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Environmental Studies

GM Crops And The MDGs

Millennium Goals
Major Questions

Golden Rice and India

Findings & Framework for Progress
References & Links

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Major Questions About Genetic Modification And The Development Goals

Initially the Green Revolution, launched in the 1940's, worked to improve crop yields in developing countries by creating highly productive hybrid varieties of common cereal crops such as wheat and rice, mechanizing agriculture, and implementing intensive systems of irrigation and chemical inputs.  However, the Green Revolution has by no means been an unqualified success.  In fact, "[almost] everywhere the Green Revolution went, it did two things: increase grain yields and increase micronutrient deficiencies" (McKibben, 2003).  

Legacy of the Green Revolution:

  • Increased yields: While Green Revolution seeds out-produced local varieties under optimal conditions, they produced less in bad years and over time did not perform well in the marginal environments where the poor live (Holt-Gimenez, 2006). 
  • Input dependency: High-yielding varieties of the Green Revolution were not adapted to local environments, making them more susceptible to pests and disease than their localized counterparts, and leading to an increased dependence on fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, and irrigation (Holt-Gimenez, 2006).
  • Increased malnutrition: It turns out that “the pesticides protecting the rice poisoned the plants growing on the cultivated margins, so people stopped eating them; and what with seed and fertilizer and other high-priced inputs, peasants tended to plant every available inch of land to make their money back.  All of a sudden millennia-old diets had to change” (McKibben, 2003).
  • Environmental degradation: Heavy dependence on fertilizer and other agricultural chemicals cause widely documented environmental damages.  Additionally, the increased dependence on irrigation has depleted aquifers around the world as predicted climate change makes those lost aquifers exponentially more important (Holt-Gimenez, 2006).
  • Increased risk of indebtedness: High costs of inputs and the need for annual seed purchases have led to an increasing number of indebted farmers.  When farmers have high levels of debt, a failed crop can easily mean the loss of one's land.
  • Concentration of land ownership: The advantages of Green Revolution technologies were only advantageous for large-scale farmers, giving those with more resources greater advantages and thus widening the gap between wealthy and subsistence farmers.
  • Increased poverty: By giving wealthy farmers a greater advantage, the Green Revolution drove many subsistence farmers off their land as they could no longer compete.  While yields may have increased, this has not translated into greater prosperity for the majority of farmers (Holt-Gimenez, 2006).
  • Decreased biodiversity: By spreading the use of hybrid seed monocultures the Green Revolution eliminated the use of thousands of varieties of rice and other cereal crops; increasing agricultural chemical use destroyed microbial ecosystems in the soil and eliminated many of the leafy greens which previously grew along field boundaries (McKibben, 2003)  Moreover, the use of hybrid seeds meant that farmers could no longer save and swap seed like they had for millennia, leading to a huge decrease in the diversity of crop varieties (Shiva, 2000).

Can Genetically Modified Crops Help Increase Worldwide Food Security?

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations defines food security as: "when all people, at all times, have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life" (FAO, 2007, emphasis added).  One of the most obvious reasons to support genetically modified crops would be if they can have a positive impact in the fight for worldwide food security.  It is difficult to deny the need for improvements in access to food and better nutrition in the developing world.  Over three million children under five suffer eye damage because of Vitamin A deficiency and about half a million go blind every year, of whom two-thirds die.  Many are children of subsistence farmers or farm workers too poor to afford a diversified diet rich in micronutrients (Acharya, 2004).  This need has been the focus of international development programs for over a half century since the beginning of the Green Revolution. 

There are three clear components to this definition of food security:

  • Access to sufficient food: extensive research and the majority of the current literature on hunger in developing world shows that hunger is not a problem of production, but a problem of distribution (Holt-Gimenez, 2006).  While genetic modification may be able to increase yields at some point in the future, if the underlying issues of poverty, inequality in access to arable land, and inequality in access to capital are not addressed then this increase in yield will do nothing to help increase food security.  Moreover, it would most likely widen the gap between wealthy and subsistence farmers if the technology is licensed under the current model of intellectual property rights, because the wealthy farmers would be able to afford the high-priced seeds and inputs, while subsistence farmers could not do so.
  • Access to safe food: this is one of the more heated parts of the debate over genetic modification.  While the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the American Medical Association and a host of other respected organizations have all deemed that genetically modified foods are safe for human consumption (Adamu, 2000), there remains much skepticism and little in the way of actual research on the subject.  In the United States, where consumers have the greatest exposure to genetically modified foods, these foods are not required to be labeled, making it much more difficult to trace whether or not any possible negative health impacts could be due to genetic modification.  What is needed here is a more thorough set of tests, careful regulation and observation to ensure that these foods are indeed safe for human consumption.  This is a tall order when dealing with hundreds of thousands of small villages around the developing world.
  • Access to nutritious food: this is perhaps genetic modification's area of greatest promise for impacting food security.  It has been shown in numerous cases that the quantity of micronutrients in many different foods can be increased through the use of genetic modification.  However, there is also evidence that these extra micronutrients are difficult for the body to absorb, especially when people have diarrheal diseases which are common throughout the developing world (Holt-Gimenez, 2004).  Moreover, it can be argued that the reason there is such a high prevalence of micronutrient deficiency is due more to poverty and to the overuse of agricultural chemicals brought on by the Green Revolution than to a lack of availability of nutritious foods. Impoverished farmers cannot afford a diet diverse in micronutrients and they can no longer get them from the leafy greens which used to grow along their field margins but are now poisoned by the agricultural chemicals necessary to protect the Green Revolution crops (McKibben, 2003).

