GMOs — A Decade of Failure

Genetically Modified Crops – A Decade of Failure

Executive Summary

The first decade of the commercialization of genetically modified (GM) crops was a resounding failure for biotech companies. The first GM crop was commercialized in 1994, and now, ten years later, the promises made by the biotech industry and its powerful lobby groups have still not materialized. Meanwhile, the global opposition to GM crops continues to swell.

Brave new agriculture

The genetic engineering of seeds is without doubt the most radical transformation in food production since the first days of agriculture, more than 10,000 years ago. The first GM crop was commercialized in the United States in 1994. This ‘Flavr Savr’ tomato was a flop, and was eventually removed from the market. But other GM crops were better received, and between 1996 and 1999 a significant number of GM crops were sown, primarily in the United States, Argentina and Canada.

The seeding of global opposition

The enthusiasm of the biotech industry about the introduction of GM crops around the world was not universally shared. Concerns quickly arose about the potential health, environmental and socioeconomic impacts of these new crops.

By the end of the 1990s, opposition to GM crops had arisen on every continent. The European Union adopted a moratorium on the commercial growing of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), bans were established in Asian and Latin American countries, and many southern countries refused GM food aid. In general, consumers worldwide were reluctant to embrace GM food.

Although the biotech industry had expected people and governments everywhere to embrace GM crops without question, public skepticism has forced companies to limit their current activities to a few main countries. Biotech corporations failed to market products with clear benefits for consumers or farmers. Instead, GM crops created novel and alarming problems, including genetic contamination.

Biotech giants and their powerful lobby groups relied heavily on public relations strategies to sell their products. For example, they heralded the genetically modified ‘Golden Rice’ as a solution for Vitamin A deficiency in the Third World, but to date this appears to be a ‘golden hoax’ to promote GM crops.

Behind the scenes, biotech companies play dirty to secure their interests; for instance the biotech industry has been behind various threats of trade sanctions, including the attempts by the US administration to impose GM food on reluctant countries like Bolivia, Croatia and Sri Lanka as well as on the European Union.

However, citizen opposition to GMOs is snowballing. In Europe, distrust is so high that GMOs have in effect been removed from the majority of supermarket shelves. In the South, several countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia have rejected GM food aid outright. Consumer and retailer suspicion has forced Monsanto to delay the commercialization of its GM wheat, initially planned for 2004.

Ten years later: broken promises and unsustainable agriculture

Biotech companies promised that GM crops were safe, that they would provide better quality and cheaper food, that they were environmentally sustainable, that they would improve agricultural production, and that they would feed the developing world.

After ten years, none of these promises have materialized. The regulatory regimes in GM producing countries cannot ensure the safety of GM crops, and the StarLink and biopharmaceuticals incidents are early warnings of the potential health implications of introducing food products not authorized for human consumption into the food chain.

Furthermore, not a single GM food on the market is cheaper or better quality than its ‘natural’
counterpart. GM crops may threaten biodiversity: for example, the 2003 UK Farm Scale Evaluations concluded that GM oilseed rape damaged farmland wildlife.

Developing countries are already experiencing serious problems with GM crops. In several parts of India and Indonesia for example, farmers have complained that Monsanto’s GM cotton has not delivered on the company’s claims of higher yields and improvements in the livelihoods of farmers. Furthermore, the case of Argentina proves that GM crops are not the solution for feeding the world, as the biotech companies promised. Argentina is the second largest world producer of GM crops, but millions of people in this country go to bed hungry each night.

Large biotech companies like Monsanto are driven to control agriculture markets. In 2003, Monsanto was the world leader in GM crops. Seeds with Monsanto traits accounted for more than 90 percent of the global area planted with herbicide tolerant or insect resistant crops. According to the company’s 2003 annual report, their Roundup herbicide is the world’s bestselling herbicide. At the same time, the company is suing hundreds of farmers in the US and Canada in an attempt to prevent them from saving their seeds, a tradition and right since the beginning of agriculture. The biotech industry’s dream of the large-scale introduction of GM crops around the globe would further exacerbate the ecological vulnerability already associated with monoculture agriculture. Ten years later, it can be concluded that GM crops are leading us down a dangerous path to unsustainable agriculture.

Fortunately, however, there are viable and practical alternatives to GM crops that are almost invariably cheaper, more accessible, more productive in marginal environments and more culturally and socially acceptable. The failure of biotech companies in the last decade and the growing global opposition should catalyze a shift of focus towards alternative, reliable agricultural techniques that are less costly than the multi-billion dollar modern biotechnology industry.


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