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GM's charm offensive

By Greg Revell - posted Friday, 17 July 2009

Am I really helping to starve Africans?

I feel really bad. I’ve just seen the documentary “Can GM save the world?” shown on SBS TV recently. As a critic of genetically modified (GM) foods, I was left wondering if I’m morally a bad person for contributing to the starvation of millions in Africa by opposing GM crops - at least that’s what this documentary would have you believe.

But am I morally bankrupt for advocating clean, green food production systems rather than corporate controlled biotech seeds, pesticides and other industrial agrichemicals? If so, then that makes me, along with many scientists, environmental groups and most consumers, complicitous in a massive Mao-like genocide.


Maybe it’s not me. Perhaps the documentary wanted me to think that. If you thought that the documentary sounded like a paid advertisement for the biotechnology industry, then you’d be forgiven for thinking so. The biotech industry has long recognised that their aggressive, and some say arrogant, style has sullied the impact that any direct advertising could possibly have. Far better to work with TV and radio researchers to promote your message using celebrities and the noble scientist as a proxy - preferably both at the same time. And the documentary’s host, Jimmy Doherty is the perfect foil. His boffin appeal and pin-up boy good looks plays straight out of the Jamie Oliver school of geezer charm. Surround him with a slew of pro-GM scientists and create an air of impartiality by offering Jimmy as a self-styled poster child for sustainable farming and you’ve got a winning formula. A stroke of directorial genius I would have thought.

But charm offensive aside, the documentary’s main conclusions were clear: GM was “so simple”, “so natural” that it would be morally corrupt to be critical of a technology that “was amazing” and “offered hope” to millions in the developing world. Sure, there were nominal offerings by two GM critics, but quite apart from the fact that each had less than a minute of air time, they were both book-ended by rebuttals from GM scientists, ensuring that they served as little more than a linking device for the main pro-GM thrust.

The “GM will feed the world” myth is a deviously clever piece of PR. The need has arisen because GM food has not enjoyed the worldwide acceptance that their biotech inventors had hoped for. On the contrary, GM crops have engendered massive consumer resistance with environmental and consumer groups rallying together to create a powerful global “no GMO” voice. Reeling from this unexpected rejection and devoid of any saleable consumer benefits, the biotech industry needed a distraction. Their target was the emotional heart-strings of western consumers. And the vehicle? The hungry in the third world. Without their consent, the plight of the third world has been thrust into the service of biotech operatives.

The myth is powerful because who wants to be seen as opposing a technology that will feed hungry mouths? But can it? Before we slavishly succumb to its emotional pull, does the assertion stand up to scrutiny?

The framing of the “can GM feed the world?” question assumes a priori that there isn’t enough food already being produced. This is demonstrably false. Critics point to a 2006 UN FAO report that acknowledges that world agriculture today produces 17 per cent more calories per person than it did 30 years ago despite a 70 per cent population increase, yet the gap between the fed and the underfed is greater than ever.

We now have the perverse situation where there are more obese people in the west than there are malnourished in the third-world. The real reason people go hungry is because they don’t have the money to buy food, the arable land to grow it or because of war and conflict. The distorted global food trading system that favours large agribusiness interests at the expense of the subsistence farmer also plays its part.


Asking if GM can feed the world suggests that GM is the only solution. Omitted from consideration are truly environmentally, economically and culturally sustainable food production systems such as organics and biodynamics that place people and soils at the centre of their food security. New genetically modified magic beans that are subject to intellectual property rights are clearly not a solution donated to the world community for their attendant use.

To feed the hungry, GM crops need to be accessible to those who need them, yet 95 per cent of all GM crops are grown in just four countries: The US, Argentina, Canada and Brazil most of which are fed to animals, ostensibly to fatten up livestock for fast-food hamburgers and for use in other highly processed foods - no third world lives saved there.

But maybe GM crops have something special that will increase yields? With only two commercial GM traits available; one being herbicide resistance, the other that allows the plant to create it’s own insect toxin, the current suite of GM crops are more about ensuring continued sales of pesticides more than feeding the hungry. There is simply no such thing as a commercially available GM crop to increase yield or exhibit drought tolerance. Such falsehoods are the flights of PR fancy but are required to sustain the “feed the world” myth.

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About the Author

Greg Revell is the director of sustainable food policy with Gene Ethics.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Greg Revell

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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