Risky Business

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19 maart 2014 | “In practice, GMO’s are at the service of private industry and not the broader public interest of feeding needy people,” argues Stephen Sherwood from Wageningen University. Will GMOs help feed the world or will they undermine long-term food security?

Twenty years after his initial research experience with GMOs at Cornell University and working with farmers in different parts of the Americas, for Dr. Sherwood there is little doubt or controversy, just the politics of a growingly influential radical movement of modern food.

In terms of sheer volume of sales, the production, processing, circulation and consumption of food is by far the planet’s single largest industry. Nevertheless, the power and influence of this industry is hard to grasp. The question is who is in charge of this multi-trillion-dollar per year business? Is it the people, government, or corporations? Apparently, the answer is complicated.

In the opinion of Sherwood, a farmer and agronomists who studies the sociology of change in food, “People may like to point fingers at the big, bad food industry, but at the end of the day, we, ‘the people who eat’, in our everyday food choices, ultimately finance the goings on in food…. At the same time, the major actors in the food industry have a vested interest in influencing our daily behavior and investments, so they do their best through sophisticated food development and marketing schemes, but it is up to each and every one of us to decide how to invest our hard-earned food money.”

Trillion-dollar industry

“What’s interesting about food is that it’s so difficult to measure its size, in terms of volume of production, circulation and consumption. When you grow maize, for example, it becomes transformed into different commodities, such as grain, flours, cooking oils, sugars, starches and fuels, which in turn are used in multiple ways in homes, stores and restaurants as well as animal feed lots. A single maize harvest will find its way into the peoples’ food systems via an endless array of products. Tracing the movements from a single wheat harvest is virtually impossible. Factor in other crops and market dynamics and it means that no one truly knows how big the food industry actually is,” Sherwood says.

“Economists in the US have conservatively estimated the size of the food industry to be USD 1.6 trillion per year. People cut it off strategically at different points, as per one’s particular agenda. Some see the border of the food industry when the crops leave the farm, and consider it another industry as soon as the food enters processing, the supermarket shelf or the restaurant plate,” says Sherwood. In practice, this activity creates a smoky mirror, marginalizing producers at key points and overall hiding the sheer size of food. I don’t think it is controversial to claim that food is larger than other seemingly omnipotent industries, such as armament sales or petroleum.

“In Ecuador, a country with roughly the same population as the Netherlands, those in the rural development industry emphasize the importance of international cooperation, which presently sums about 350 million dollars each year. While that may seem like a lot of money, it does not compare with the influence of ‘the people who eat”. Food consumers in Ecuador spend around USD 9 billion – some 25 times the size of international cooperation” Sherwood explains. “The question is, who’s driving rural development in this country? I certainly support the better work with international cooperation, but I feel we also need to work with the ones who ultimately are financing food: consumers.

No evidence

“A lot of medical research utilizing GMO’s, for example in creating new sources of insulin for diabetics, is done in laboratories. I have less concern about that application of genetic engineering, since it can be done in a controlled environment. But when new, functional genes are introduced into the environment and food system in a way cannot be shut down or controlled, it is a completely different story,” Sherwood states.

“In the early nineties I worked on a project at Cornell University financed by Monsanto to test the first generations of GMO in potato. Nearly 20 years after the release of GMO crops in the United States, the ex-post research on GMO crops does not support the claims of scientists or private industry: GMOs have not increased production by area or decreased pesticide use. In fact, the latest studies show that they have substantially increased pesticide use, especially of herbicides.

Through their environmental disturbances, over the long-term GMO’s appear to place into question the ecological stability of crops and they generally increase pesticide use. There is no scientific evidence to support claims that GMO’s can make food more available or secure, especially for resource poor farmers. Personally, as a scientists and as a farmer, I am most concerned about the social costs of GMOs – handing over ‘seeds’ – our food genetic resources and a historically common pool resource – to private interests or, for that matter, governments. “Seeds” need to remain in the hands of the people.

More deaths than war and homicide combined

“Increasingly, the most serious problems that we deal with today are ‘second order’, the product of past solutions. A good example is how people across the planet choose to address their transport challenges. “When people created the car, they also created the automobile accident. You can’t separate the two. In most countries automobile accidents are the leading cause of death. Imagine if we factor in the contribution of automobile to the production of greenhouse gases and global warming. In many cases, the long-term costs of past solutions far exceed their benefits.”

Another example is pesticide technology. In order to deal with pest problems in crops, we introduced pesticides. According to the World Health Organization, today, pesticides kill nearly a million people each year, more people than wars and homicides combined! In addition, pesticides have destabilized agro-ecosystems. Over time, the technology has knocked off beneficial organisms, leading to secondary pest outbreaks, such as the leaf minor fly, which has become a serious pest in potato. In other cases, selection pressure has led to ‘super beetles’, such as in the case of resistance in the Colorado potato beetle, which causes tens of millions of dollars of damage each year in the United States alone.

The Ecuadorian Case

“The funny thing about Ecuador is that the country has a very progressive constitution that explicitly outlawed the introduction of transgenic seeds and crops. It was the first country, as far as I know, that ruled out GMO’s at a constitutional level. In large part, this was done to protect the sheer richness of biological diversity that Ecuador has as one of the planet’s most mega-diverse countries.

Writing legislation is one thing, but after the law on locally controlled food systems or “food sovereignty” was created, it all of a sudden started to step on power interests. The most significant of them was president Raphael Correa. He played a major part in creating the constitution, but at the same time his main concern was having enough cheap available food for the Ecuadorian population. As an economist who knows little about agriculture and food, for President Correa, that is what GMOs mean.

“At one level the introduction of GMO’s is driven by business interests; at another level, it is driven by ideology. I do not believe that the main interest of Raphael Correa is to make international corporations wealthy. He truly believes that technology is the key to growth and a better future. He doesn’t look at technology critically.“

“In his promotion of GMOs, President Correa ignores thousands of years of food production that is based on environmental mechanisms. The fact is, that GMO’s are very risky. Today, there may be millions of hectares of farmland planted to GMOs, but not one hectare is going to feed poor people. It’s going to be turned into biodiesel and in processed food, all of which won’t be available to the poorest of the poor. The fact is, the benefits of GMO’s are feeding the interests of private industry. They are not at the service of feeding the poor.”

I’m not necessarily against the automobile, pesticides or in general technology, but as societies, we need to seriously consider that new technology comes at a price that may increase over time. In my opinion, rather than leap into problematic, high risk technology such as GMOs, we, as societies, are better off investing in time-proven practices that genuinely serve the interests of long-term stable and sustainable food, such as green manures, multi-cropping, and locally managed seed systems and markets.”

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