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genetic modification

seeds blowing off a dandelion
A dandelion releasing its seeds naturally into the air. © Werner H. Muller/Still Pictures

Progressio's concerns about GM crops and development


Progressio's position on genetic engineering and specifically on genetically modified (GM) crops comes from a concern to tackle poverty and its causes. We are not commenting on the science of genetic engineering, but rather on the potential impacts of GM crops in realtion to the lives of poor farmers in developing countries.
Our work with poor farmers shows that low-input sustainable agricultural techniques have enormous potential to meet the economic, social and environmental needs of small and medium-sized farming operations. These practices emphasise the recycling, sharing and saving of materials such as seeds, thus encouraging self-sufficiency.

GM crops and world hunger

Advocates of GM crops argue that they are an essential part of the solution to world hunger. Progressio is concerned that this emphasis on food production presents world hunger as a problem of insufficient food availability. We would argue that inequitable access to food - and not insufficient food production - is the main reason for world hunger. People go hungry because they do not have money to buy food that is available or because they lack the means to produce it. Many countries where hunger is endemic are actually food exporters.

Presenting world hunger solely as an issue of food production distorts the debate. Hunger is caused by a complex array of structural, political and economic factors. These include: unfair trade rules and practices - especially the dumping of subsidised agricultural produce in developing countries' markets; large and unsustainable foreign debts; unequal land distribution patterns; environmental degradation; severe inequalities; lack of governance; corruption; conflict; lack of access to services such as affordable credit; lack of access for the poor to production factors such as good land and poor basic infrastructure such as roads.

None of these problems can be solved solely by increases in food production or by a mainly technological approach. If we want to eliminate hunger and poverty, we need to address their underlying social, political and economic structures. To do this requires global political will. Failing to address such structural causes will result in technological approaches heightening these inequalities and worsening poverty.

As theologians Fr Roland Lesseps and Fr Peter Henriot of Zambia point out: 'It is neither equitable nor sustainable to talk of increasing food production without addressing food distribution.'

Patenting and access to seeds

GM seeds and their associated agrochemicals are patented. This means that farmers need to buy seeds from the companies that own them. Patenting also prevents farmers from saving and sharing seeds. Such dependency on outside sources could have serious negative consequences for the food security of poor farmers. Patenting seeds does not recognise the contributions of farmers and indigenous people to seed development throughout the centuries.

Furthermore, it will lead to the increasing concentration of the world food chain: four or five companies control virtually all the production of GM seeds worldwide. This increasingly powerful position of corporations is a concern for the food security of both developing and developed countries.

For Progressio, there are serious moral and ethical questions around the issue of patenting life, of which patenting seeds is a clear illustration. Who has the right to control basic elements? As Colombian missionary priest, Fr Sean McDonagh points out: 'This is not the vision of life that is enshrined in the Bible. Life there is seen as a gift of God to be received with gratitude and humility and to be shared with all creatures.'

Developing countries making decisions on GM crops

Developing countries should have the time and space to decide about GM crops and civil society should be fully engaged in the debate. We are concerned that biotech corporations and the US government are putting developing countries under considerable pressure to introduce GM crops. In doing so, they are infringing the right of developing countries to choose to say no to GM crops (granted by the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol, ratified by more than 100 countries but not the US) and ignoring legitimate concerns about the contamination of agriculture.

Food aid must not be used as a political or commercial tool, nor should it be a means to introduce GM crops through the back door. Developing countries have the right to insist that food aid is non-genetically modified.

The need for a balanced and inclusive debate

GM crops have serious implications on a number of levels: scientific, developmental, economic, environmental, ethical and social. It is imperative that all sectors of society have a say on this issue - the debate should not be left only to scientists and requires a multidisciplinary approach.

There is also widespread recognition that there are strong direct and indirect links between the biotechnology industry and some scientists and scientific bodies. We are concerned that these links may affect the impartiality of the debate, especially in light of the reported vilification of scientists who have expressed concerns about GM technology.

An important issue such as GM should receive independent scientific research, particularly since there remain many unanswered questions about the environmental and health effects of GM crops. To avoid conflicts of interest and to contribute to an effective public debate, public sources should fund substantial research on GM crops and their effects.

Greater support for sustainable agriculture

Progressio supports small-scale poor farmers in several countries in Latin America as they implement techniques of sustainable agriculture. We are concerned that insufficient esources are being put into research into sustainable agroecological food production systems that local farmers can develop and control.

We are also concerned that within the context of trade liberalisation and structural adjustment programs, state support to small and medium-sized farmers such as affordable credit is often reduced and sometimes eliminated. This leaves small farmers in a very vulnerable position.

Sustainable agriculture meets the economic needs of poor farmers because it promotes appropriate techniques and does not rely on expensive external inputs such as agrochemicals. Furthermore, organic produce currently sells at a higher price which can increase farmers' incomes.

Sustainable agriculture emphasises sustainable techniques that conserve soil and water and promote the use of natural fertilisers and pesticides. This has direct positive health implications for the local people and has immediate positive effects for biodiversity.

Progressio will continue to:

  • Seek more and better support for small farmers in developing countries to grow food in sustainable ways, appropriate to their circumstances and needs;
  • Support the right of developing countries to be given the time and space to arrive at informed decisions on GM crops, including GM food aid;
  • Counter simplistic arguments about the solutions to world hunger;
  • Insist on caution in the introduction of GM crops until their economic, environmental and health effects are better understood.

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