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August 25, 2008

GMOs have failed test of ecological sustainability and socio-economic viability

By Vandana Shiva*

We are grateful to Prince Charles for cautioning the world on the blind and head long rush worldwide to spread GM seeds and crops, especially to the Third World. His comments had become necessary because the biotechnology industry is using the food crisis to push GM crops on grounds that they increase yields.

This is doubly false. Firstly, because the current crisis is a result of speculation and diversion of food crops to biofuels. It is not a crisis of production.

Secondly, genetic engineering so far has only achieved transfer of single gene traits such as herbicide resistance and Bt. toxin production.Yield and environmental resilience are multigenetic traits, and there is no GM crop currently engineered for high yields.

Monsanto has claimed that its Bt. Cotton in India yields 1,500 kg/acre. Most independent studies have found 300-400 kg/acre as an average, with many farmers facing total crop failure due to pest attack and some getting more than 1,000 kg if the weather was not too dry or two wet. While Bt. Cotton is supposed to control the bollworm, it is evolving resistance and new pests which were not significant have exploded, requiring higher doses of pesticides.

As a pest-control strategy GM crops are a failure. Integrated pest management and controlling pests through mixtures is much more scientific and effective. The more the industry makes unscientific and false claims about GM crops giving higher yields and using less pesticide the more they refer to "science" based decision. The UK's Environment Minister, Phil Woolas said it was the government's moral responsibility "to investigate whether genetically modified crops could help provide a solution to hunger in the developing world. We see this as part of our Africa strategy."

One would imagine an environment minister would want to investigate whether biodiverse and ecological farming could help provide a solution to hunger, especially in Africa. The recently concluded International Assessment on Agriculture Science and Technology has concluded that GMOs and industrial agriculture is not the solution. Small scale ecological agriculture is the answer to poverty and hunger. Mr Woolas should read the report.He should also read Navdanya's reports on farmers' suicides in India. The suicides are concentrated in the Bt. Cotton belt.

Monsanto's Bt. Cotton is, in my opinion, costly, non-renewable, and unreliable. Farmers are getting trapped in unpayable debt and are ending their lives. When I visited Krishna Rao Vaidya's widow on 10th Oct, it was evident he was driven to suicide because of debt. On average a farmer like Vaidya takes his life every 8 hours in Vidarbha.Over the past decade 200,000 farmers in India have committed suicide. Prince Charles said that GM crops and corporate control of agriculture "risked creating the biggest disaster environmentally of all time."

It is unscientific, illogical and irresponsible for the Environmental Minister Mr Woolas to say that Prince Charles must provide "proof" that a disaster has happened. I would imagine that he is aware of the environmental principle on which the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change rest. It is called the Precautionary Principle. It is based on the recognition that when an activity or technology has the potential to cause harm, and there is no conclusive evidence to establish the harm that can be caused, then policy and decision making must err on the side of caution.

The Environment Minister also said "Government ministers have a responsibility to base policy on science and I do strongly believe that we have a moral responsibility to the developing world to ask the question: 'Can GM crops help?'

Minister, if you could travel with me through Vidarbha and see the tears in the eyes of farmers' widows, you would be compelled to ask the question:'Can GM crops harm'? That is your moral responsibility. It is also your responsibility to sincerely base your decisions on real science, not pseudo science. Science based policy would recognise that an agriculture that conserves biodiversity also produces more food and nutrition per unit acre. Science based policy would recognise that if farmers fall into debt, it is not an instrument for ending poverty, but a recipe for ending the lives of small farmers.

A science based policy would not blindly spread GM crops to Africa without assessing their role in India's agrarian crisis. A science based policy would not be based on unscientific principle of "substantial equivalence" which has prevented independent and serious testing of GM foods and crops. That is why the Supreme Court of India has served notice on the Government of India to ask why a GMO moratorium should not be imposed till proper testing protocols and tests and facilities for biosafety are in place.

GMOs are the latest step in a violent tradition of industrial agriculture which has its roots in war and has become a war against the farmers, the land, and our bodies. Prince Charles, like many of us, wants this war to end. And all that the biotech industry and its allies in governments can talk about is the smartness of their weapons. It is time they realised the debate is much wider and deeper.

It is about the planet we live on, the societies we are shaping, the exclusions billions are condemned to, the super profits the gene giants and grain giants harvest, while the real harvest in the fields of real farmers shrink.T he industrial/mechanistic mindset has destroyed our farmers and food security. It cannot offer solutions to the agrarian crisis and food crisis it has created. We need to move to an ecological perspective based on diversity. Unfortunately, GMOs fail the test of both ecological sustainability and socio-economic viability. They have accelerated non-sustainability, and deepened injustice and inequality. It is time the world listened to the important message from Prince Charles

*Dr Vandana Shiva is a physicist, ecologist, activist, editor, author of numerous books and environmental campaigner. She is the founder of Navdanya, a movement for biodiversity conservation and farmers' rights in India.

The Telegraph

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