The 1996 World Food Summit goal to halve
by the year 2015 the 800 million people who go
hungry each day could be compromised by trade
policies which favour the interests of
agrochemical corporations over those of small
farmers. The growing linkages between pesticides
and seed companies promoting genetically
engineered (GE) crops are exacerbating the trend.
The problems of food security lie in poverty, rather than lack of food production. Economist Amartya Sen, honoured this year with the Nobel Prize for Economics, demonstrated in the early 1970s that the great famines in India, Bangladesh and the Saharan countries were due to a complex combination of factors and not solely to lack of locally-available food(2).
The agrochemical industry, however, promotes the view that hunger can be eliminated by expanding agricultural production. The US company Monsanto, producer of crops genetically engineered to use its best-selling herbicide glyphosate (marketed as Round-up) recently ran a series of ads in the UK under the headline: "Worrying about starving future generations won't feed them. Food biotechnology will."(3) However at a recent meeting on biotechnology Carlos Joly of Monsanto admitted that the ad campaign was 'a spectacular failure' as there is little public confidence in GE food. There is no real evidence that genetic engineering will expand food production - particularly without severe environmental impacts. Nevertheless many governments implicitly support the industry focus on agricultural production rather than the underlying causes of food insecurity.
The main markets for
agrochemicals are the US, Europe and Japan. But
with no room to increase sales in these regions,
companies seek ways of ensuring long-term
profitability from consolidation of their
interests in agriculture. They also look to
increase sales in developing countries. India is
now the tenth largest pesticide user, and Asia
and Latin America are major targets. A comparison
of Chinese rice production, where farmers spend
on average $6.7/ha on pesticides, with the
Japanese average of $752/ha reveals the corporate
logic(4). Even so, Chinese rice yields are
second only to Japan. In spite of population
growth in China rice production has kept pace
with demands including reserves of 17% of annual
The leading pesticide companies have expanded into the seed industry and into genetic engineering, packaging themselves as the 'Life Science' corporations. Takeovers and mergers have escalated through the 1990s and by 1997 three companies accounted for 17% of the $23 billion seeds industry companies (see chart). Leading the trend are Monsanto and Novartis. Dow AgroSciences has a 20% ownership in the world's largest seed company, Pioneer Hi-Bred. Zeneca (formerly ICI) of the UK, DuPont (US) and AgrEvo (an amalgamation of the German companies Hoechst and Schering) have taken the same steps.
An industry analyst has observed that: "The days of seed companies selling commodity seed products that will be sprayed with pesticides marketed by a separate industry are clearly numbered. Seed companies are now selling seed brands engineered to express pest resistance genes or to be tolerant to specific herbicides.(5)"
The gains for industry could be phenomenal. Some predict that this new wave of agricultural technology could take the global crop protection market up to a $100 billion a year industry(6). The cost of the race to control gene technology implies companies share this view: in July 1998, Novartis announced a $600 million investment to establish the world's biggest crop gene mapping project, the Novartis Agricultural Discovery Institute, in California
Food choice threatened
One seed industry analyst predicts that by 2000 "nearly all commercial seeds of all major crops will contain one or more bio-engineered traits."(8) Industry implies that the technology holds the key to feeding future generations but their history and practice indicates that corporate survival rather than food production drives their research and genetically engineered crops reflects this trend.
The main GE crops now on the market express 'input characteristics' such as herbicide-tolerance and resistance to the bacterial insecticide, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) (see p. 6). Future development of 'output characteristics' is unlikely to be driven by the food security needs of developing countries, but will focus on characteristics desirable in rich markets: genes which would extend shelf life, improve appearance, and promote desirable processing characteristics. The high research costs lead corporations to consider market expansion and profits, rather than such characteristics as improving nutritional quality or access to food.
More use - more
As with pesticides, GE crops are likely to have a number of undesirable impacts. GE crops are designed to increase dependency of farmers on inputs. At the APPA meeting farmers' organisations and NGOs indicated that many farmers in the Philippines have already been sold herbicide-resistant crops. There is, however, no evidence that these will bring increased yields and no evidence that they will enable the pesticides they are dependent on to be used safely under the conditions of use in developing countries.
Companies argue that herbicide-resistant crops will reduce the use of herbicides. However sales of glyphosate (Monsanto's 'Round-up' herbicide which must be used with its GE crops) are soaring. Individual test farms may show one less spray per season, but global usage is dramatically increasing and developing countries are the targets, as there is little room for expansion in the saturated European and US markets. It is also uncertain whether herbicide-resistant crops reduce use on individual farms (see p. 20). Furthermore, with only three seasons of GE crops in cultivation, there is already evidence that the genes cross into related species and are likely to create 'super-weeds', leading to further chemical applications.
GE crops promote monoculture. In developing countries, farmers successfully control pests by encouraging biodiversity in their fields and encouraging beneficial insects and crops. FAO points out that more plant diversity has been lost to industrial agriculture than any other cause. GE crops will increase the problem. Scientists have shown that reductions in biodiversity have led to the evolution of aggressive pests and diseases which are more difficult to control than those from which they have been derived(9).
