ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

The following article forms the final chapter in  Smart Plants: A Farmers Guide to GMOs in Arable Agriculture published by Farmers' Link (June 1998).  Copies of Smart Plants can be obtained (price £5:00) from Farmers' Link, 49a High Street, Watton, Thetford, Norfolk, UK, IP25 6AB

Can GMOs feed the world?

In September 1997, in a speech in Salzburg, Robert Horsch, the general manager of Monsanto's Agracetus unit, argued that biotechnology would provide the key to "feeding the world in the next century".

According to him, "Failure to move forward with the new technology ... is probably the biggest risk we face".


The argument that genetic modification alone is capable of rising to the challenge of feeding a global population is a key element in some companies' public relations strategies at present. Superficially the argument looks good. The world's population is growing and there will be difficulties in the next century in providing sufficient food to meet future need. At the same time, the area of land suitable for agriculture is diminishing, partly as a result of over-farming and the growth of cities.

If biotechnologists can develop salt tolerant, drought tolerant and nitrogen fixing crops, able to grow on poor and marginal land, the chances of feeding a growing population would appear to be better.

Unfortunately, there are a number of reasons for believing that this strategy will not work as well as might be expected:

Threats to small farmers

The modernisation of agriculture has so far been limited by the availability of fertile land. In most marginal areas, like the arid fringes of deserts or steep mountain slopes, scientific agriculture has not been established, as there has been little prospect of its becoming profitable there. The marginal fringes in many parts of the world have continued to be dominated by traditional approaches to agriculture, oriented to local markets. If new crops are developed which perform better in such conditions, and which can therefore compete on global markets, there is a real possibility that subsistence farmers will once again be replaced by smaller numbers of commercial farmers, leading to another wave of migration to the cities.

Clearly this need not necessarily occur and in principle marginal farmers could benefit from new genetically modified crops. It is, however, difficult to imagine commercial companies giving away the products they have developed. Experience has shown repeatedly that when subsistence farmers are offered packages of new seeds and inputs, along with credit to buy them, a large number find they cannot make enough money from their small units to service the debts they have been encouraged to take on. All too frequently, they are forced to sell up so their debts can be paid and their lands are bought up by a new breed of commercial farmers, ambitious to expand and able to invest in machinery and dispense with manual labour.

Threats to tropical crops

At present the polygenic modifications which could, at least in principle, increase the overall global food supply, still look a long way off. In the shorter term, some of the single gene modification crops being worked on by commercial companies could be highly damaging to developing country economies.

This is particularly true of crops which are being engineered to replace tropical products. The principle supply of lauric acid for soap making and for various other chemical processes is currently palm oil. In fact, over the last 30 years, subsistence farmers in many parts of the world have been moved to make way for palm oil plantations, which export to northern industrialised countries. These are long term investments, as the trees take years to establish. Genetic modification of annual crops grown in temperate climates, such as oilseed rape, is preparing the way for northern countries to produce their own lauric and other oils. This could financially devastate those tropical areas which have developed monocultures, based on the export of palm oil. What this will mean in practice is very difficult to predict.

Palm oil producers cannot easily switch to new crops as the main costs of perennial crops come from their establishment, rather than from day to day management. If palm oil faces a major challenge from genetically modified temperate crops, the most likely scenario is that palm oil prices will become depressed but that plantations will continue to produce from existing established trees. In countries which are dependent on palm exports, trade deficits are likely to be exacerbated and rural wages will probably decline from current levels which now barely provide enough for subsistence living.

In the longer term, existing plantations may close. This could either allow subsistence farming to re-establish itself or make way for new commercial crops to be developed by plantation owners.

Other tropical products are likely to suffer from similar patterns of product replacement. A considerable number of small producers are able to supplement their subsistence farming by selling small amounts of high value products like vanilla. Although small farmers, often selling through farmers' co-operatives, may earn only a few hundred dollars annually from such crops, the perennial crops often require little work and the small income generated allows subsistence farmers to buy necessities, like clothes, which they would otherwise be unable to afford. Again, biotechnologists are developing alternative sources of vanilla by modifying temperate arable crops. If these crops are taken up by northern farmers, vanilla prices will probably plummet and tropical subsistence farmers will lose one of their major sources of cash income.

In situations like this, the impact of biotechnology is unpredictable. In the short term it could threaten employment and food security for rural workers, and so generate social instability. As Vandana Shiva, the Director of the Science and Technology Research Institute, Delhi put it “genetic engineering threatens to destroy millions of peasant livelihoods in the Third World. Tropical crops like sugar cane, coconut, vanilla and cocoa can be grown anywhere with genetic engineering. Whole industries in developing countries may disappear.”

Although genetic modification may in the long term increase global food supplies, there is no guarantee that it will do so. Genetically modified crops will produce new uncertainties and instabilities in agricultural markets. When such instabilities occur, it is almost invariably poor countries and communities which suffer the most. Seen in this light, the claims made by some biotechnology companies that genetic modification will provide the key to feeding the world look rather optimistic.

The image of genetic engineering feeding the world has the virtue of great simplicity. However, in unpredictable and complex economies and markets, apparently beneficial new crops could create problems for vulnerable farmers and rural communities.