enter into animal and human food,” she said.

Report widely welcomed by NGOs

The report was widely welcomed [10]. A group of eight international environmental and consumer groups, including Third World Network, Practical Action, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth said in a statement: “This is a sobering account of the failure of industrial farming. Small-scale farmers and ecological methods provide the way forward to avert the current food crisis and meet the needs of communities.”

Lim Li Ching of Third World Network said: “It clearly shows that small-scale farmers and the environment lose under trade liberalisation. Developing countries must exercise their right to stop the flood of cheap subsidized products from the north.”

Guilhem Calvo, an adviser with the ecological and earth sciences division of UNESCO, one of the report’s sponsors, said at a news conference in Paris: “We must develop agriculture that is less dependent on fossil fuels, favours the use of locally available resources and explores the use of natural processes such as crop rotation and use of organic fertilisers.”

Greenpeace welcomed the publication as [2] “an historic opportunity to replace destructive chemical-intensive agriculture with methods that work with nature not against it.”

Pete Riley of GM Freeze in the UK said: “We are delighted that the hyped claims about the current development in GM crops feeding the world are rejected. We call upon the Government, industry and science to respond positively to the challenge the report lays down and change their approach to scientific research so it is led by and reflects the needs of those who it should benefit - not the needs of corporations.”

For a full range of practical solutions to follow on from the IAASDT see our ISIS TWN Report, Food Futures Now *Organic *Sustainable *Fossil Fuel Free  [8], to be launched in UK Parliament 22 April 2008

Article first published 18/04/08


  1. “Africa: Reinventing Agriculture”, Stephen Leahy, Inter Press Service,  (Johannesburg), 15 April 2008,
  2. “Urgent changes needed in global farming practices to avoid environmental destruction” Greenpeace International Press Release, 15 April 2008.
  3. “GM foods ‘not the answer’ to world’s food shortage crisis, report says”, Sean Poulter, The Daily Mail, 16 April 2008
  4. GM food, biofuels and a hungry world, Editorial,
    The Daily Mail, 16 April 2008
  5. What is the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science & Technology, IAASD? A compilation from its plenary decisions and official documents,
  6. International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science & Technology (IAASTD) Synthesis Report 25 November 2007,
  7. Ho MW. Food without fossil fuels now. Invited Keynote Lecture, 2nd Mediterranean Conference on Organic Agriculture in Croatia, Organic Agriculture – Contribution to Sustainable Ecosystem, 2-6 April 2008, Dubrovnik University. Dubrovnik, Croatia,
  8. Ho MW, Burcher S, Lim LC et al. Food Futures Now, Organic, Sustainable, Fossil Fuel Free, ISIS TWN Report, London & Penang, 2008.
  9. “Global food system ‘must change’” BBC News, 15 April 2008,
  10. “Change in farming can feed world – report”, John Vidal, The Guardian, 16 April 2008,
  11. Saunders PT. Marketing masquerading as scientific survey. Science in Society 38 (to appear).
  12. Ho MW and Saunders PT. “UK faremers upbeat about GM crops” debunked. Science in Society 38 (to appear).

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