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Will Genetically Modified Crops Have Positive Or Negative Environmental Impacts?

Some of the harshest criticisms of the Green Revolution have to do with its environmental impacts.  Increased use of agricultural chemicals has poisoned local ecosystems, monocultures have greatly reduced the biodiversity of food crops, and increased dependency on irrigation has put huge stress on water resources. Companies like Monsanto promise that genetic modification will reduce the need for agricultural chemicals by putting resistances into the crops directly, but there is evidence that this will simply increase the rate of adaptation by pests, rendering natural pesticides like Bt useless (Holt-Gimenez, 2006).  In order to more fully understand what the impact of genetically modified crops would be, three major impact areas should be considered: agricultural chemical use, water usage, land usage and biodiversity.

  • Impact on agricultural chemical use: The vast majority of the current incarnation of genetically modified crops, exemplified by Monsanto's RoundupReady™ technology,"are engineered for herbicide tolerance rather than for any intrinsic improvement in crop food quality or pest resistance" (Lappe, 1998).  Chemical companies like Monsanto have succeeded in raising sales by engineering resistance to a proprietary herbicide into seeds which they then control (Shiva, 2000).  This creates a dependency between the seed and the herbicide, and vastly increases the amount of chemicals that end up being sprayed. Conversely, Monsanto has also developed seeds which contain the natural pesticide Bt in every cell of the organism.  While this would seem to be a boon for the environment, greatly reducing the amount of pesticides needed, this unfortunately has not been the case.  Studies have shown that while Bt crops initially do not need pesticides to protect them, the fact that Bt is constantly present in huge quantities (every single cell of each plant) tends to force the pests to develop resistance to Bt very quickly, rendering Bt altogether useless (Lappe, 1998). Cynics point out how convenient it is for a company like Monsanto when one of the only natural competitors to its proprietary pesticide loses its usefulness.  As time goes by it is becoming more and more clear that the most effective way to deal with pests is a technique called Integrated Pest Management (IPM) which involves planting locally adapted crops, promoting beneficial natural predators, and only using pesticides as a last resort (Holt-Gimenez, 2006). While IPM is endorsed by the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, its reliance on planting a diverse variety of locally adapted crops makes it unfit for the monocultures of industrial agriculture that have become so entrenched over the last half century.
  • Impact on water usage: High-yielding varieties of crops do not create more yield with less resources, they are just more effective at converting the resources that are available into yield, or grain.  This is why traditionally high-yielding varieties have required intensive inputs and intensive irrigation to achieve such high yields.  Current genetically modified crops do nothing to change this.  However, it is possible that modifying the root structure of crops could make them more able to trap and store groundwater or other improvements could make crops less dependent on irrigation and more resistant to drought.
  • Impact on land usage and biodiversity: "As population increases, farmers must be able to grow more nutritious food on less land.  Biotechnology can provide one very powerful way to do just that.  Without such gains in productivity and nutrition, the growing need for food will require plowing under millions of hectares of wilderness—an environmental tragedy surely worse than any imagined by biotechnology's opponents" (Entine, 2006).  While this quote illustrates one of the fundamental problems which genetic engineering is, at least theoretically, attempting to confront, it does not recognize the current reality of the type of biotechnology projects being pursued by the industry the growing environment of the subsistence farmer in a developing country.  The industrial agriculture paradigm has been one of the most ecologically damaging activities humans have ever engaged in, and the monocultures it promotes have devastating effects for biodiversity.  Smallholder and subsistence farming, by far the vast majority of agriculture in the developing world, is well suited to polycultures and IPM.  One of dangers of genetically modified crops is their genetically homogeneous nature.  However, this does not necessarily have to be the case.  If desirable traits were introduced into crops and then bred into localized varieties, it could be possible to use those crops within a traditional polyculture and IPM system.  However, this is not possible with the current generation of genetically modified crops or within the current system of intellectual property rights.

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Intellectual Property: Recovering Research Costs or Corporate Control of the Food Supply?

"For the first time, transgenic science has enabled single corporations to claim an entire novel genotype as their own. The privatization of gene stocks violates the natural order by making genes private property.  While hybrid gene-derived plants (e.g. roses) have been granted patents before, their genes were not the exclusive province of their maker. Anyone could (and did) use a commercial variety to outcross with their own to make a novel plant once again. It was only the cutting and propagation of a clone which was outlawed by the patent provision.  Transgenic seed, even when admixed with new genetic material by hybridization or outcrossing, remains the property of its maker, as long as the transgene is retained" (Lappe, 1998). This excerpt highlights what is fundamentally wrong with our current rules about intellectual property and genetic engineering.  What this leads to is the inability to save or swap seed, which is a practice as old as agriculture itself.  By forcing farmers to purchase new seed each year corporations like Monsanto can gain control over what seeds are planted simply by restricting what seeds are available for purchase.  This leads to a research and development paradigm which is profit driven, rather than in pursuit of the public good, resulting in crops which increase the market for agricultural chemicals rather than actually being more nutritious or better suited to marginal environments in which poor farmers often are forced to grow their food.

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combine harvester

Image 7: A mechanized combine harvester.

Image 8: Aerial view of monocropped farmlands.

malnourished child

Image 9: A malnourised child in Sierra Leone.

pesiticides being sprayed

Image 10: Pesticides being sprayed on a field.

Irrigated Field

Image 11: An irrigated field.

syngenta field

Image 12: A field managed by Syngenta, owner of
the Golden Rice patent.

Last updated:  5/8/2007


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