Agriculture: Plant Selection Not Gene Manipulation Offers a Safer Future

By Clive Wakely. Despite all the hype and all the promises it is becoming clear that sustainable farming and the use of genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) are not compatible.

Some 15 years have now elapsed since GMO commercial crops first made their unwelcome appearance, 15 years in which to make good on manufacturers claims relating to supposed benefits.

Unintended consequences, such as trans-species contamination and the emergence of “super-weeds”, are not the only reasons why the GMO purveyors’ profit-motivated promises cannot and should not be believed.

Around the globe a number of expert bodies, including Britain’s Government Office for Science, the United States National Research Council and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) appear to have arrived at a consensus of opinion – one not centred around the use of GMOs.

According to proponents of GMO products, the technology will help address the growing problem of global hunger, particularly in the Third World.

Yet to address the roots of hunger today a food production system is required that will feed humanity into the future – one based on what is often described as “sustainable intensification”.

That means a food production system that is not only sustainable but which does not threatens biodiversity – or mankind.

Expensive GM technology, despite the claims of those seeking to make (lots of) money from its adoption, has generally failed to prove its much-vaunted superiority.

Even GM crop yields that live up to expectations in early years tend, typically, to drop off over time; a problem normally addressed through a growing and greater dependence upon agrochemicals.

By definition, intense but sustainable farming means producing abundant food whilst working to reducing negative aspects of agriculture on the environment.

This means crop selection and cross breeding to achieve natural strains requiring less inputs (water and fertilizer), greater disease resistance and good yields; a system perhaps combined with integrated farming techniques.

That such systems may tend to be more labour intensive may be no bad thing in the greater scheme of things, particularly in terms of providing employment.

Whilst the GMO purveyors are quick to point out that water pollution from pesticide run-off and soil degradation from synthetic fertilizer use is bad for the environment, they conveniently forget to mention that nearly all of the GMO crops planted today rely on synthetic fertilizer and pesticides.

Indeed, as this site has already reported, some GMO crops require ever-greater quantities of both herbicides and pesticides to kill off ever more resistant weeds, in a losing battle to maintain crop yields.

Sustainable farming has many other benefits, not least of which are improving the natural environment by increasing soil carbon content, protecting watersheds and biodiversity, and decreasing the human health risks from exposures to toxic chemicals.

In its policymaker’s guide to sustainable intensification, the FAO clearly states that the “present paradigm” in agriculture (surrounding the use of GMO material) “cannot meet the challenges of the new millennium.”

So while we hear from GMO proponents about the alleged wonders of these crops, the truth can be found in the fields.

According to the FAO, sustainable practices (that is non-GM systems) have helped to reduce crops’ water requirements by 30 percent and the energy costs of production by up to 60 percent.

Researchers from this United Nations agency, in one of the largest studies of ecological farming ever (involving some 57 countries), claim to have found an average yield increase of 80 percent.

In some East African countries, for instance, yields shot up 128 percent.

It will be remembered that purveyors of GMO’s claimed that their products would confer much-desired benefits including nutritional improvements, drought resilience and lower pesticide usage.

However, one “flagship” GMO effort in Kenya that was supposed to develop a GM virus-resistant sweet potato, failed after 10 years – after expenditure amounting to several million dollars.

Worse still, not only did it fail but researchers in Uganda have developed varieties of sweet potatoes resistant to the same virus and with greater levels of beta carotene through conventional breeding techniques.

GMOs will also, it is alleged by their manufacturers, reduce pesticide usage, yet analysis of 13 years of commercialized GMO crop growing in the United States actually found a dramatic increase in the volume of herbicides used on these crops.

This being particularly true of both GM cotton and corn, as previously reported on this site.

In contrast a FAO ecological farming program in six West African countries actually helped local farmers reduce chemical pesticide use as much as 92 percent, while increasing their net value of production by as much as 61 percent.

In a world suffering increasingly volatile markets, climate change (but not “global warming”), and growing competition for natural resources, we need to focus on investing in sustainable intensive agricultural techniques, rather than playing with fire through the use of dangerous and unproven GMO technology that has at its core the making of money for those who own the patents, rather than with feeding the world.

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