The question of whether the food we eat should be engineered by scientists, and sold to farmers by tremendously wealthy corporations is a controversial topic. Owen Paterson, an MP and Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs from the United Kingdom has recently pleaded his case for supporting GM crops: “The farmer benefits. The consumer benefits. The environment benefits.”

The top chemical industries and their vocal supporters are proposing that the use of GM crops could produce more food for the world, thus ending world hunger. Can genetically modified crops revolutionize farming worldwide and end global hunger?

In the short term, revamping farms to produce high yielding GM crops could result in more food. However, GM crops require long term reliance on pesticides and machinery, which might be too expensive for an african farmer living on less than a dollar a day. Not only that, but the seed itself can be very expensive, since GM companies have made it illegal to save seeds to plant next season. That means that farmers in Africa, 80% of whom currently save their seeds, would need to start paying for them. Esther Bett, a Kenyan farmer, also points out that “farmers in America can only make a living from GM crops if they have big farms, covering hundreds of hectares.” She also informs us that in Kenya “we can feed hundreds of families off the same area of land using our own seed and techniques, and many different crops.”

When addressing the needs of the world’s poor, it is important to listen to what they have to say. Africans already have traditional methods of farming that have been developed over generations. Over the course of thousands of years, a variety of seeds has been bred to thrive in diverse environments, and to resist the regional blights that are unique to Africa. The genetically modified crops that have been developed so far are actually quite limited in the kinds of pests that they are resistant to. There are different farming practices to suit different environments, and crops that thrive in certain regions may not fare so well in others. According to a long term study, farmers in Ethiopia who conserved their soil and water by farming on compost-treated land were more food secure than their neighbors who relied on imported seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides. It was not genetic engineering, but ingenious breeding techniques that have resulted in new strains of hardy plants like drought tolerant corn, which is used by thousands of African farmers who enjoy 30% higher yields.

What if entire continents were to replace their heirloom seed stock with a single strain of GM crop? Such heavy reliance on one type of crop could be a disaster waiting to happen, if that crop were to fail due to blight or climate change. A new study from Food and Water Watch, an NGO focused on food and water safety and sustainability, has recently discovered that over time the widespread use of herbicides on GM crops has caused weeds to develop tolerance. The last thing that impoverished farmers need are superweeds! As of now, the only thing that can be done about herbicide resistant weeds is to use more herbicide.

– Jennifer Bills

Sources: Express, The Borgen Project, The Guardian, Co Exist, Third World Network, The Guardian