Monsanto is increasingly finding itself on the defensive as world opinion turns hostile toward genetically modified seeds, most of which are patented by the biotech giant. One of the company’s most compelling arguments for its quest to spread GMOs is that Monsanto products are the solution to world hunger — a Monsanto executive even won the prestigious World Food Prize this year. The company’s defenders claim that opposing GMOs is a luxury of Western privilege that denies developing countries vital resources to feed impoverished communities. But in last weekend’s worldwide demonstrations against the company, protests erupted in several of these developing countries Monsanto professes it wants to help.
According to Food Sovereignty Ghana, seven African countries held anti-Monsanto rallies on Saturday, up from just one during the first global March Against Monsanto in May. This time around, activists in Kenya, Ghana, Namibia, Nigeria, Senegal, Egypt and South Africa came out in force against the company. Activists in Accra carried signs saying, “GMO will make Ghanaian farmers poor” and “Our Food Under Our Control!!!”
In recent years, Monsanto has stepped up its outreach to poverty-stricken African countries. A centerpiece of this outreach is promoting GM drought resistant corn that may be able to mitigate the effects of extreme weather on crop yields. Monsanto is also part of the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, a group of private corporations tasked by the G8 to invest in solutions to African hunger over the next decade.
These humanitarian efforts are key to rehabilitating Monsanto’s tattered public image. Hating Monsanto is “a luxury when you’re surrounded by food 24/7,” writes one defender, who argues that spreading negative sentiment against the company actually “impedes global economic growth.” Even Britain’s Environmental Secretary, Owen Paterson, said organizations fighting the spread of GMOs are “absolutely wicked” and “cast a dark shadow over attempts to feed the world.”
True, some elements of the anti-GMO movement have trumped up mostly baseless claims that all genetically modified food is poisonous or dangerous to human health. But African farmers also have very legitimate concerns about Monsanto’s reputation for investigating, suing, and ruining farmers who try to save GM seeds. Monsanto aggressively enforces its patents against American farmers who use second-generation seeds produced by the prior harvest rather than buy new seeds each year, often bankrupting these farmers through legal fees. The company has sought similar protections abroad, most recently causing an uproar in Chile.
Food Sovereignty Ghana warns against the “control of our resources by multinational corporations and other foreign entities,” and the “avaricious calculations behind the proposition that food is just another commodity or component for international agribusiness.” Instead, they call for “collective control over our collective resources.”
Experts in international development also have their doubts about introducing Monsanto to the developing world. Because of the patent issues surrounding GMOs, the prestigious International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development advised that developing nations avoid GM seeds. Its 2008 analysis warned that GMOs’ high costs, uncertain yields, and the threat to local non-GM crop breeds posed more risks to poor farmers than benefits. Farmers who use GM seeds may not be able to exchange seeds with other farmers, while paying double the cost of conventional seeds for promises of higher yields that may or may not come true.
That’s not to say genetic engineering has no place in solving hunger. Controversial GM golden rice, which is supposed to pump up Vitamin A levels in regular rice to make it more nutritious, could well be a promising use of technology to get more nutrients to the people who need them. Most importantly, golden rice has a humanitarian license that allows poor farmers and public research institutes to use the seeds for free. However, golden rice is still mainly theoretical after a decade of research. Even if it was immediately available, a malnourished adult would have to eat at least 3 pounds of rice a day 20 percent of their daily Vitamin A requirement.
While genetically modifying food to contain more nutrients or subsist on less water could certainly be one tool in the fight against hunger, biotech companies often hog the media spotlight — and the funding. Forbes’ Beth Hoffman observes, “The GMO debate is also distracting us from less sexy interventions which have worked to dramatically reduce hunger and malnutrition over the last fifty years, and are today in desperate need of our continued support.” These less sexy interventions, which include micronutrient powders, basic health care services, and food storage technology, do not seek to increase the industrial food supply, but address what local systems need to combat poverty.
This multi-targeted approach makes more sense in light of a recent UN report finding that, while “international policy discussions remain heavily focused on increasing industrial agricultural production,” hunger is not caused by a food shortage but by “a lack of purchasing power and/or the inability of the rural poor to be self-sufficient.”
Corporate biotechnology also tends to attract more attention than local seed-breeding, even before products have been proven to work. According to a recent analysis, the media has largely ignored the success of several strains of non-GM drought-resistant corn, cassava, and rice in India and Africa, which have multiplied yields and are spreading rapidly. Meanwhile, Monsanto has enjoyed breathless coverage of the company’s drought tolerance research, even when it was still in preliminary stages.