GM to feed the world? We think not.
There has been lots in the press of late, suggesting we need GM crop technology to avoid global famine. Convenient for techno fix believers and commercial interests, but a bit confusing for those of us keen to see everyone fed.
Current GM enthusiasts are effectively advocating Green Revolution Part Two, where whizzo genes are introduced for better yield. Unfortunately Green Revolution Part One (late 1960s onwards) was predicated on F1/hybrid genetic breakthroughs and serious oil-based fertiliser/pesticide inputs for success. Most of the recipients of this techno zeal have had plenty of time to rue its arrival/enforcement. Lots of damning case studies; if anyone thinks it was a good plan, read up! Pressure from the World Bank, the WTO and the USA particularly, to produce cash crops with high capital inputs, was the general experience.
As long as cheap oil/gas is available a lot can be squeezed out of soil through synthesised nitrate, and indeed has been. Oil and gas are no longer cheap however, and will get increasingly expensive as supply dwindles. Soil is also forgiving to a point but not forever and Green Revolution I has used up a lot of humus and soil trace elements, both vital in plant growth. They both have to ultimately be replenished through composting and return of nutrients to the soil through any local system available. Sustainability cannot exist without these returns, even if perfect cycles are difficult in practice to achieve.
GM crops cannot squeeze goodness out of the soil which isn't there, but they can speed up removal of existing nutrients. If we want to speed up desertification and irrigation problems then bring on GM. If we want to feed the world, feed our soils. There is no shortage of productive plant varieties although several large agribusinesses are keen to control seed production. Technology has no real relevance beyond the basic but vital business of efficiently capturing human waste and keeping it the loop. The solutions will be public policy, localised action and political clout, not the laboratory.
For inclusive and sustainable solutions try www.sekem.com in Egypt, writings of Vanda Shiva from India, or recent Ethiopian agricultural policy http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/2123354.stm
Last Modified - 5th May 2008