Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Who Benefits from GM Seeds?

*by Sam Burcher -
Agroecology Offers Real Solutions to World Hunger After Decades of GM Hype
The Via Campesina (the Peasants’ way) is emerging as a potentially powerful international movement mobilizing resistance against the GM Corporations, which have consolidated their agro-chemical companies into just five major global players; Monsanto, Bayer, BASF, Syngenta and Dupont.

A recent report by the Friends of the Earth (FOE) 1 has highlighted the struggle between the two forces for control of the seeds. On one side are the 1.5 million members of the Via Campesina, who are demanding food sovereignty or the right to grow healthy food from local, time-honoured seeds.  On the opposing side are the mega Corporations, which have gained so much power through patents on GM seeds.

GM-Free Europe
Spain is the last bastion of GM crops in Europe.  Monsanto has cause for concern that even Spain is back-tracking as the Basque and Catalonia regions prepare to go GM free along with the neighbouring Canary Islands. Monsanto has urged Spanish Embassy officials to step up pressure on Brussels, “Because if Spain falls the rest of Europe will follow.”1

Europe has already spoken on GM crops with 61% of the population against them and 23% less GM crops grown in the past two years. Monsanto’s MON810 maize is banned in France, Germany, Austria, Greece, Luxembourg, and in Bulgaria, where there is a total GM ban. Switzerland has a GM moratorium until 2013

Things could change now that the European Patent Office (EPO) has decided that the biological breeding of plants and animals can no longer be a process covered by a patent.

Growers against Corporations
Via America is fighting to protect farmers in the US and Canada, where 64% of the worlds’ GM crops are grown, from the disappearance of local seed markets, and the rocketing price of GM seeds. Over the years, Corporations have been boosting profits by suing thousands of farmers for millions of dollars in royalties on GM seeds windblown onto their fields.

In 2010, Texan farmers turned the tables by forcing Bayer to compensate them for contaminating their GM free rice crops with GM rice seed. It was the farmers’ seventh win since 2006.  Monsanto’s alfalfa crops have also been banned and GM sugar beet fields destroyed.

In Argentina, GM soy monocultures are destroying the health of communities where some 50% of the soy harvest goes into feeding livestock forcing grain price hikes and reducing balanced diets for people.  Local residents have legally prevented Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, linked to cancer, DNA damage and miscarriages, being sprayed near homes.

GM seeds and bees
France was first to ban Bayer’s GM maize and sunflower seeds coated with the neonicotinoid pesticides thought to be responsible for the mass deaths of bees in CCD (colony collapse disorder) hives. A consortium of GM seed producers led by Monsanto and Bayer tried to rescind the ban, but were caught cheating after presenting results not matching their original data.

Italy and Germany banned neonicotinoids several years later in 2008, and Brazil recently banned Bayer’s “Liberty Link” maize because of a lack of impact assessments. By 2009, reports from Italy’s non-neonicotinoid maize fields were of zero bee losses.

In the UK, the Co-Op prohibited neonicotinoids in 2009 after a lack of action by the Government and is funding an ongoing three year study into its effects on bees’ brains. This year, 76 MP’s signed an Early Day Motion (EDM1267) demanding action on neonicotinoids after a Wikileaks document in November 2010 revealed that the US EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) knows that neonicotinoids are causing harm to bees, but has no plans to suspend its use.

In April this year, DEFRA (Department of Food and Rural Affairs) stated there is no evidence to suggest a link between bee die-offs and systemic pesticides. This is not surprising given that the Foresight report from UK’s Chief Scientist 2   is urging the “sustainable intensification of agriculture” using GM technologies.

But banning neonicotinoids outright will not be easy because Bayer is sitting on the board on International Committee of Plant-Bee Relationships alongside representatives of BASF and Syngenta.

Meanwhile, scientists say that bees are protecting hives by sealing off tainted pollen with sticky propolis.

GM needs huge cash injections
All the hype about GM crops feeding the world has ended in disappointment for many. But it has opened lucrative doors for Monsanto, which recently attracted a high-profile patron.  Last year Bill Gates stepped up to acquire $23 million of shares in Monsanto and put $26.8 million into successfully cracking the gene code of wheat.

A further $100 million in grants donated by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on behalf of Monsanto is an effort to capture Africa’s huge seed market, and according to FOE, to undermine the policies supporting traditional farming in Africa. Via Campesina has responded by saying, “No foundation should tell a Nation what to grow.”

The Gates Foundation has also donated Monsanto’s seeds and agrichemical to disaster struck Haiti.
Agroecology alleviates hunger and poverty
The Via Campesina receives modest funding from charities such as Grassroots International3.  In Latin America, India and Asia, the Via Campesina has adapted to climate change and local conditions by applying ecological concepts and the practical science of agroecology to conserve land and water resources and to produce more food on less land. 

Agroecology is helping to break down the dominant market model that thrives on competition to produce cheap food for export, trapping people in hunger and poverty. Instead, Campesinos grow enough food to eat and trade surpluses in local markets. By diversifying food growing and distribution systems Via Campesina support local economies, employment, education and healthcare, seed saving, seed swapping and scientific research, all linking back to food secure communities.

Hans Herren is the World Food Prize Laureate (1995), President of the Millennium Institute, and the co-author of the leading international report on agriculture4 in which 400 scientists and 200 experts have said that business as usual is no longer an option and agree with the methods of the Via Campesina.

Addressing the new All Party Parliamentary Group on Agroecology at Westminster, Herren said in giving corporations control of seeds, “We have given away the family silver to them.  We must boycott big companies because they fear that and demand labelling for what has been used and what has not been used.”

Climate change is still the main concern in securing the future of food and richer countries can start by reducing food waste. For instance, Britain bins 8.3 million tonnes of food every year5 making more greenhouse gas emissions and wasting the water and energy that produced it.

*Sam Burcher holds an MSc in Education for Sustainability and is co-author of Food Futures Now (ISIS/TWN 2008.


  1. Friends of the Earth International. Who benefits from GM Crops?  An Industry built on myths.  February 2011, issue 121.
  2. Government Office for Science, The Future of Food and Farming, 2011.
  3. Grassroots International
  4. The IAASTD Report Agriculture at a Crossroads 2008
  5. WRAP and WWF The Water and Carbon Footprint of Household food waste in the UK 2011

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