Two Mondays from today, we select the next government of our country for the next five years. It is unfortunate that the political parties vying for the honour of leading that government have been more focused on trading barbs rather than plans for our development. In the interstices of their bickering some positions have been grudgingly exposed, but we have not seen any taken on the issue of introducing genetically modified (GM) crops to our production mix.
This is an inexcusable oversight. Our comparative economic advantage to catalyse our growth is land for agriculture. Food security will dominate the world’s agenda for the rest of this century and we will have to take advantage in this reality that becomes our opportunity. We already have a solid foothold in rice production which should be expanded – and not only on the coastland. The government has already launched a pilot program in our interior savannahs and we should ensure that it becomes sustainable on a commercial scale. The Brazilians have achieved this goal on their side of the Takatu and there is no reason why we also should not.
But we do not have to be restricted to rice: there is soya, which as a source of protein, is far more efficiently produced than from livestock. Our neighbour to the south has also taken a lead in this crop and we are certain to attract global operators of the mega farms that now dominate the product. Corn has also been genetically modified and can be a source of food, sugar or ethanol (fuel). There is, however, a fly in the ointment or more accurately, a splice in the gene: genetically modified crops pioneered by the US multinational, Monsanto.
Under the cover of facilitating the next ‘green revolution’, Monsanto has inserted animal genes into the chromosomes of crops such as corn and soya that are supposed to make them insect resistant and thus decrease the need for the expensive pesticides. Most of the corn in the US and about 10% in Latin America are now GM. Monsanto reaps massive profits because the GM seeds are patented and have to be sourced through it. The US government, in close collaboration with Monsanto, is a key proponent of GM technology.
Its forceful promotion of GMOs was recently exposed by Wikileaks. In March 2009, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed its Global Food Security Act (SB 384). Funding for agricultural development – some US$7.7 billion worth – would be directed in large part to genetically modified crop research. Monsanto, of course is the chief beneficiary. In other words, food aid policy for the first time mandates the use of genetic modification technologies. Engineered crops will need engineered seeds – seeds that are no longer a result of natural cross-pollination.
However, the claim that GM crops are insect resistant and herbicide tolerant and therefore reduce pesticide use has been shown to be a myth. In fact, evidence from the US shows a dramatic rise in pesticide usage, driven particularly by the use of Monsanto’s glyphosate-based herbicide, Roundup, on GM herbicide tolerant crops. Then there are the substantive concerns about the effect of the genetically modified cereals on the humans. The GM crops have also failed to deliver on its promises of new traits of nutrient-enhanced and climate-resilient crops to address the twin challenges of malnutrition and climate change.
Back in the fifties, the US Rockefeller Foundation’s support for new varieties of rice, through its research facilities, led to increased yields but simultaneously demanded massive increases in fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. Most of these expensive inputs had to be supplied by US/western multinationals. The long grained, high input varieties that now dominate our production were introduced by the US after they removed the then PPP government with the help of the PNC.
Our political parties and their policy wonks should take a hard look at implications of introducing GM crops into our ecosystem. We can be sure that there will be pressures; either directly from the multinationals that we are hoping to attract to develop our mega farms or indirectly, from the US.
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