Monday, July 16, 2012

GMOs and Global Hunger

Last week I began an exploration of Genetically Modified Organisms, the corporations that are developing them and the implications these organisms have for the future of our food supply. You can read the first two installments of the series here and here.

Today I want to consider the argument made by these corporations that the work they are doing will significantly help to reduce hunger in the world. I'm all for that. Who wouldn't be? I can't think of a single person who when directly asked whether he or she would like to reduce or eliminate hunger wouldn't say yes immediately. Which makes it a very powerful argument when a corporation tries to promote the use of GMOs. Too give them the benefit of the doubt, maybe the people running these corporations really do believe that their genetic modifications will help increase global food supply. But I'm skeptical.

From the documentary The Future of Food I learned that several staple food items that we produce in the United States cannot be sold profitably by farmers. So the government subsidizes farmers to grow things such as corn and soybeans. Much of what cannot be sold domestically is then sold or given as food aid to developing countries. We say we do this because we care about hunger in the world. As I said before, I'll give us the benefit of the doubt and agree that we really do want to do the right thing. But here's the problem. In our efforts to do the right thing, what we're really doing is simply subsidizing our own farmers while driving local farmers in developing countries out of business. They cannot compete with our subsidized imported product. They cannot grow their domestic crop and sell it profitably when the market becomes flooded with cheap American imports. This drives the farmers out of business and eventually off their land and into the growing slums of urban centers, where they join the ranks of the un- or underemployed and hungry. I don't know how to solve this issue, because there are real hunger needs out there, but most of it has to do with getting supply to the right places, not with producing more. We certainly need to do more to support and stimulate local crop production, not imported food supplies.

The corporations pushing GMOs say that these new crops will allow greater harvests, but we don't need larger harvests here in North America. We're already overproducing staples and farmers can't make money off them as it is. Nor do farmers in developing countries need GMOs because they cannot begin to afford pricey GM seed, nor the fertilizers and pesticides necessary for industrialized agriculture. In most situations they have suitable local crops. They just need the ability to get that crop to a suitable market and receive a fair wage for their product.

Related to this issue is that the increase in GM farming adds to an already alarming trend toward eliminating diversty in the global food supply. Instead of 100 varieties of a particular crop, we may now have only 20, or 10, or even less. (The film gives some specific examples which I do not have at hand at the moment.) With less genetic variety each crop becomes more susceptible to disease and pests, which means we are at greater risk of major crop failure, not less. When these GM seeds are introduced into developing countries, they can cross breed and dilute or even eliminate local varieties of crops that may be far better suited to the local environment. And let's not forget that according to US and Canadian law, if a GM plant does cross pollinate with another, the resulting seed would belong to the corporation holding the patent for the GMO, not the local farmer. Can you see a problem here? Rather than helping local farmers in developing countries, rather than reducing or eliminating global hunger, the growing use of GMOs actually carries a significant possibility of increasing it.

One final comment for today. The corporations that are developing GMOs have now put a rider on an agricultural bill before Congress that would require the Department of Agriculture and other government agencies to allow the use of GMOs without question upon the request of any of these corporations. No safety reviews. No peer-reviewed studies. No independent testing. This is bad news for the farmers and consumers of this country. Take a moment to read about it and then sign this petition or contact your own congressional representatives and senators and tell them to oppose this rider.  

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