Genetically-Modified Crops
'Bad for the Poor'
By Alex Kirby
Environment Correspondent
A prominent British development agency, Christian Aid, has warned that biotechnology companies' efforts to sell genetically-modified (GM) seeds to Third World farmers will do little to allay world hunger.
It says the companies' tactics may also rob Western consumers of their freedom to choose or refuse GM foods.
In a report entitled Selling Suicide: Farming, False Promises and Genetic Modification in the Developing World, Christian Aid says GM crops will not help to feed the hungry.
"The false promise of genetic modification is that it will benefit small farmers. The reality is that high-tech farming may make them more vulnerable," it says.
Rising costs
The charity says the increased levels of debt incurred by Indian farmers from using expensive hybrid strains of cotton have already driven hundreds of them to suicide.
"Christian Aid-supported organisations there fear that GM crops could lead to worse problems as rising costs of seeds and inputs may drive farmers further into debt."
The report says one of the most worrying characteristics of GM seeds is what is known as the "terminator technology", by which seeds produce crops that are themselves infertile.
This means that farmers cannot collect seeds for the following year's crop, although at the moment 80% of crops planted in the developing world are from saved seeds.
The authors say the basic purpose of the terminator technology is to maximise seed company royalties. It has been rejected by India.
"But campaigners fear that regulation is inadequate to prevent its infiltration of the market."
"They say that seed-saving is so fundamental to Indian rural society that any threat to the practice is a threat to the society itself."
Issue of control
The report, based on investigations in India, Ethiopia and Brazil, says there are several concerns over GM crops:
They threaten to damage the livelihoods and the lives of millions of small farmers They will put too much control over the world's food into a few hands since 10 companies control 85% of the global agro-chemical market They could end UK consumer choice over GM foods.
Some British supermarkets refuse to use GM foods, while most are careful to label them so shoppers can refuse them.
The report says one third of UK soya, used in almost all processed foods, comes from Brazil, the world's second largest soya producer.
At the moment Brazil is free of GM crops. But "a concerted drive by all the major biotech companies" may soon change that.
GM battleground
One of the authors, Andrew Simms, says: "The developing world has become a battleground".
"The enormous marketing clout of the main biotechnology companies makes this a story of David and Goliath, with the small farmer facing an overpowering push to embrace the new technology.
"The fate of farmers in poor countries is directly linked to ours. If GM crops are forced upon them, then the food we import from them will be GM.
"Like it or not, labelled or not, the food in our supermarket trolleys will be genetically modified."