Nearly 800 million people go hungry every day because they
cannot grow or buy enough food. One in seven children born in the
countries where hunger is most common die before they are five
Many governments, companies and
institutions are promoting genetically modified
(GM) crops as a response. It’s claimed GM
technologies will increase food production,
reduce environmental degradation, provide
more nutritious foods and promote
sustainable agriculture. But can GM crops
really alleviate world hunger?
ActionAid believes that food security can only
be achieved by addressing poverty, matching
technologies to local needs, promoting basic
rights, protecting biodiversity, and supporting
informed choice and participation for poor
people. This report - which is based on
evidence from Asia, Africa and Latin America -
concludes that GM crops are unlikely to
contribute to any of these objectives. The
expansion of GM is more likely to benefit rich
corporations than poor people.
Can GM crops help eradicate poverty?
- GM crops covered 58 million hectares
worldwide in 2002 – an area two and a half
times the size of the UK
- Only 1 per cent of GM research is aimed at
crops used by poor farmers in poor
- It can cost up to $300 million to develop a
GM crop and the process can take up to 12
- A small range of GM crops that might
address poorer farmers’ needs are being
researched but they stand only a one in
250 chance of making it into farmers’ fields
- The four corporations that control most of
the GM seed market had a combined
turnover from agrochemicals and seeds of
$21.6 billion in 2001
- 91% of all GM crops grown worldwide in
2001 were from Monsanto seeds.
It is not the interests of poor farmers but the
profits of the agrochemical industry that have
been the driving force behind the emergence
of GM agriculture. Four multinational
corporations – Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer
CropScience and DuPont – now control most
of the GM seed market. Some 91% of all GM
crops grown worldwide in 2001 were from
Monsanto seeds. By linking their chemicals to
seeds via GM technologies, these
corporations have been able to extend
markets for their herbicides and pesticides.
GM crops are unlikely to help eradicate
poverty because yields seem to be no more
than non-GM crops and sometimes need
more chemicals. Yields from GM soybeans are
no higher than those from high-yield
conventional varieties. In one study,
Monsanto’s GM soya had 6% lower yields than
non-GM soya and 11% less than high-yielding
Insecticide use on GM cotton has fallen in
some locations, but these gains may be shortlived
as insects develop resistance to the
insecticide that the cotton expresses. In time,
farmers may need to invest in more, not fewer,
chemicals. This also applies to chemical use
on herbicide resistant GM crops, which has gone up rather than down as farmers use
chemicals more frequently and/or in greater
amounts. Herbicide use per hectare in
Argentina has more than doubled on GM
fields compared to conventional varieties.
GM crops are ineffective in tackling the
underlying political and economic causes of
food insecurity: poverty and inequality. The
new GM technologies do not address the
essential constraints facing poor farmers
including lack of access to: land, water,
energy, affordable credit, agricultural training,
local markets, decent roads, grain stores and
infrastructure. In fact, GM could be disastrous
for small-scale farmers as the costs are much
higher and they risk falling into debt.
Do GM crops meet the needs
of poor farmers?
GM varieties do not meet the needs of poor
farmers who rely on affordable, readily
available supplies of seeds for a range of
crops to meet diverse environmental,
consumption and production needs. Poor
communities need investment in low-cost,
low-input farmer-friendly technologies,
building on farmers’ knowledge. GM seeds, by
contrast, are targeted at large-scale
commercial farmers growing cash crops in
monocultures. GM crops could undermine
food security by wasting the scarce resources
of poorer farmers and developing countries.
Most research and development in GM
agriculture is conducted by the private sector.
Less than 1% of all GM research is directed at
GM research in Africa, for instance, focuses
on export crops such as cut flowers, fruit,
vegetables, cotton and tobacco, which are
grown in large-scale commercial plantations
in Kenya, South Africa and Zimbabwe. In
Kenya, only one out of 136 intellectual
property applications for plants were for a
food crop; more than half were for roses.
Do GM crops threaten basic rights?
Farmers in developing countries have evolved
complex, cheap and effective systems to save,
exchange and use seeds from one harvest to
the next. Patented GM seeds threaten to
erode these rights and practices, to displace
or contaminate seed supplies, and to increase
farmers’ dependence on private monopolised
Up to 1.4 billion people, including up to 90%
of farmers in Africa, many of them women,
depend on saved seed. Yet the proliferation of
intellectual property regimes that come with
GM seeds threaten centuries-old practices of
saving and exchanging seeds.