Millions of farmers in developing countries rely on farm-saved seeds for their crops: but once they begin to buy GE seeds they will be dependent on future purchases. Monsanto prohibits seed-saving(10).
No independent testing
Genetically engineered crops are proving deeply unpopular with European consumers, who are worried about food safety, lack of labelling, and the environmental impacts. While pesticides must be registered for use on each crop, requiring detailed testing and submission of data to governments, GE crops are being rushed to the market before results have been published from any independent scientific research. The Monsanto contracts forbid use of seeds in research.
Impact of trade
With the inclusion of the Agreement on Agriculture in the Uruguay Round, pressure has mounted on developing countries to liberalise markets and to remove protective measures. Many developing countries have joined the World Trade Organisation (WTO) hoping to access markets in industrialised countries, and particularly to increase exports of value-added processed crops. This has yet to happen: instead agricultural production for domestic use is being eroded and areas once producing mixed crops for local and national food security are moving into export crops.
The Third International Women's Conference Against APEC, which preceeded APPA in November, heard that "throughout Asia and South America peasants are losing access to land and globalization is intensifying this problem .... big corporations are producing for export or taking land out of agriculture"(11). With delegations of women from 18 countries, many themselves farmers, they pointed out that"women are predominantly responsible for the provision of the food needs of their families. Despite their multiple and vital roles as farmers, fishworkers, farmworkers and caretakers and managers of their households, women often experience discrimination in terms of access and control over land and water resources. The Asian crisis has intensified this gender-based discrimination and the exploitation and violence against women, both within the family and in the workplace."(12) Delegates observed that transnational corporations are benefiting, and increasing their control over agriculture and fisheries, at the expense of women and men farmers.
The situation in Mexico warns of some of the dangers experienced after entering the NAFTA trade liberalisation agreement with the US and Canada in January 1994. Agricultural policies which protected food security were eliminated under NAFTA, although three million Mexican peasants grow basic grains and oilseeds on 80% of cultivated land. Mexico imported 9% of grains consumed in 1990, but by 1996 this had risen to 30%. Corn, which forms the basis of the Mesoamerican diet and culture, was to be better protected than other products, but import quotas assigned to the US were exceeded in 1995, 1996 and 1998, and the import of 5.8 million tonnes of tariff-free corn, more than twice the amount specified by NAFTA, undercut Mexican farmers, driving down domestic prices(13) . Peasants were encouraged to switch to fruit and vegetable production for export: requiring higher inputs of costly pesticides.
During the 1996 World Food Summit, industry claimed that pesticides are essential for global food security. They cite an expanding world population and destruction of wilderness areas for agriculture as evidence of the case for pesticides. Radical industry commentators like Dennis Avery, directly link pesticide use and free trade objectives: "The world must have free trade in farm products, both to prevent Asian countries from pursuing food self-sufficiency in a misguided search of food security and to release the farm production potential for Europe."(14)
But in reality, the pressure of liberalisation is eroding the role of agriculture as part of the social and cultural fabric of rural areas, particularly in developing countries. In the jargon of trade negotiations, this is termed as the 'multi-functional nature of agriculture' and promoters of free trade refuse to allow this to sway the negotiations.
Corporate strategies are increasingly promoting dependence on GE crops, locking farmers into seed and pesticide purchases, which will pose grave threats to farmers' incomes and to the environment. At the same time, liberalised trade is encouraging production of more high value, high input crops, for an export market. Trade agreements have failed to prevent subsidised European and US grains from flooding the markets of developing countries and this is undermining national production of the grains that form the basis of local and national diets. Together, these pressures are threatening rural livelihoods across developing countries, and the impact on food security at both a local and national level needs far more serious consideration in international policy making and in the trade negotiations.
1. The Third International Women's Conference Against APEC and the Asia-Pacific Peoples' Assembly, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 8-15 November 1998
2. Sen, A., and Hussain, eds. Political Economy of Hunger, Clarendon, Oxford, 1995.
3. Independent Saturday Magazine, September 1998.
4. Grimes, Alison, Crop Production Opportunities in China, Agrow, 1998.
5. Beer, Andrew, 'Blurring the line between industries', Agrow Review of 1997 , PBJ Publications Ltd, UK, 1998.
6. Wood, Andrew and Fairley, Peter, 'Biotech crops flourish', Chemical Week, 4-11 February 1998, p. 27.
7. RAFI Communique, July/August 1998.
8. Op. cit. 6.
9. RA Ennos, The influence of agriculture on genetic biodiversity, BCPC, 1997.
10. Monsanto Roundup Ready - Gene Agreement for Roundup Ready Soybeans, 1996.
11. Confronting globalization: Asserting our right to food, Statement from the conference, available from PAN Asia Pacific.
13. Ana de Ita, Researcher at the Centre of Studies for Rural Change in Mexico, The impact of NAFTA on food security and the proposal for reordering Mexican territory, paper for APPA, Malaysia, 1998.
14. Avery, Dennis, 'Saving the planet with pesticides, biotechnology and European farm reform', Brighton Crop Protection Conference, Vol. 1, 1997.
[This article first appeared in Pesticides News No. 42, December 1998, pages 4-5]