Ten Reasons Why GE Foods Will Not Feed the World

prepared by The CornerHouse, UK

It is often claimed that genetically engineered crops are the only way to

feed a growing world population. Yet close analysis suggests that there are

at least 10 good reasons why the widespread adoption of genetic engineering

in agriculture will lead to more hungry people – not fewer.

1. Feed, Not Food

2. Engineering for Convenience

3. Substituting Tropical Cash Crops

4. Increasing Farm Debt

5. Promoting Inefficient Farming

6. Increasing Destitution

7. Unsustainable Agriculture

8. Lower Yields

9. Increased Corporate Control

10. Misreading the Problem

1. Feed, Not Food

The two main GE crops grown commercially in the United States – soybeans

and maize (corn) – are used to feed livestock, not people.

This may be good for GE companies and their partners in the grain trade,

but it will do little to relieve world hunger. Indeed, livestock production

in many Southern countries has often been at the direct expense of poorer

people’s diets.

Egypt, for instance, encouraged by USAID, invested heavily in livestock

from the 1970s onwards. The country now grows more food for animals than

for humans. Human supplies of grain have been made up through US imports

which contributes to Egypt’s external debt. The consistent beneficiaries

have been large US grain merchants which have exported US grains at hugely

subsidised prices to Egypt.

2. Engineering for Convenience

Much genetic engineering research in food has been directed at meeting the

commercial needs of food processors rather than the nutritional needs of

poorer consumers.

A report by the US Biotechnology Industry Organization suggests that more

biotech effort will be devoted to genetic techniques for delaying ripening

or rotting of fruits and vegetables and for improving their appearance so

that they can be transported over ever longer distances and kept on

supermarket shelves for longer.

Maintaining a system whereby food has to travel such long distances may be

good news for oil companies, airlines and motor manufacturers, but it is an

energy- and resource-intensive system which contributes little to the

nutritional health of hungry people in either South or North – and does

much to undermine it.

3. Substituting Tropical Cash Crops

Using genetic engineering to create substitutes for tropical cash crops

will destroy the livelihoods of the rural poor in many Third World

countries – aggravating poverty and hunger.

Several applications of biotechnology are aimed at growing tropical cash

crops in the North, or at producing in laboratories the substances

currently derived from such crops.

Canola, for example, has been genetically-engineered to produce oils which

would replace coconut and palm oils. Coconut oil provides seven per cent of

the total export income of the Philippines, the world’s largest exporter of

coconut oil, and direct or indirect employment for 21 million people, about

30 per cent of the country’s population. Other tropical crops at risk

include vanilla and cocoa.

Although some of these cash crop producers will be able to switch to

growing other crops, many will not. With their income from export earnings

slashed, few Southern countries will be in a position to compensate such

workers and farmers. They will be left to fend for themselves: many are

likely to become malnourished for lack of cash to buy food.

4. Increasing Farm Debt

Unlike many of the seeds currently grown by Third World farmers, GE crops

do not come free. Attempts through legislation and genetic engineering

techniques to sterilize seeds, and to deny farmers’ their ancient right to

save and exchange seeds from previous harvests will force them to buy their

seeds every year. In addition, farmers will also need to buy chemical

herbicides and fertilizers; without theses the GE seeds will fail to

achieve viable yields.

Many small farmers, who are already hard pressed by competition from

heavily-subsidised food imports from the US and by the removal of subsidies

on water and energy under structural adjustment programmes, will slide into


The result is likely to be yet another wave of farm bankruptcies, leading

to landlessness for poorer farmers and an increased concentration of land

as wealthier farmers and speculators buy up bankrupted farms.

By threatening the farm livelihoods of the very poor, GE crops can only

undermine the food security of small producers – hardly a policy for

“feeding the world”.

5. Promoting Inefficient Farming

Proponents of genetic engineering in agriculture argue that farm

bankruptcies are a regrettable but necessary price of greater efficiency in


In terms of output per unit of labour, small farms are less “efficient”

than large modernised ones. But in terms of gross output per unit of land,

smaller farms often outdo larger ones. In Thailand, holdings under one

hectare have been found to be almost twice as productive as holdings over

40 hectares.

Arguments for replacing “inefficient” small producers with “efficient”

large producers also fail to take account of the key role that small farms

(particularly household gardens invariably tended by women) play in

efficiently supplying informal household networks with food.

To displace such networks would almost certainly result in a dramatic fall

in the amount of unmarketed food available to poorer people.

6. Increasing Destitution

Many vulnerable smallholder producers displaced as a result of growing

genetically-engineered crops are likely to find themselves in a saturated

labour market. If they could get jobs, they would probably be low-paid,

insecure ones in the cities or on larger farms where workers are generally

paid piece rates.

