LONDON - Faced with growing demand for food and increasingly unpredictable weather, many developing nations are debating whether to relax restrictions on the use of genetically modified crops.
Seed developers promise that a coming generation of genetically modified (GM) food crops will have climate-resilient features, from drought resistance to saltwater tolerance.
But widespread adoption of GM varieties by small farmers would be "suicidal in terms of climate change," said Vandana Shiva, an Indian social activist, environmentalist and proponent of small-scale farming.
"The (GM) system is more about companies making money from farmers than food security," she told AlertNet in an interview in London.
Adopting GM crops puts small farmers at greater financial risk because they often have to borrow money to buy more expensive GM seeds. If their crops fail, particularly repeatedly, they can find themselves unable to repay the loans, she said.
Worldwide, crop failures are increasingly harder to predict because the climate is becoming more erratic.
In recent years there has been an unprecedented spate of suicides by heavily indebted cotton farmers in Central India, Shiva said. More than three quarters of the suicides, her research shows, have been committed by farmers using GM cotton seed and struggling to repay loans.
GM suppliers sell their seeds on the condition that farmers buy fresh seed each year - something many growers can't afford if their crop fails. A decade ago, 80 percent of Indian farmers saved part of their harvest as seed to plant the following season's crops, Shiva said.
Plenty of drought- and flood-resistant traditional crop varieties already exist and simply need to be brought back to market, supporters of traditional farming say.
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Shiva said India has hundreds of varieties of rice, and many that show resistance to flooding, drought and saltwater are now being carefully bred at Indian research institutes to increase yields and are then re-released to farmers.
In India's northeast Assam province, where fields have been flooded for weeks after intense rains, demand has surged for two rice varieties that can survive weeks under water and also produce well even in dry conditions.
Planting a broader variety of crop strains - rather than a couple of GM varieties - should help protect the world food supply and insure it against emerging climate threats, including an expanding range of crop pests.
While a pest might decimate some varieties of crops, it is unlikely it could destroy a wide range of varieties, she said.
"Resilience is built through diversity," Shiva said.
Keeping small farmers on their land is also key, she said, because small farmers are more productive per acre than big-scale growers, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation's figures.
"The majority of people in the world are still farming on small farms," she said. "If we're addressing food security we'd better enhance the security of small farms."
India's government recently delayed releasing a GM aubergine, which would have been the country's first GM vegetable, calling for more testing in the face of protests by environmentalists and some farmers.