I’ve been saying for a long time that GM crops do not increase yields and they don’t reduce pesticide use – because that’s not what they’re designed for. This report in the New York Times shows that I was right.
A lot of the opposition to GM has been about whether it’s safe to eat, and this is frustrating in the same way that it’s frustrating that a lot of the opposition to pesticides has been about food safety, or that a lot of the opposition to fracking has been about earthquakes. This kind of opposition scores a bit of an own goal I think (if you can have a ‘bit’ of an own goal). Fracking is about injecting toxic chemicals into the earth and pesticide use is about spraying toxic chemicals onto the earth – both bad ideas because we’re in a mass extinction event that we should be thinking seriously about stopping, for the very non-altruistic reason that it will kill us if we don’t stop. Spreading poisons into the environment isn’t going to help stop extinctions – quite the opposite.
But the opposition is rarely about the reasons that certain technologies exist at all – to capture greater market share for the corporate sector. That is, for the corporate sector to gain total control of our food and energy supply, as if they didn’t control them enough already. This is really important to understand – we have to reject arguments that they’ve been developed to ‘feed the world’ or allow us to reduce pesticide use.
Here are some graphs comparing yields for GM (North America) and non-GM (Europe) crops. They’re reproduced from the NY Times, whose source is the UN Food & Agriculture Organisation.
Here’s a comparison of sugar beet yields in Europe (non-GM) and the US (GM). Yields have improved more in Europe, without GM than they have in the US, with GM.
Here’s a graph comparing corn yields in the US and Western Europe since the 1980s. Yields have increased at the same rate, and the introduction of GM in the States in the nineties made no difference.
And here’s a comparison of rapeseed yields – European (non-GM) yields are higher and growing at the same rate as US yields. The introduction of GM in the US in the nineties made no difference to these trends.
The idea that we ‘can’t feed the world’ without GM technology is absurd (as is the idea that corporate executives care about that), and people who insist that we can’t are corrupt. Seriously, you mustn’t be fooled by them. See here for more on why there’s not even a food shortage. Similarly, don’t believe corrupt politicians who tell you that TTIP, CETA and other corporate-initiated trade deals are about free trade – they are about granting a larger market share to the corporate sector, and nothing else.
And what about the spraying toxic chemicals? Does GM reduce the need to do this? No. Here are two graphs that compare pesticide use in France and in the US since the 1990s. Again, from the NY Times, the sources are the Union of Industries of Plant Protection in France and the US Geological Survey. In both countries, insecticide use has fallen very slightly, but in France, herbicide use has gone down dramatically, without the need for GM, whilst in the States, herbicide use is increasing rapidly, despite GM advocates telling us that GM means reduced pesticide use.
Remember, this is peer-reviewed stuff. This is not something GM advocates can argue against and remain credible. And of course GM compaines don’t suffer from increases in pesticide use – note that most of the increase in herbicide is down to the growth in application of glyphosate-laden ‘Roundup’, manufactured by (surprise, surprise) Monsanto.
I’d have more respect for Monsanto et al. if they were more honest about it, and said ‘listen folks, technologies such as GM, nuclear, fracking, oil etc. are so huge and complicated that they can only be developed and controlled by large corporations such as ours. If we don’t move in this direction, and we allow the economy to be dominated by small companies, self-employed people and co-operatives instead of Godzilla companies like ours, we won’t be able to grow our economy as efficiently as other countries, and our corporations won’t be able to make inroads into their economies, selling them fizzy drinks and employing their peasants to make our clothes and grow our palm oil. They, on the other hand, will have no such qualms, and before you know it, you’ll be working in sweatshops and plantations to enrich Chinese and Indian corporations. We have to do this. Work with us rather than against us.’
I’d have more respect for them, but I still wouldn’t agree, and I hope you don’t fall for it either. We can’t prevent ‘their’ corporations from dominating the world by allowing ‘our’ corporations to dominate the world. We have to work with like-minded groups in all countries to help bring about a world that isn’t dominated by corporations at all – but there’s a long way to go. Opposition to, and refusal to buy GM food is a good start.
