The grand claims of biotechnology to revolutionise agricultural production are old. Since the mid-1980s, agriculture was supposed to be transformed by genetically modified (GM) plants, which were claimed to help feed the world through higher yields and better nutritional properties – and to reduce pesticide use. However, in practice, these promises have not been delivered: while GM crops are grown in industrial monocultures and sold as animal feed or biofuel, the fight against world hunger is off track (GHI, 2022).
The market for GM crops has been dominated by four crops (soybean, maize, cotton and canola) that are genetically engineered to be tolerant to herbicides (herbicide tolerant or HT crops) and/or have insecticidal properties (Bacillus thuringiensis or Bt crops). Thereby, soybean is the leading biotech crop, occupying around half of the global biotech area (ISAAA, 2019). The cultivation of HT crops has led to numerous environmental, health, and socio-economic problems related to: the preventive blanket spraying of herbicides, which is associated with increased herbicides use (see Figure 1); the emergence of superweeds; health issues of farm workers and people living in the vicinity of HT crop fields; biodiversity loss; and more recently massive herbicide drift and associated crop losses (see for example Belsky and Joshi, 2018; Benbrook, 2012; Heap and Duke, 2018; Hettinger, 2020; IARC 2015, 2018; Schütte et al., 2017).
Insect tolerant crops have initially decreased insecticide use but eventually led to secondary insect pest outbreaks and pest resistances, nullifying any prior environmental or economic advantages of this techniques (Gutierrez et al, 2015; Kranthi 2014; 2015). Today, cotton farmers in India for example spend more on pesticides than before the introduction of Bt crops (Kranthi and Stone, 2020). In Burkina Faso, Bt cotton was phased out in 2016 due to a drastic decline in important cotton quality characteristics that had negatively impacted Burkina Faso’s reputation as world-renowned cotton industry (Luna and Dowd-Uribe, 2020).
Other GM crop failures in the field include:
- The introgression of the provitamin A trait from transgenic Golden Rice into a commercial, high yielding Indian rice variety (Swarna) led to a range of unintended effects, including drastic yields reduction, dwarfism, pale green leaves, late flowering, and low fertility despite more than 25 years of research and development (Bollinedi et al, 2017).
- The ‘drought tolerant’ maize from Monsanto (now Bayer) was rejected by South African authorities for its lack of drought tolerance and failure to increase yield (Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, 2019).
Figure 1. Yearly estimated agricultural dicamba use in the U.S. Shows the rapid and massive increase of dicamba use after the commercialisation of dicamba tolerant soybean, cotton and corn in 2015 and 2016, respectively and associated herbicides. Credit: U.S. Geological Survey Department of the Interiour/USGS. This graph is made with low-end estimates and may underestimate actual dicamba use in the U.S. URL: http://water.usgs.gov/nawqa/pnsp/usage/maps/show_map.php?year=2017&map=DICAMBA&hilo=L&disp=Dicamba
Many organisations of peasants and consumers have been quite sceptical about GM foods since the onset of genetic engineering, inter alia because of the simultaneous emerging of patents on seeds, largely owned by agribusiness corporation. A broad global movement has emerged against the deregulation of GM crops. It resulted in numerous bans and restrictions on the cultivation and marketing of GM crops. In Switzerland, a popular vote decided on a moratorium on commercial GM crop cultivation in 2005, which has since regularly been prolonged.
Biotechnology is not a pro-poor technology. It is cost-effective mostly in input-intensive industrial monoculture production. In resource-poor, rainfed areas, the illegality to freely save and exchange GM seeds, the high costs of GM seeds and associated pesticides, intellectual property rights, and increasing market concentrations have increased farmer debt and dependency on international markets: • In rain-fed areas in India, the cultivation of GM Bt cotton has been coupled with increased risk of farmer debt (Gutierrez et al, 2015; 2020; Kranthi et al., 2014). • In Argentina, the expansion of GM soy production has been connected to land control and violent displacements of small-scale farmers and indigenous communities, market concentration, and food insecurity (Goldfarb and van der Haar, 2016; Leguizamón, 2016). • In the Philippines, the introduction of GM maize has been associated with dramatically increased production costs, increased farmer debt, and rural unemployment (MASIPAG, 2013). By adopting GM seeds, farmers easily get caught in a technological and pesticide treadmill, which forces them to rely on ever-new generations of HT and Bt crop seeds in response to ever-new resistant weeds and pests (Binimelis et al. 2009). Najork et al. (2022, p. 1007) call this “an inherent sociobiological obsolescence that results in a systematic dispossession of resource-poor households” and facilitates the “redistribution of assets from the bottom to the top of the agricultural sector”.
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- Benbrook, C. M. (2012). Impacts of genetically engineered crops on pesticide use in the U.S. —The first sixteen years. Environmental Sciences Europe, 24(1), 24. https://doi.org/10.1186/2190-4715-24-24
- Bollinedi, H., S, G. K., Prabhu, K. V., Singh, N. K., Mishra, S., Khurana, J. P., & Singh, A. K. (2017). Molecular and Functional Characterization of GR2-R1 Event Based Backcross Derived Lines of Golden Rice in the Genetic Background of a Mega Rice Variety Swarna. PLOS ONE, 12(1), e0169600. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0169600
- Binimelis, R., Pengue, W., & Monterroso, I. (2009). “Transgenic treadmill”: Responses to the emergence and spread of glyphosate-resistant johnsongrass in Argentina. Geoforum, 40(4), 623–633. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2009.03.009
- Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. (2019). Minister’s final decision on the appeal lodged by Monsanto South Africa (PTY) limited under the GMO Act, 1997. Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Republic of South Africa. https://www.acbio.org.za/sites/default/files/documents/Minister%27s_final_decision_on_Monsanto_appeal.pdf
- GHI (2022): Global, Regional and National Trends. https://www.globalhungerindex.org/trends.html
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- Hettinger, J. (2020a, June 16). ‘We’ve got it everywhere’: Dicamba damaging trees across Midwest and South. Investigate Midwest. https://investigatemidwest.org/2020/06/16/weve-got-it-everywhere-dicamba-damaging-trees-across-midwest-and-south/
- IARC (2017) IARC Monographs on the evaluation of carcinogenic risks to humans—volume 112: some organophosphate insecticides and herbicides. Retrieved April 29, 2022, from https://monographs.iarc.fr/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/mono112.pdf.
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- ISAAA. (2019). Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops in 2019 (ISAAA Brief 555-2019). https://www.isaaa.org/purchasepublications/itemdescription.asp?ItemType=ECOPY&Control=IB055-2019-ECOPY
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