EXTRACT: The scientists receiving this grant have themselves admitted that this research will not yield any results for at least 10 years. Other research into this area suggests it may require 20 years. But given the evidence that exists from GM research over the past 15 years one really must question whether or not genetically engineering multi gene traits such as those relating to nitrogen fixation is even possible at all.
NOTE: We may be looking at even longer periods of time. The quest for GM nitrogen fixation was already underway over 30 years ago (see, for example: US Office of Technology Assessment (1981) Impacts of applied genetics: Micro-organisms, plants and animals: http://www.fas.org/ota/reports/8115.pdf). And 30 years on, an article in The Economist quoted a figure of another 30-40 years for how long it was expected to take to achieve nitrogen fixation through GM (A special report on food. Enough to go round? The Economist, 24th February 2011).
But whether we're talking about 20, 30 or even 40 years is really just guess work. As the lead researcher on nitrogen fixation at the John Innes Centre told the EDP, "It is 'blue-sky' research", i.e. it's speculative research with inherently uncertain results.
The EDP article was headlined: "John Innes Centre scientists in Norwich given $9.8m for project to help farmers in the world's poorest countries." The headline could more accurately have read: "John Innes Centre scientists in Norwich given $9.8m for 'blue sky' project with little prospect of helping African farmers."
Bill Gates should forget GM crops and focus on solutions that work
Our Food Future, 18 July 2012
The recent announcement that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have donated close to $10 million to research what has been termed as "fertilizer free" grain crops, whilst applaudable on the surface, only serves to distract us from the real solution to global hunger- Agroecological (or natural farming) systems at the local level.
But first, let's consider the concept of "fertilizer free" food. What is actually being referred to here is the concept of transferring the genes responsible for nitrogen fixation from legume plants into grain crops such as wheat and rice. In theory this sounds great. The application of nitrogen fertilizers is one of the most unsustainable and damaging practices in agriculture; if all plants produced their own nitrogen life would be much easier.
The reality, unfortunately, is not quite that simple. The scientists receiving this grant have themselves admitted that this research will not yield any results for at least 10 years. Other research into this area suggests it may require 20 years. But given the evidence that exists from GM research over the past 15 years one really must question whether or not genetically engineering multi gene traits such as those relating to nitrogen fixation is even possible at all.
And this is reflective of the marketing of genetically engineered crops more broadly. We are continually provided with feel good statements from the biotechnology lobby suggesting that GM crops will provide the solution to feeding the world. In reality however, after 20 odd years of research into this area very few of these promises have been proven true and most GM crops are still single gene crops.
Why then is the biotechnology lobby so intent on promoting GM crops? For one simple reason- GM technology provides GM companies with the opportunity to own patents over the crops, patents over nature. With GM technology, seed companies have the ability to make more money than they ever have before. GM technology isn’t about feeding the world or improving farmers’ lives, at least not in Monsanto’s eyes. GM technology is about control of the global food system and anyone who tells you different is lying.
But the bigger question must be do we even need GM?
Let’s look at this example specifically. The reality is that we already have legume food crops that can convert nitrogen from the air into a form that is useable by plants. By rotating leguminous crops with other crops such as grain crops we can dramatically reduce the need for nitrogenous fertilisers. This is agroecological or natural farming, it has been done for thousands of years, and it provides real solutions for feeding the world. Now.
After all, synthetic fertilizers were only developed in the 20th century, prior to this time farmers had to find natural sources of nutrient, from within their local environment, to replenish the nutrient that is exported with their crops. This is nothing new, we’ve just forgotten to farm in this way.
America’s own Rodale Institute has conducted and continues to conduct the world’s longest running trial comparing organic to conventional agriculture over the past 30 years. Over this period, even in volume terms alone, organic agriculture has proven to be more productive than conventional agriculture. But when the costs of inputs have been factored in, organic agriculture has been shown to be vastly more profitable.
Bill Gates seems to think that third world farmers are struggling because they don’t have the resources of their American counterparts. What he’s forgetting, is just how badly his well resourced US farmers are doing.
What’s more, he is continuing to ignore the advice of experts, who have been saying for years now that agroecological farming is the best way to feed not only the third world, but the entire world. This United Nations Report from 2010 estimated that small-scale farmers could double food production in critical regions, within 10 years, by using agroecological methods. It makes complete sense; we have gone into these third world countries and tried to teach them to farm using our methods. We have got them addicted to our technologies and, more importantly, to our fertilisers and chemicals. It just doesn’t work.
This old proverb sums it up for me- give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.
By teaching poor third world farmers to farm using modern, fossil fuel intensive agricultural methods using genetically engineered seeds the rights for which are controlled under patents by multinational corporations, we are keeping farmers on the teat of western corporate control. But by teaching farmers to grow food using agroecological methods using inputs that occur naturally around them we are providing these people with the skills they need to not only to survive, but to flourish; independent of foreign aid.
Teaching these skills does not come cheap however. If Mr Gates is serious about feeding the world's poor and helping us establish sustainable farming practices that will heal the environment and provide a future for humanity, he needs to look less towards GM and more towards nature.