Also, the situation as regards pesticides is going to get much worse. GM crops are modified to be herbicide-resistant, so why should pesticide use go down if the same companies are manufacturing the pesticides? It doesn’t make sense. However, weeds have a habit of becoming resistant to pesticides too, requiring greater quantities and a wider range of chemicals to keep them in check. The US Agriculture Dept. has recently given the green light to the use of a pesticide called 2,4-D, which was a component of Agent Orange – used by the US military to defoliate rainforests during the Vietnam War.
So if GM crops can’t feed the world (and they can’t – they just waste resources, concentrate wealth and power in the wrong places and cause more toxicity, without increasing yields), what can? See here for the answer; or here, or here.
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1John Harrison November 27th, 2016
Thanks for a great article. I think GM technology is potentially of great benefit. More efficient energy and nutrient utilisation producing greater yields, resistance to diseases without pesticides and even increased vitamin content. The problem, as you point out, is corporations aren’t interested in altruistic developments that don’t benefit them.
Our anti-GM stance in Europe means we don’t take advantage of those beneficial ‘non profit’ developments whilst we keep the corporate monsters at bay. Bathwater and baby thrown out together. The corporates don’t want to market those good developments so they’ll sit on the shelf.
2Dave Darby November 27th, 2016
We might have to agree to disagree on this one John. I just can’t see any need for GM. Nature has given us such a range of nutritious foods – and yes, of course we’ve selectively bred for millennia, but we’ve done it in gardens and sheds, without the need for giant research establishments and gazillions of dollars. So it’s extra resource use, energy and money for something that we don’t need. Just another little step down the path to oblivion – even if we could prise the technology out of the grip of the corporate sector, which seems very unlikely.
Intensive, organic smallholdings are the answer, I think – they will provide more employment, remove the need for pesticides and yield more food per acre. Which means that the focus should be on land reform / changes to the planning system to allow more people to live and build a home on the land – a much simpler, non-technological solution that I can’t see any downsides to.
I think that technological solutions always seem to bring more unforeseen problems than they solve. You could call me a Luddite I suppose, and yes, in some ways I am, and proud of it. It would have been much better socially, environmentally and personally for the people involved for cloth to continue to be made as a cottage industry, rather than shifting people to urban factories and divorcing them from nature, just so that British corporations could increase profits and outcompete foreign companies – who were also doing the same things to their working people, of course.
Having said that, I’m pro-internet and solar panels. So maybe I’m a selective Luddite. The internet and solar panels can be used to promote ‘conviviality’ as Ivan Illich would have said, and I’m definitely into that sort of thing.
3Paul Jennings November 27th, 2016
You know as well as I do, Dave, it doesn’t matter whether the technology is effective or efficient or even beneficial, what matters is whether it is profitable. Dividends have brought us to the edge of ruin and through the gates of the Anthropocene. Only the definitive end of capitalism will bring an end to the madness.
4John Harrison November 27th, 2016
We’re not that far apart! I totally agree regarding small scale agriculture etc. Current GM technology seems to be all about herbicide resistant crops to add to the multi-national’s coffers. I’m totally against that. However, British research establishments have developed GM crops like blight resistant potatoes. The savings in use of chemical treatments of those is huge. But it doesn’t suit the multi-nationals because they want to sell pesticides.
Since potato varieties are clones – propagated from seed tubers – they’d actually be perfect for organic growers whether large or small.
It’s not even expensive technology relative to the size of the market.
If the government was to fund the research establishments and give the products away (subject to proper safety testing, of course) we could have the benefits of GM to the environment and farming productivity. That’s my point – it’s potentially a green, clean technology if it can be divorced from corporate profits.
One of the major problems I see is that few of us are qualified to judge the safety and real benefits of the results. No problem, we get scientists to do it but when they’re paid (even if indirectly) by companies that would benefit from ‘the right answer’ – how unbiased are they?
I suspect you’ll agree with me that the real problem is the system – the corporate state that’s now dominating the world and to them, green is a PR issue.
5John Harrison November 27th, 2016
You’re bang on there, Paul. Now if you changed the word profitable for generally beneficial things would be very different. As for capitalism – it’s what we replace it with. I wish I could offer a solution.
6Dave Darby November 27th, 2016
And you know as well as I do Paul…….. I completely agree.
Here’s a sneak preview of what’s going to replace capitalism – http://www.noncorporate.org/
As yet, unbranded, undesigned and unfinished. It won’t satisfy you Paul, but it will be a small step on the road to Utopia.