GM seeds must usually be bought each
season. Before they can obtain and use the
seeds, farmers have to sign a contract with
the company obliging them to pay a royalty or
technology fee, to agree not to save or replant
seeds from the harvest, to use only company
chemicals on them and to allow the
corporation access to their property to verify
Having to buy external supplies of seeds and
pesticides leaves farmers more economically
and agriculturally dependent on corporations.
The technology fee makes such seeds
prohibitive for the poorest farmers who lack
access to credit. The contracts are complex
and easily misunderstood by farmers,
especially those who are illiterate.
The biotech industry continues to develop a
set of GM crop technologies – Genetic Use
Restriction Technologies (GURTs), which have
been dubbed ‘Terminator technologies’ - that
produce sterile seeds: if saved and planted
from one year to the next, they would have no
yields at all.
Do GM crops threaten biodiversity?
GM crops threaten to reduce the agricultural
and crop diversity that are the basis of poor
farmer livelihoods and developing country
food sovereignty. Three-quarters of the
original varieties of agricultural crops have
been lost from farmers’ fields since 1900 as
industrial and export-led agriculture has
encouraged the widespread monoculture
cultivation of a few crop varieties for a more
uniform global market. GM crops threaten to
erode biodiversity still further.
In addition, GM crops pose known threats to
other plants and insects. They can crosspollinate
with non-GM plants, endangering
diverse original varieties, particularly in
developing countries. They are likely to require
bigger and more frequent doses as weeds
and insects develop resistance to chemicals.
They may threaten beneficial insects and thus
disrupt natural pest management systems.
GM crops engineered to produce
pharmaceutical drugs could easily end up in
local food supplies.
Biosafety regulations could address some of
these problems and threats to biodiversity, but
many countries do not have them, or the
capacity to develop them. In Zambia, just one
person, who has no previous experience of
developing national policy or prior knowledge
of the issues, is responsible for drafting
national biosafety policy.
Nor is regulation enough where national
capacity to evaluate and monitor risks is weak.
In Brazil, a ban on the commercial cultivation
of GM crops did not stop GM soya seeds
being smuggled in from Argentina and planted
across huge areas. In Pakistan, ActionAid has
investigated the impact of illegally planted GM
cotton. Hundreds of farmers who bought the
so-called ‘miracle’ seed on the black market in
the hope it would increase their harvests lost
around 70 per cent of their crops.
Do GM crops enhance informed choice
and participation for poor people?
Developing country governments are under
huge pressure to accept GM crops, put
scarce public resources into GM research and
open their doors to biotech corporations
before their people have been properly
informed, consulted and agreed to accept, or
reject, GM. Poorer farmers and communities
are being sidelined in debates and decisions
about GM technology.
In South Africa, for example, GM crops have
been planted without prior public consultation
or involvement in decision making and without
environmental studies on their impact.
Even if GM research takes place in the public
sector it may not address the needs of poor
farmers because most genes and processes
are now patented by corporations. In
partnerships between public research
organisations and corporations, control and
decision making tends to remain firmly in the
hands of corporations who acknowledge that
their goal is to create new markets and
improve their public image.
If poorer people were more involved in setting
agricultural research agendas, they would
probably opt not for GM crops, but for other
The widespread adoption of GM crops seems
likely to exacerbate the underlying causes of
food insecurity, leading to more hungry
people, not fewer. To have a lasting impact on
poverty, ActionAid believes policy makers
must address the real constraints facing poor
communities - lack of access to land, credit,
resources and markets – instead of focusing
on risky technologies that have no track
record in addressing hunger.
- Donors and governments should address
the wider causes of food insecurity –
land, credit, agricultural training and
infrastructure – before putting resources
into GM crops.
- They should introduce a moratorium on the
further commercialisation of GM crops until
more research has been carried out into
the socio-economic, environmental and
biodiversity impacts of GM crops,
particularly in developing countries.
- Poorer farmers and communities should be
enabled to participate more in national GM
debates and policymaking.
- Genetic resources for food and agriculture
should be exempt from intellectual property
- Farmers’ rights to save and exchange seeds
should be recognised under the intellectual
property rules of the World Trade
Organisation and should be protected in
developing country intellectual property
- Governments should introduce competition
rules to prevent private sector monopolies
and effective institutions to enforce them.
- The potential impact of GM crops on food
security, poor farmers and biodiversity
should guide the development and
implementation of national biosafety
- Funding for public sector agricultural
research should be increased and should
specialise in support for sustainable,