When the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) meets this year in Philadelphia, Monsanto and its colleagues will not be gathering to talk about how to save the world. The goal of this industry, like any other, is to make a profit by convincing consumers that we need what theyre selling. Genetically modified (GM) food plants and animals that have been inserted with genes from other organisms arent meeting any real human needs. Despite claims from the biotech industry, GM foods cannot end world hunger, and new studies add to the evidence that they may pose a serious threat to human health.
A recent study conducted by Monsanto itself indicated abnormalities in the kidneys and blood of rats fed MON863, a strain of Bt corn that many Americans eat every day without our knowledge. Monsanto has resisted calls from the European Food Safety Agency to release the full study to the public, leading to a court order to do so from a German judge. Thank goodness for some degree of concern from the Europeans, because watchdogs in the United States are gnawing on the bones of corporate-induced complacency. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves GM foods for public consumption simply by comparing the nutritional content between GM and non-GM foods, and checking a database of known allergens. According to the logic of the FDA, we are the lab rats.
What of the famed argument that GM crops are worth it because they will resolve world hunger? GM crops fundamentally cannot end hunger because hunger isnt caused by a lack of food. The world currently produces enough food for everyone on earth to consume over 2,800 calories a day thats enough to make most people a bit pudgy. The problem is that food doesnt go the hungriest people because they dont have the resources to buy it or grow it. Pennsylvania is full of productive farms, yet one in ten residents of the City of Brotherly Love know hunger all too well. Hunger is caused by a lack of access to basic human rights, including good education, health care, housing, and living wages in the Untied States and throughout the world. Hunger is also caused by racism and inequality. These topics arent on the agenda of this years BIO conference.
If the world were to face a future shortage of food, GM technology would not be much help. Planting small farms and gardens with a diverse array of crops can grow several times more food per acre than the large, mechanized farms for which GM seeds were developed. The main reason some farmers plant GM crops is to try to lower their production costs. But GM crops dont always accomplish this goal either. Recently the Indian state of Andra Pradesh banned Monsanto from selling GM cotton seeds after farmers realized they were more expensive to grow than the regular varieties.
GM seeds cause other headaches for farmers as well. For as long as humans have grown food, farmers have developed better seeds through natural cross-breeding, and exchanged seeds to share the best varieties. Seeds are a fundamental common good of human civilization. When biotech companies convinced the US Patent Office to allow them to patent seeds, single companies claimed ownership of entire cultural legacies, with just one laboratorial tweak. As farmers buy GM seeds from Monsanto, they must sign a contract recognizing the companys intellectual property rights over the seed, and promise not to share or save any to use the next year. However, plants breed naturally with no knowledge of who signed a contract, and pollen from GM corn blows easily into neighboring fields. Monsanto has mounted a campaign to sue farmers whose fields have been unknowingly contaminated with genes from GM seeds, driving some farmers into bankruptcy.
The protesters greeting this years BIO conference in Philadelphia are driving home an important point unless you fancy the idea of being a lab rat, genetically modified food is a risky technology that we simply dont need.
Kirsten Schwind is Program Director at the Institute for Food and Development Policy, also known as Food First. She holds a masters degree in Natural Resources Management from the University of Michigan, and collaborates with small-scale farmers throughout the world. Hollace Poole-Kavana is an Associate at Food First who studied biology at Cornell.