Why is Mark Lynas’s conversion from opponent to supporter of GM crops making news? It is a public relations response to the increasing rejection of GM in India, Europe, China, South America, Australia and the US.
Lynas claims his transformation is based on science but scientists, including Professor John Vandermeer of the University of Michigan, have dismissed Lynas’s understanding of GM as shallow. [i]
GM crops are promoted as being the answer to a world food crisis. But what food dilemmas is the world facing?
Obesity is now a bigger threat than hunger, according to a recent report in the British medical journal, The Lancet. The worldwide adoption of a western lifestyle means diabetes, stroke and heart disease are the leading cause of illness. This is the case everywhere except for sub-Saharan Africa. [ii]
Are GM crops helping with this crisis?
The most widely grown GM crops are soy, corn, canola, sugarbeet and cotton. GM canola, cotton and sugarbeet are turned into oils or sugars and used in processed food. GM corn is made into high fructose corn syrup, a sweetener in many foods and soft drinks. GM corn and soy are transformed into mysterious ingredients like ‘hydrolyzed vegetable protein’, ‘lecithin’ and ‘modified food starch’.m [iii]
Sugary drinks and fast foods are linked to obesity. GM crops are contributing to the crisis caused by an over abundance of sugary, fatty, processed foods.
Most GM crops aren’t even eaten by people but are fed to animals. US Government subsidization of corn and soy has underpinned the development of feedlots. Thousands of animals stand in their own feces while being fed grain to fatten them up.
This model is being expanded around the world as agribusiness goes global. Forests are cut down in South America to grow GM soy. It’s exported to Asia and Europe to feed animals that have been removed from fields and are factory farmed instead. We are told this makes animal produce cheap. The cost to forest, farm, animal and consumer health is ignored.
We have the most globalized food system ever and what is it producing? Waste. Half of the food grown worldwide is thrown away somewhere between farm and plate according to the UK’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers [iv]. Yet even this massive over-production of food doesn’t mean people are fed.
In the US, the country that grows the most GM crops, one in seven people is food insecure. Over 16 million children are affected. Hunger is present in the midst of plenty. Poverty causes hunger, not a lack of GM crops.
Perhaps we should just concentrate on growing GM and be a food bowl for China as Joe Ludwig, the Federal Agriculture Minister, suggests? I attended the Australian Grains Industry Conference last year [vi]. This was certainly what the Conference appeared to want.
Banks, financial institutions and others said farmers should be focused on export, profit and technology. The promoters of this aim seemed unaware that GM canola is $150 per hectare less profitable for Australian farmers than ordinary canola.[vii] GM canola yields the same as conventional but as GM seed fees are higher and the price received by farmers is lower, due to lack of demand, profits are reduced.
Unfortunately the well being of farmers did not seem a priority at the Conference. We were told Australia used to have 40,000-grain farmers, now it has 22,000. Apparently this is still too many.
Does this vision serve Australia, farmers and people or the global companies that are buying our agricultural industry? Cargill, one of the largest private companies in the world, bought the Australian Wheat Board in 2011. [viii]. Chemical company Monsanto bought 20% of what used to be WA’s public plant breeding body, InterGrain, in 2010. [ix]
A Federal Government that promotes a National Food Plan that is focused on maximizing profits for global agribusiness companies is dangerous for Australia’s food security, food sovereignty and future.
Despite a monumental lack of support in this ‘global corporation takes all’ system Australian farmers are doing great things. Many are finding ways to grow food with fewer inputs. They are using techniques to improve the soil like cell-grazing, working with soil microbes and even fertilizing using diesel exhaust. They are also finding new ways to market their produce by direct selling, farmers markets or banding together to export GM-free produce.
The benefits of this were shown in the 2011 Queensland floods when the mainstream food distribution food networks failed. In contrast Food Connect, a group that links up farmers with their customers, only missed one day of food box delivery. [xi] They also managed to transport food to people cut off by landslides, supply local shops and made 3000 meals for the volunteers cleaning up Brisbane.
It’s not just Australian farmers that are innovative and creative. The record rice yield of 22.4 tons per hectare is held by, Sumant Kumar, an Indian farmer. This is almost three times the average yield of eight tons. He has done this by using the “System for Rice Intensification” which provides an “optimal environment for growing crops rather than concentrating on plant genetics". [xii]
It is these ‘agro-ecological’ systems that are the future according to the UN’s IAASTD report. They reduce inputs, empower farmers and can double food production in ten years in the place that needs it most, sub-Saharan Africa. [xiii] In contrast GM crops are the patented products of the companies that dominate our wasteful, hunger-causing, low nutrition food system.
Let’s ignore the PR push for GM crops and instead implement the IAASTD proposals of agro-ecological agriculture. Australia will then have a healthy, diverse and delicious food system that feeds people well, restores land and profits us all.
[vii] “Canola types offer plenty of options for outstanding performance” Australian Farm Journal. 1st April 2012 p20-21