Can GMOs Save the World?

Monsanto claims that biotech can feed the planet. Here’™s why it won’t.

by Anna Lappé 

In October in Istanbul, farmers, agricultural researchers and advocates from around the world gathered for the Organic World Congress, organized by the 42-year-old International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM). With 800 affiliates in 124 countries, IFOAM comes together every three years to gauge its global efforts to promote chemical-free farming, share innovations and address challenges to growth.

The research presented to packed auditoriums detailed the evidence of the multiple benefits of organic farming — what Europeans call multifunctionality. For one, farmers benefit because instead of needing to purchase costly chemicals, genetically engineered seeds and synthetic fertilizer, they can largely work with the ecological systems of their own farmscapes to fend off pests and promote fertility. Organic farming benefits the rest of us too. These low-input practices promote biodiversity (key to food security), protect pollinators (key to one-third of the food we eat), reduce farm energy use while storing more carbon in the soil (key to fixing climate change) and foster clean water and air (key to, well, everything).

Half a world away in Des Moines, Iowa, the annual World Food Prize celebrated a very different kind of farming that is reliant on petrochemicals, synthetic fertilizer and genetically engineered seeds. The prize, created in 1986, ostensibly recognizes achievements that have “advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world.” This year’s event featured speakers from some of the world’s largest food companies, including PepsiCo and Walmart, reps from chemical companies such as Bayer CropScience and DuPont and Monsanto’s CEO Robert Fraley who, along with two colleagues, was awarded the prize a year earlier.

Accepting the prize in 2013 for his work on genetic engineering, Fraley said, “Biotechnology crops make farming more productive and mitigate agriculture’s impact on our environment by reducing soil erosion, conserving water and reducing other agricultural inputs.” He added, “New products have the potential to enable us to reduce the impact of drought and enhance yield and nutrition.”

It sounds so promising, doesn’t it? It even sounds as though genetically engineered crops may have many of the multifunctional benefits associated with organic farming. On the basis of claims such as these, Fraley likes to say that genetically modified organism (GMO) technology is key to feeding the world. But its track record disproves its ability to deliver on this promise.

Calling Monsanto’s Bluffs

It’s unsurprising that Fraley is going to the mat for biotech beating back hunger. He’s got a dog in this race. In 2013, Monsanto brought in $15 billion in sales from its two main divisions — biotech seeds and agricultural chemicals — and spent millions lobbying Capitol Hill and the State Department to gain support for genetically engineered products in the U.S. and overseas.

Genetically engineered seeds were first approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1982, GMO products first hit grocery stores in 1994, and GMO crops were planted on more than 100 million acres by 1999. So have they delivered on Fraley’s promises? We need not rely on his claims alone; there’s a 17-year track record to examine.

To date, Monsanto has focused on just a handful of engineered traits: Seeds have been modified to either be insect- or herbicide-resistant or are stacked with multiple traits that do both. Most of these seeds are engineered with a gene from the soil bacterium Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), causing the seeds to produce a protein toxic to certain insects. The seeds engineered to be herbicide-tolerant are paired with Monsanto’s proprietary herbicides (such as Roundup), completing the chain of intellectual property — and profit.

Fraley says Monsanto’s crops are key to feeding the world, but these engineered traits have largely been introduced in just three commodities, most of which wind up in the bellies of livestock or the tanks of cars. In 2013, 64 percent of Monsanto’s seed sales came from corn, 16 percent from soy and 7 percent from cotton. Only 13 percent of sales came from other vegetables and seeds — the kind of food we eat.

Also, Monsanto seeds are being grown and sold only in a few countries. According to its 2013 report filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, five countries — the United States, Canada, Mexico, Argentina and Brazil — account for 79 percent of the company’s seed sales. And in 2005, 40 countries had restrictions or bans on genetically engineered crops, according to the Center for Food Safety.

