Understanding the politics of food, agriculture and hunger
Mar 3, 2013
Asking the Wrong Questions: GM crops claim to increase yields, but the problem is of access and distribution, not production
Speaking at the annual Oxford Farming Conference a few weeks back, the rebel environmentalist Mark Lynas, who went over to the all-powerful GM industry, was quoted as saying: "Research published in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests the world will require 100% more food to feed the maximum projected population adequately."
It's not the first time this argument has been used, but considering the emphasis Lynas laid on the capabilities of controversial genetic engineering technology to meet the growing demand for food, a flurry of articles and editorials appeared. The underlying argument is the same. The world needs to produce more for the year 2050, and therefore we need GM crops.
Well, what population projections are we talking of? The planet today hosts seven billion people, and all estimates point to population growing to nine billion by 2050. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), more than 870 million people were chronically undernourished in 2012, with almost 250 million of the world's hungry living in India.
These appalling statistics generate an impression of an acute shortfall in food production. At every conference, the same sets of statistics are flashed to justify the commercialisation of GM crops. But how much food is globally available? Is the world really witnessing a shortfall in food production? Or, for that matter, is there a shortage of food in India? These are the questions that have been very conveniently overlooked.
Let us therefore take a look at the performance of global agriculture in the year 2012. Despite the severe drought in the US and Australia, where wheat production is anticipated to fall by 40%, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that the world still harvested 2239.4 millionmetric tonnes, enough to feed 13 billion people at one pound per day.
In other words, the food being globally produced today can feed twice the existing population. According to the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), against the average requirement of about 2,400 calories per capita, what is presently available is 4,600 calories. So where is the crisis on the food production front? The crisis is in food (mis)management, which surprisingly is being ignored.
In the US, Canada and Europe, 40% food is wasted. For example, Americans waste $165 billion worth of food every year, which could very well meet the entire requirement of sub-Saharan Africa. Food wasted in Italy, if saved, can feed the entire population of the hungry in Ethiopia. According to the UK Institution of Mechanical Engineers, almost half the food produced globally is allowed to go waste. Studies show that 50% of fruits and vegetables stocked by supermarkets in US actually rot. If all the food wastage was to be appreciably reduced, hunger and malnutrition can easily become history.
In India too, it is not a crisis in food production. On Jan 1, India had 66 million tonnes of food stocks. As someone has said, if you were to stack all those bags of grain one over the other, you could climb up to the moon and back. That's the quantity of food that has been available almost every year since 2001.
While visuals of food rotting in godowns are fresh in the memory, the government has been merrily exporting the surplus rather than feeding its hungry millions. This fiscal, wheat exports are expected to touch 9.5 million tonnes; rice exports have already crossed nine million tonnes in 2011-12. Instead of propping up food procurement and distribution, the food ministry is actually toying with the idea of withdrawing from procurement operations and using surplus stocks in futures trading, leaving the hungry to be fed by the markets.
Meanwhile, GM crops are being promoted as the answer to growing food needs. In reality, there is no GM crop in the world that actually increases crop productivity. In fact, the yields of GM corn and GM soybean, if USDA is to be believed, are actually less than the non-GM varieties.
Nor has the promise of a drastic reduction in the usage of harmful pesticides proved to be correct. Charles Benbrook of the Washington State University has conclusively shown that between 1996 and 2011, the overall pesticides use in US has risen by a whopping 144 million kg. In addition, as much as 14.5 million acres is afflicted with 'super-weeds' — weeds that are very difficult to control. And such has been the contamination that 23 weeds now fall in the category of 'super-weeds'.
Regarding safety, a few months back the revelations by Giles-Eric Seralini, a molecular biologist at the University of Caen in France, shocked the world when for the first time he demonstrated long-term studies involving rats fed for two years with Monsanto's Roundup-Ready GM maize. The rats had developed huge kidney and mammary gland tumours, had problems with their body organs and showed increased mortalities.
Against the usual practice of such studies involving feeding rats with GM foods for 90 days, Seralini had for the first time ever experimented with rats for two years, which corresponds to the entire human lifespan. As expected, the shocking results, peer-reviewed and published in a respected scientific journal, have already created quite a furore internationally.
I therefore don't understand the need to take a huge risk with human health and environment when there is food available in abundance. The greater challenge is to curb wastage, provide adequate access and ensure judicious distribution of food.