Malawi Famine 2002

Women farmers walking through their dry, barren fields past remnants of their failed crops. On their heads are aid organisation handouts. This area, though extremely poor had been self-sufficient with regards to food. © Greenpeace / Clive Shirley

For many years, the debate has been raging about the future of our food supply and agricultural systems. As agriculture intensifies across the world, more and more small scale farmers are losing their livelihoods. On top of it, they are also struggling to grow decent harvests due to the effects of climate change.

Proponents of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) argue they are the only solution to feeding the world in the future -- and they have been doing so for the past decade with increasing vigour.

During the same period we have seen famine and malnutrition ravaging communities across Africa. And most recently, one of the worst droughts and famines is enfolding in East Africa.

Malawi Famine 2002

In the Khokhwa Village hungry families from the surrounding villages are arriving for a United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) emergency food distribution, many showing clear signs of malnutrition. Recent drought has caused crops to fail in the entire Southern Cone of Africa. © Clive Shirley / Greenpeace

I desperately want to live in a world where everyone gets the food and nutrition they need to live healthy lives, but GM foods are not the magic solution that agri business wants us to believe they are.

If it was simply a question of choosing between starvation and genetically modified foods, of course I would eat GM food and advise others to do so. But the problem of world hunger is not about there not being enough food, it's that many can't afford food.

In Africa, hunger and poverty go hand in hand. Genetically modified foods are not going to solve the real social, economic and environmental problems that underpin poverty and cause hunger.

The argument that GM food is a necessary part of feeding the world is based on the assumption that hunger is the result of not enough food to go around. In fact we have one and a half times the amount of food we need to provide everyone with a nutritious diet. Yet more people go hungry now than 20 years ago, and our environment and soil is damaged by industrial agriculture.

Which brings us to the next question.

What is the real driving force behind GM foods?

Much of our food is grown to sell on world markets instead of meeting the needs of local communities. Small family farmers are being driven off their lands and local people can not afford to buy what is grown locally for export.

Investment in new technologies (like GMOs) favours industrial farming rather than addressing the needs of the world’s 900 million small farmers. The focus on GM foods undermines the solutions that already exist when it comes to ending hunger and providing nutritional food for communities.

It’s a complex problem that will not be solved overnight, but tackling world hunger depends on people having access to land and money. GM crops provide neither.

For example, the GM crops championed in Kenya as saviours of the developing world have not provided any benefits to the developing world. No GM crop in production has ever fulfilled their promise while other – local – solutions have overtaken them in many well documented cases.

Killer Seeds

For thousands of years farmers have been harvesting their crops and keeping back the best of the seeds each season to plant the following year so that farmers get the best crops. This is the way it is still done today over much of the world. And until now this has kept large corporations out of the basis of our food production.

But GM foods come with a patent that prevents farmers from saving seed to reuse the following season, it locks farmers into paying for seeds every year. It also places the focus on a single variety of each food crop, and locks farmers into using specific types of (very expensive) chemicals. Far from being a solution, GM crops extend the worst industrial agricultural practices.

I believe that it is this increased control over global agriculture and increased profits that is the real driving force behind the promotion of GM foods.

False Promises

The time has come to recognise the false promise of GM foods and to support farming that meets the needs of local communities and protects the environment.

Farming is at the heart of our survival. We need to restore the land degraded by the agricultural industry which is already deteriorating through climate change. We need to help the poor to combat their own poverty and hunger -- this doesn’t mean simply feeding the world, but enabling the world to feed itself.