And what about Fraley’s bold claims that these seeds make farming more productive and lessen agriculture’s footprint? Sticking with the narrowest definition of productivity — yield per acre — Monsanto’s record is underwhelming. The company likes to point out that yields for corn planted in the U.S. from 1996 to 2008 rose by 28 percent. (GMO corn seeds were first widely planted by the late ’90s.) But this confuses correlation with causation. Yields did shoot up in those years, but the increases had little to do with GMO seeds; we have conventional breeding and other improvements in farming methods to thank. One estimate (PDF) puts the yield increase in that period that could be associated with genetic engineering of insecticidal traits at a paltry 4 percent, one-sixth the benefits attributable to conventional breeding and farming.

Plus there is strong evidence linking biotech crops to negative environmental effects. The increased use of glyphosate-based herbicides thanks to Monsanto products has led to an alarming rise in herbicide-resistant weeds, to give just one example.

As for Fraley’s claim that Monsanto’s engineered seeds are reducing soil erosion and water and chemical use, look at the record and, yes, there was a decline in soil erosion on cropland in the U.S. since the introduction of engineered seeds, but once again, it’s not because of these crops. The introduction of engineered seeds happened to coincide with the introduction of federal policies to encourage better conservation practices codified in the 1985 Farm Bill.

There is little evidence (PDF) that engineered seeds conserve water. In contrast, organic techniques improve water efficiency on farms. Building healthy soil has been found to lower soil temperatures, which in turn reduces water lost to evaporation. Farms that eschew synthetic fertilizer and petrochemicals have also been found to have more organic matter in their soils, which allow them to retain more water.

Fraley’s allegations that his technology reduces the use of agricultural chemicals is a bit of an ironic argument, given that the company is a pesticide manufacturer, pulling in more than $4 billion in herbicide sales in 2013 (including the herbicide Harness, whose active ingredient, acetochlor, the Environmental Protection Agency has classified as a possible carcinogen) and that the company was a leading producer of some of the nation’s most toxic pesticides, including the defoliant Agent Orange used in the Vietnam War.

Those facts aside, the evidence shows that GMO technology is increasing the use of agricultural chemicals, not decreasing it. In one peer-reviewed study published in Environmental Sciences Europe, Chuck Benbrook, a research professor at the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington State University, found that though herbicide-resistant crop technology was found to reduce insecticide application slightly, GMO seeds increased overall pesticide use by about 7 percent from 1996 to 2011.

Don’t Panic, Go Organic

Unlike Monsanto’s claims about the benefits of biotech, the organic farmers and advocates gathered at that IFOAM meeting in Istanbul were reporting on real, documented results. Organic farming practices around the world are reducing erosionconserving water and reducing chemical applications while not bankrupting farmers with costly fertilizers.

It was thus unsurprising to hear that many farmers who started out in chemical agriculture are turning to this approach. In Istanbul we heard from Famara Diedhou from Senegal, who talked about integrating indigenous foods and organic techniques in his region and helping farmers lift themselves out of poverty. We heard from Gabriela Soto from Costa Rica, who shared the benefits the 5,000 farmers in her network were seeing, from greater productivity to lower costs, because of organic practices. We heard from Makereta Tawa from Fiji, who described the movement in her island nation to go 100 percent organic, and from Lyonpo Yeshey Dorji, the minister of agriculture and forests for Bhutan, about his country’s commitment — and it’s almost there — to go 100 percent organic within a decade.

You are likely unfamiliar with these stories. That’s not because the movement is marginal; the IFOAM network has members in more than 100 nations. One reason we aren’t hearing more of these stories is that groups such as IFOAM have a mere sliver of the resources of a company like Monsanto. Consider that the group’s annual budget in 2013 was just 0.01 percent of Monsanto’s sales or that globally less than 1 percent of research dollars for agriculture — public or private — goes into developing and improving organic methods.

We often hear that we can’t feed the world with organic farming because it’s too hard to bring to scale, but we’ve never invested sufficient resources to develop the training, practices and innovations in organic farming that would help us take proven results and scale them up. Meanwhile, many hear Monsanto’s talking points and mistake them for fact. If we are to feed the future, it’s key we look beyond pithy quotes, draw on evidence and demand that our governments and international institutions invest in organic farming and research.

Originally published in Al Jazeera America