Further Insight on Genetically Modified Foods & Monsanto

On the 25 May, Andrew Bennet of Monsanto was interviewed on Cape Talk radio show by Kienno Kammies. It was the usual Monsanto marketing speak, “pushing the benefits of his company’s most recent product”, as Glen Ashton described it in an email to Kienno offering some further insight for the sake of balance.

(You can also listen to my Niche Radio podcast interview with Glen here)

GlenAshtonImageBy Glen Ashton

There is of course another side. Perhaps it would be best to leave it to firstly a new report by the National Academy of Sciences, which is neatly summed up in this article by the Center for Food Safety.


Relevant to us, in the third paragraph NAS found that “Significantly, the report did not find clear benefits from GE crops in developing countries for small, impoverished farms. This finding is consistent with the observation that one billion people remain food insecure, despite massive adoption of GE crops globally on over 400 million acres.”

It goes on to unpack what is needed if we are to deal with food insecurity. Most important amongst these innovations is the widespread adoption of agro-ecological approaches to farming. This echoes a previous report, the IAASTD (International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development) of 2009 which said pretty much the same thing and also emphasized that GMOs did not, in their present form, provide any real solution to food insecurity. The IAASTD report is seen as of similar standing to the IPCC report on climate change – it involved 900 participants and 110 countries from all regions of the world.

Another recent report by the US Dept of Agriculture, published last week, http://www.reuters.com/article/usda-gmo-report-idUSL1N0LT16M20140224 showed that GMOs were not responsible for yield increases in the US and that their benefits were limited, mainly to large scale farmers but that downsides included increased herbicide use and other concerns. There are limited upsides but also let us not forget that GMO crops are primarily commodity crops used as animal feed, or processed foods, not for human feed.

In SA we do use GM maize for human use, in what is effectively the largest scale, unregulated human experiment with GMOs ever undertaken. That this is being undertaken on those with the least knowledge or power to counter this experiment ought to raise far more ethical concern than it has but the media has been worse than remiss in covering this issue. There is no monitoring or tracking of the epidemiology so we simply do not know what the impacts are. Yet.

So while it is the job of corporations like Monsanto to hype and sell their products it is always useful to get the other side when giving people like Monsanto’s Bennet airtime, pushing a technology that has been inappropriately framed for far too long. Telling a lie, repeatedly, cannot make it true. GMOs may at some time provide us with some useful innovations but the present iterations mainly provide benefit to the corporations who hold the patents and IP, as well as to large scale industrial farming (which is incidentally one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases).

However GM crops have not proven any benefit in dealing with food security since they were introduced 20 years ago.

Finally Bennets suggestion that GM tech increased our yield through this years drought is equally misleading; This was mainly due to improved breeding, farming practices (such as low/ no till conservation farming) and improved hybrid varieties. No yield increase can be shown due to GM technology. On the other hand conventional breeding has far outpaced GM breeding for yield increases over the last 20 years since the introduction of GM crops.

As Nature published in 2014 – (restricted access to U. Stellenbosch) http://www.nature.com.ez.sun.ac.za/news/cross-bred-crops-get-fit-faster-1.15940

“Cross-bred crops get fit faster – Genetic engineering lags behind conventional breeding in efforts to create drought-resistant maize. Old-fashioned breeding techniques seem to be leading genetic modification in a race to develop crops that can withstand drought and poor soils.”

As the climate warms and rainfall becomes more erratic, farmers worldwide will increasingly need crops that can thrive in drought conditions. And the high costs of fertilizers — along with the environmental damage they can cause — are also pushing farmers to look for crop varieties that can do more with less.

The need for tougher crops is especially acute in Africa, where drought can reduce maize (corn) yields by up to 25%. The Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa project, which launched in 2006 with US$33 million, has developed 153 new varieties to improve yields in 13 countries. In field trials, these varieties match or exceed the yields from commercial seeds under good rainfall conditions, and yield up to 30% more under drought conditions.

This paper has been reinforced by other recent studies showing the same thing – that conventional breeding provides far superior gains and far less of the downsides of GMOs.

I could go on but you probably get the idea. GMOs are not all they have been touted as, especially by those who stand to benefit most – the Monsantos of the world.

Glenn Ashton

Podcast Link:

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Further Reading:
Glen Ashton specialises in communicating complex scientific issues in an accessible manner. He is a freelance writer and researcher. Read more articles written by Ashton here 

Link to the The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) reports which were agreed to at an Intergovernmental Plenary Session in Johannesburg, South Africa in April, 2008.

Reuters: South Africa will relax some of its tough rules on genetically modified crops so it can ramp up maize imports from the United States and Mexico

Call to Action:

Petition against latest Monsanto application for additional field trials in South Africa

“We stand united against the application of Monsanto S.A’s field trials of three genetically modified maize products in the Western and Northern Capes, Free State and Mpumalanga, as published in The Business Day, dated Monday 23 May 2016. We object to these trials in South Africa, and we fully support the objections of The African Centre for Biodiversity to these field trials.”

Sonia Mountford

Sonia Mountford lived as an expat in the Middle East for a number of years and enjoyed travelling and exposure to third and first world cultures. Her interest in food security began while visiting in Sri Lanka after floods and discovering the politics around Food Aid. As a co-founder of Grass Consumer Action and the only full time member, she spent four years researching the dysfunctional food system in South Africa, investigating, questioning and exposing misleading claims. Although her interests range from food politics to toxins in our food, including harmful ingredients in processed foods and Big Food influence; she soon came to realize that the most important part of the food journey begins on farms. For that reason she spends much of her time visiting farms, learning and talking about constraints and concerns in production methods with farmers. Passionate about nutritional food security she believes higher animal welfare farming practices are not only necessary for ethical reasons but also for human health. She is an ambassador for SOIL, BEES and healthy WATER. Mountford started EATegrity (eategrity.co.za) “Helping You Find Integrity in the Food Chain” in 2015. Her aim is create greater consumer awareness about the food chain and to encourage transparency in the South African food industry.

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