In today’s global supermarket, food goes to those who have the money to buy

it. Only those who have the income to translate their biological needs into

“effective demand” get to eat. Those whose incomes are too low – who cannot

grow food for themselves – inevitably wind up malnourished.

The overall result of displacing “inefficient” small farmers is thus likely

to be increased famine and malnutrition – not a reduction in hunger as the

proponents of genetic engineering promise.

7. Unsustainable Agriculture

Genetic engineering in agriculture is likely to have adverse environmental

impacts which are in turn likely to undermine the ecological basis of food


Genetically-engineered crops will stimulate the evolution of “superweeds”

and “superbugs” which will necessitate higher doses of chemicals and make

food supplies more vulnerable to pest damage.

The outcrossing of engineered traits to other plants also poses a major

threat to food production.

In addition, the adoption of genetically-engineered crops is likely to

reduce genetic diversity, resulting in fewer and fewer types of food crops;

the narrowing of the genetic base of food adds to the likelihood of pest

and disease epidemics.

Many of these problems stem from the fact that genetically-engineered crops

will be grown in industrial monocultures. Other forms of agriculture offer

far safer, proven andecologically-benign means of protecting crops against

pest damage.

8. Lower Yields

The genetically-engineered crops now being cultivated do not have

significantly increased yields. In some cases, yields are lower than those

for conventional varieties of the same crop.

In the first large-scale field trials in Puerto Rico in 1992 of Roundup

Ready plants, Monsanto scientists found statistically significant reduced

yields, averaging some 11.5 per cent, in three of seven trials.

Many of the first growers of Roundup Ready cotton in the Mississippi Delta

of the US complained in 1997 of low yields and poor quality, noting that

bolls dropped prematurely and were deformed. Over 50 growers filed

complaints with the newly-formed US Seed Arbitration Council; Monsanto has

since paid out substantial compensation.

Several analysts conclude that any further increases in crop yields in

modern food crops will almost certainly come from building on traditional

breeding methods – not from transgenics.

9. Increased Corporate Control

Mergers, takeovers, joint ventures and licensing agreements between plant

breeding companies, seed distributors, grain traders, chemical companies

and genetic engineering interests have resulted in some genetic engineering

companies gaining near-monopoly control over the growing and marketing of

some agricultural commodities.

Just ten multinationals (including Monsanto) have now cornered nearly 40%

of the world seed market. Monsanto itself estimates that half the US grain

industry is now using its genetically-engineered seed; it expects that by

the year 2000, all soybeans planted in the United States will be of its

Roundup Ready variety.

Seed companies may well take conventional varieties off the market or use

existing seed and patent legislation to restrict farmers growing such

varieties. The result could be a drastic reduction in farm biodiversity –

with a consequent increase in the vulnerability of crops to disease. Again,

hardly a way to ensure food supplies for the future.

10. Misreading the Problem

Underlying the biotech industry’s claim that GE foods are needed to feed

the world lies a fundamentally flawed analysis of the causes of world


More food will undoubtedly have to be grown in future if the increasing

numbers of people in the world are to be adequately fed.

But the claim that GE crops have a positive contribution to make is only

plausible if one mistakenly assumes that the hungry must be hungry because

there is not enough food. In fact, more than enough food is already being

produced to provide the world with a nutritious and adequate diet –

according to the United Nations’ World Food Programme, one-and-a-half times

the amount required.

If one in seven people currently go to bed hungry, it is not because of an

absolute shortage of food, but because inequalities in political and

economic power deny food to people. As long as access to food depends upon

money, and as long as poorer people are excluded from food markets or from

land, significant numbers of people will be malnourished, hungry and

starving – whatever happens to the global food supply, and whatever happens

to the number of people in the world

Far from addressing these underlying structural causes of hunger, genetic

engineering will do much to exacerbate them. Ensuring food security

worldwide requires an approach to agriculturethat is, in almost every

respect, the reverse of that being promoted bybiotech companies and their

allies in government and regulatory authorities.


“Ten Reasons” is extracted from “Food? Health? Hope? Genetic Engineering

and World Hunger”, a 28-page briefing prepared by The Corner House, PO Box

3137, Station Road, Sturminster Newton, Dorset DT10 1YJ, UK. Email

<[email protected]> Email versions available free.


Sarah Sexton/Larry Lohmann/Nicholas Hildyard/Tracey Clunies Ross


PO Box 3137,

Station Road,

Sturminster Newton,

Dorset DT10 1YJ


Tel: +44 (0)1258 473795

Fax: +44 (0)1258 473748

Email: <[email protected]>

Website http://www.icaap.org/Cornerhouse

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