On May 25, 2013, tens of thousands of people in 36 countries participated in a global “March Against Monsanto.” But according to Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant, those who protest against agricultural genetic engineering—including the farmers, students, academics, and more who turned out in May—are “elitists,” fomenting distrust of technology that could save the lives of millions of hungry people.
For years, industry leaders like Monsanto have been pushing this myth. At a biotechnology industry trade conference I attended in 2005, one participant even claimed that those fighting against GMOs “should be tried for crimes against humanity.” A charge, I tend to think, usually reserved for serious attacks on human rights.
This particular mythmaking is a powerful PR tactic. Who among us wants to feel that our attitude toward a technology could be causing hunger here or abroad? Or, worse, that our opposition to Monsanto could be putting us among the ranks of Yugoslavia’s Milošević or Guatemala’s Rios Montt? Not me.
In his recent interview with Bloomberg News, Grant was hyping this myth again, claiming challengers of genetically engineered foods, “are guilty of elitism.” (An interesting choice of words for someone who pulled in $12.84 million last year—and averaged $26.3 million in annual earnings over the past six years, according to Forbes.)
Grant says critics of GMOs, “fail to consider the needs of the rest of the world.”
Is he right?
We have nearly 20 years of commercialized GMO use under our belt. We can learn a lot from this global experiment. What we know is that not only do GMOs fail to address the roots of hunger, but the technology can also actually worsen hunger as it maintains and, in some cases, worsens, farmers’ dependency on costly seeds, chemicals, and fertilizer—all at volatile and rising prices.
Today nearly 870 million people on the planet suffer from extreme, long-term undernourishment, according to the United Nations, and nearly as many are overfed, consuming too many of the wrong calories. These twin crises have many root causes, including poverty, inequality, and a lack of choice over how food is grown, where it’s grown, and who has access to it—a deficit of democracy. A technology like genetic engineering, which has been developed and is controlled by a handful of companies, does nothing to transform this dynamic. Indeed, the technology serves to further concentrate power over our food system: An estimated 90 percent of U.S.-grown soybeans and 80 percent of corn and cotton crops are grown from Monsanto’s seeds.
While biotech proponents love to talk about the promise of drought-resistant, nitrogen-efficient, and nutritionally enhanced varieties, to date, commercialized genetically engineered crop varieties have been mostly limited to two types: those developed to resist a proprietary herbicide, and those engineered to produce a specific insecticide. This comes as no surprise, since the technology creation is led by chemical companies, like Monsanto, Dupont, and Dow.
Genetic engineering techniques have also been commercialized for only a handful of crops: mainly corn, soy, canola, cotton, and sugar beets. These are not foods to nourish the world. They’re commodities that mostly end up in the gut of a cow, the tank of a car, or the ingredients list of processed foods.
GMOs are also only being grown in a handful of countries. Ninety-one percent of GMOs worldwide are planted in just five countries: the United States, Brazil, Argentina, Canada, and India. In most of the other 23 countries with commercialized GMOs, the crops are growing on a negligible number of acres.
Moreover, the technology does not help the lion’s share of those who are hungry: small-scale farmers in the developing world. Why not? Because adopting GMOs makes cash-poor farmers dependent on buying seeds, fertilizer, and chemicals that provide uneven yields, foster weeds resistant to pesticides, undermine soil health, and reduce biodiversity. Plus, planting monocrops—whether the seeds are heirloom varieties, hybrids, or genetically engineered—means smallholders have all their eggs in one basket, leaving them vulnerable to catastrophic weather events or global price swings.
Research is showing that “agroecological” methods—the ones that use on-farm soil fertility, natural methods for pest and weed control, and locally adapted crop varieties—can outperform GMOs, especially during drought years. These methods also improve the nutritional value of crops, benefit biodiversity and soil health, and reduce on-farm greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, these techniques can increase farmers’ incomes (in large part because their input costs go way down), freeing them from debt and dependency. In fact, small-scale farmers around the world adopting and spreading agroecological practices are getting excellent results and, not coincidentally, are increasingly vocal critics of genetic engineering.
I wonder what the small-scale farmers I’ve interviewed around the world who oppose GMOs—from the foothills of the Himalayas to the plains of Brazil—would think of Grant’s comments? They might just find it odd that they’d be considered “elitists.”