Marc Dufumier: Alternatives to the GM rhetoric which "Only a fool could believe" Print E-mail
 April 2006

Resistance continues to GM crops

There is an alternative

By Marc Dufumier

There are 6.5 billion people on this planet. More than 850 million of them go hungry and almost 2 billion, for lack of sufficient proteins, vitamins and minerals, suffer from malnutrition. The transnational seed-manufacturing companies claim that GM plants can help solve this problem. Should we believe them?

More than two-thirds of the underfed are smallholder farming families who rely exclusively upon hand tools and do not produce enough crops or animals to feed themselves, either directly or through the market. Then there are the poor and indebted who have flocked into shanty towns but have failed to find paid employment. The best way to reduce global hunger and malnutrition would be to raise the productivity and agricultural incomes of the poorest farmers. But there is no evidence that GM crops can help us attain this goal. Practically, the emphasis should be on the cultivation of different species and varieties that complement each other in space and time. Our priorities should be:

   To take maximum advantage of solar radiation and to use photosynthesis to transform as much light as possible into food calories.

   Encourage bacteria living in symbiotic relationship with legumes to produce proteins from the atmosphere through nitrogen fixation.

   Ensure the maximum penetration of the soil by plant roots and assist the vertical transfer of minerals to the surface through the creation of aerial biomass, whose fallen leaves will decompose into the arable layer.

   Guarantee sufficient plant coverage to protect land surface from erosive elements (tropical rainfall, runoffs, violent winds).

   Encourage the production of humus by spreading organic matter on fields under cultivation.

   Prevent the propagation and proliferation of potentially predatory insects and pathogenic agents.

The best chance for marginal farmers lies with hardy varieties that can survive in uncertain conditions, limiting the risks from bad harvests. One example is the recent success of the pluvial rice Nerica in West Africa. This cross between African and Asian varieties is rich in proteins, resistant to drought, and is not GM.

When agriculture and animal-rearing are carried out side by side, crop residues can be fed to livestock, and animal droppings turned into manure without being moved over distances. But farmers need access to the necessary means of production: draft animals, carts, sufficient land. This is more a question of resource allocation than of genetic manipulation.

Among the farming communities of the third world there is an under-exploited wealth of natural knowledge. This is demonstrated by groups that cultivate the creole gardens of Haiti and many other Caribbean islands. Some societies in Sudano-Sahelian Africa sow their cereals in parklands beneath Acacia albida, a leguminous tree whose foliage provides excellent animal fodder and also helps fertilise the soil. Alongside their rice, the farmers of Vietnam’s Red River delta also cultivate algae, encouraging cyanobacteria that assist in the nitrogen fertilisation of the soil. Raising ducks on paddies is an effective way of combating the insects that feed on rice.

All of these techniques could be improved, so agronomists won’t be out of a job, provided that they respect often complex ecosystems whose productive capacities will continue to need careful management. There is no evidence to suggest that genetics is the factor limiting agricultural production and incomes, or that GM organisms can be useful to poor farmers. Only a fool could believe that the multinationals, having made massive investments in GM crops, are going to hand over their seeds to the planet’s least economically-viable farmers.

The developing world is already growing GM soya beans, maize and cotton on the great landed estates of Brazil, in Argentina and in South Africa. There is no sign that these crops are helping to end the poverty of landless peasants or of the inhabitants of the favelas and bantustans.
Translated by Donald Hounam

Marc Dufumier is a lecturer at the Institut National Agronomique Paris-Grignon