With all due respect, Nina Federoff’s New York Times op-ed reads like it was written two decades ago when the jury was still out about the potential of the biotech industry to reduce hunger, increase nutritional quality in foods, and decrease agriculture’s reliance on toxic chemicals and other expensive inputs that most of the world’s farmers can’t afford.
With more than 15 years of commercialized GMOs behind us, we know not to believe these promises any longer.
Around the world, from the Government Office of Science in the UK to the National Research Council in the United States, to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, there is consensus: in order to address the roots of hunger today and build a food system that will feed the future, we must invest in “sustainable intensification”—not expensive GMO technology that threatens biodiversity and locks us into dependence on fossil fuels, fossil water, and agrochemicals. And that’s never proven its superiority, even in yields.
By definition, sustainable intensification means producing abundant food while reducing agriculture’s negative impacts on the environment. Water pollution from pesticide run-off, soil degradation from synthetic fertilizer use, are just two examples of the cost of industrial agriculture. (And, mind you, nearly all of the GMO crops planted today rely on synthetic fertilizer and pesticides.)
Sustainable farming has many other co-benefits as well, including improving the natural environment by increasing soil carbon content, protecting watersheds and biodiversity, and decreasing the human health risks from exposures to toxic chemicals. In its policymaker’s guide to sustainable intensification, the FAO states clearly that the “present paradigm” in agriculture–of which Federoff’s beloved GMOs play a starring role–“cannot meet the challenges of the new millennium.”
So while we hear from GMO proponents about the wonders of these crops, the proof is in the fields. Says the FAO: sustainable practices have helped to “reduce crops’ water needs by 30 percent and the energy costs of production by up to 60 percent.” In one of the largest studies [pdf] of ecological farming in 57 countries, researchers found an average yield increase of 80 percent. In East African countries, yields shot up 128 percent.
What about the specific claims that GMOs confer much-desired benefits: nutritional improvements, drought-resilience, or fewer pesticides?
A much-touted effort in Kenya to develop a genetically-engineered virus-resistant sweet potato failed after 10 years, millions of dollars, and countless hours of effort. Not only did it fail, but researchers in Uganda [pdf] have developed varieties of sweet potatoes resistant to the same virus and with greater levels of beta carotene (Vitamin A)—not with genetic engineering’s tinkering, but with conventional breeding.
Federoff boasts that GMOs reduce pesticide usage, but an analysis of 13 years of commercialized GMOs in the United States actually found a dramatic increase in the volume of herbicides used on these crops that swamped the relatively small reduction in insecticide use attributable to GMO corn and cotton during that same period. On the other hand, an FAO ecological farming program in six countries in West Africa helped farmers reduce chemical pesticide use as much as 92 percent, while increasing their net value of production by as much as 61 percent.
Perhaps most gravely, Federoff’s message that GMOs are the key to addressing our planet’s food needs ignores the political and economic context of agricultural interventions.
What’s unique to sustainable interventions is that they build farmer and community capacity, they strengthen social networks. “Social capital”—as development wonks would say—is created. In a study of sustainable farming projects involving 10 million farmers across the African continent, researchers found that adopting sustainable intensification techniques not only upped production significantly, but more importantly increased the overall wealth of farming communities, encouraged women’s participation and education, and built strong social bonds that have helped these communities strengthen their economies and continue to learn, develop, and adapt their farming practices.
In a world rocked with volatile markets, a volatile climate, and diminishing natural resources, we need to turn our attention to investing in the proven sustainable intensification techniques that create resilient communities not to the still-hollow promises of GMO promoters.
Anna Lappé is the author most recently of Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do About Itand the co-founder of the Small Planet Institute and Small Planet Fund.