Genetically Modified Foods and Hunger

by Alan Forsberg

For the Lutheran Peace Fellowship Newsletter; Fall/Winter 2003
español Version en español

News reports in the past year showed shipments of US corn rotting in storehouses in southern Africa juxtaposed with pictures of the some 14 million people there going hungry. The American press condemned African governments for holding up emergency relief efforts by refusing to relax bans on imports of genetically modified (GM) crops as famine threatened lives. How could these governments possibly justify their position? Would they rather see their people starve than eat American grain?

The issue has come to a head again this summer at the Biotechnology Industry Organization annual meeting in Sacramento, California. Participants included agriculture ministers, scientists and health experts from around the world. Outside, nearly 2,000 people gathered to protest. Their main arguments: that genetically modified foods aren’t the answer to the world’s food problems, and that the United States was attempting to lower trade barriers and push risky science on struggling nations.

The debate is really about the introduction of a new technology from the developed world into the realities of the developing world. While selective breeding of similar species to improve yields or adapt plants to new environments has been done for thousands of years, modern biotechnology allows the genes from one organism to be inserted into an organism of a completely different species.

Applied to agriculture, developers of this powerful new technology claim it has the potential to produce new crops that produce higher yields, that are pest and drought resistant, and varieties that have increased nutrition. So why are African governments so wary? Many liken the introduction of GM crops to the opening of Pandora’s box.

Since any GM seed introduced could be saved and planted, it will not easily go away after the crisis. Planted GM corn has also been known to cross-pollinate with some local crops and weeds. Critics warn that such geneflow could result in loss of biodiversity within crop species and the development of ‘super weeds.’ The genetic code of the drifting GM pollen is also a patented product. This spreading property is potentially subject to intellectual property rights and royalty payments. Farmers’ time-honored practice of saving and sharing seed could face legal threats.

Other obstacles to their adoption include the fact that most GM crops developed so far have been designed for large-scale modern commercial farms.
In contrast, most African food production takes place under very different agricultural conditions and economic constraints. For example, due to lack of storage and transportation infrastructure, many African farmers often strive for consistent food security rather than maximum productivity and profit. African agriculture is often practiced at a smaller-scale, is more biodiverse and labor intensive, and is more often practiced for subsistence gardening to provide a constant source of food — not a lot of money.

The biotech industry has made a few attempts at producing an appropriate technology for the developing world such as the development of a ‘golden rice’ variety that is higher in vitamin A. Unfortunately; this all too rare example of altruism could be caught up in some 70 patent claims. The Rockefeller Foundation, the major funder by far, abandoned the project to “shift its agricultural funding focus to support research that will have a more direct benefit to subsistence farmers.”

The bottom line is that GM crops are likely to remain too expensive for most African farmers to adopt them any time soon. Lastly, many European scientists complain that GM foods have not been adequately tested and proven safe to human health and the environment. Adoption of GM crops in Africa could thus hurt potential exports to the EU which has restrictions on many GM food imports.

A Bread for the World Report sums up the future of biotechnology in Africa by saying that although it will “play a role in enhancing agricultural productivity and food security, by itself it cannot solve the hunger problem in Africa. Agricultural improvements can also be made through organic farming, integrated pest management and conventional breeding. Agricultural development efforts must also include investments in agricultural extension, credit, marketing, infrastructure and trade. ”

Especially useful sources in preparing this report include: , , ,, Information Sources on Hunger and Development Issues

2012 Update: (dead link)


Biotechnology and Hunger in Africa,- Bread for the World
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“Biotechnology and Biodiversity — Key Policy Issues for South Africa” by Rachel Wynberg1 and Christine Jardine archive of:

Some Africans prefer hunger to a diet of gene-altered corn

Even hungry Africa wary of gene-modified food

There are better ways to feed Africa than with GM crops, Dulcie Krige
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GM won’t cure hunger in Africa
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Biotech corn, soy does little to boost yield

Failure to Yield: For years the biotechnology industry has drumpfeted that it will feed the world, promising that its genetically engineered crops will produce higher yields. That promise has proven to be empty according to this report. archive of:

Organic farming in Africa wins over chemical methods
A major study from the United Nations Environment Program reported that the use of organic practices in Africa produces higher yields than farming with pesticides and fertilizers.
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