Understanding the continued opposition to GMOs

A man holds a sign during a protest against Monsanto in Washington, D.C. in 2013. Photo by: Stephen Melkisethian / CC BY-NC-ND

This is part two in our series on the GMO debate. Read Part one: Are GMOs the key to global food security? and Part three: Who are the donors taking on GMOs?

CANBERRA — The debate over the use of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, in food production contains many sides and perspectives — all argued passionately by their advocates. With a food-secure future being far from certain, it is a debate that can have far-reaching impacts on the development space.

Large corporations producing genetically modified seeds dominate the debate, with activists questioning their motives and whether they have the ability to achieve social good while making a profit. But the technology to produce GMOs is becoming increasingly cheaper and democratized, opening the door to new plant varieties that are in the hands of the public, not just companies.

The GMO Debate

What happens when we remove multinationals and corporate profit from the GMO debate?

In this five-part series, Devex looks at how perspectives of doing good through science versus corporate interests changes the outcome of the polarized GMO issue.

Part one: Are GMOs the key to global food security?

Part three: Who are the donors taking on GMOs? 

Devex is looking at various sides of the GMO debate to understand the continuing concerns and issues of this vital area. In part one of our series, we considered the perspective of the scientific community, which argues that there has been no evidence of GMOs impacting health or the environment and say they are a critical component for creating a food-secure future.

In part two we now examine arguments from those who strongly oppose GMOs in the development sector, and explore why they do not believe the use of GMOs are as inevitable as some scientists believe.

What is the GMO opposition?

Within the development sector, Greenpeace and Fairtrade International are the leading voices opposing GMOs. Greenpeace has been particularly vocal against GMOs, and was singled out in a June 2016 letter signed by 129 Nobel laureates urging the organization to re-examine and abandon their campaign against GMOs.

The arguments of both Greenpeace and Fairtrade against GMOs are similar — the risks that GMOs pose are still unknown, and they may have unforeseeable environmental, social, and health impacts.

“There is widespread public concern about the long-term effects of GMO crops,” Gelkha Buitrago, head of standards at Fairtrade International, explained to Devex. “Contamination of conventional crops and wild plants, potential damage to wildlife, and the uncertain effects on human health when consuming these foods.”

And there are social impacts, the groups argue, especially on the world’s poorest communities.

“The core of Fairtrade’s work is empowering farmers and workers, so they have more control over their lives and can chart their own development paths,” Buitrago said. “Fairtrade believes that the dependence of producers on GMO seeds and the companies that market them is against their long-term interests and outweighs any short-term benefits the crops may bring.”

According to Juliet Perry, from Greenpeace’s Asia Pacific Communications Hub, the promotion of GMO crops represents a corporate takeover of food systems with six corporations — Monsanto, DuPont, Dow, Syngenta, Bayer, and BASF — now controlling 75 percent of the world pesticides market, 63 percent of the commercial seed market, and more than 75 percent of all private sector research into seeds and pesticides.

“GE [genetically engineered] crops are used as a lure to make farmers dependent on buying seeds and agrochemicals every year from big corporations that market them as wonder crops,” Perry said. “The reality is vastly different, but once hooked, farmers lose control of the seeds they once used and are unable to continue using ecological pest management. Instead, farmers have no choice but to buy the full package of pesticides that need to be used with the GE seeds to ensure they perform.”

To support the growing food and nutrition challenges, both organizations agree that there is still much more that can be done with improved agricultural processes, ecological agriculture, and equitable access to food. GMO is not the food security answer the world needs, they insist.

The influence of Greenpeace and Fairtrade

Greenpeace has been operating for nearly five decades, with offices in more than 40 countries, and with a household name associated with environmental protection and advocacy. They are a highly influential body both publicly and politically.

Fairtrade is not as prominent politically, but within developing countries they have the ability to improve economic livelihoods and grow and enhance local industries. Currently, Fairtrade standards prohibit the use of GMOs by all producers, including hired labor and small farmer organizations. The use of GMO materials is checked as part of the audit process for Fairtrade standard.

Fairtrade certification does not necessarily mean a product is organic — only 52 percent of Fairtrade producers are organic certified. The use of pesticides are, however, regulated.

Buitrago explained that the prohibition of GMOs means that farmers producing products with GMO varieties — such as cotton and rice — require verification from suppliers that the seed or planting stock is GMO free. Major Fairtrade products including coffee, bananas, and cocoa are not yet impacted, but this may change with GMO options for bananas expected to be available soon.

For national leaders deciding on whether GMO crops will be supported or banned from cultivation within their borders, both Greenpeace and Fairtrade are influential voices in the debate — especially within developing countries. In the Philippines, the largest supplier of GMOs in Southeast Asia, Greenpeace has engaged in legal action against government GMO legislation. And in Uganda, the importance of Fairtrade to the country has seen their president, Yoweri Museveni, present for the opening of a fairtrade coffee factory.

Influencing public opinion

Seeking to influence global public opinion is a vital part of the GMO debate. Interestingly, the message used to try and win public agreement is similar for both pro- and anti-GMO campaigners. Both argue that the opposition is influencing politics through lobbyists and that the weight of scientific evidence is on their side.

“The biotech industry continues to heavily promote the old model of industrial agriculture — including genetic engineering — by lobbying governments and running public relations campaigns that falsely promote GE crops as the only solution,” Perry said. “As a result, billions of dollars of public and private investments and subsidies, as well as research and development and innovation funds, are funnelled towards industrial agriculture instead of being invested in making ecofood widely available and affordable. This forms an obstacle for the growth of ecological agriculture.”

Greenpeace often quotes recommendations from the World Bank’s International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development project — a project concluded in 2009 that aimed to improve access to agricultural knowledge, science, and technology, and promote sustainable agricultural practices. A report produced by the project in 2008 and compiled by over 400 scientists from around the world suggested that GMOs would not assist in achieving the Millennium Development Goals, or in eradicating hunger.

This particular report is nearing its 10-year anniversary, and research included is older still. By 2013, the World Bank reported they would continue to respond to client requests relating to new technologies, including GMOs, understanding their “potential to contribute to poverty reduction, economic growth, and environmental sustainability.”

In fact, more recent science can both sway for and against GMOs — depending on the research quoted. While the pro-GMO side quotes research showing no evidence of human health impacts, the anti-GMO side looks at evidence of environmental impacts from increased use of herbicide for GMO crops — primarily the impact of pesticide resistant crops produced by for-profit corporations.

Corporates still dominate the conversation

The arguments from Greenpeace, Fairtrade, and other anti-GMO campaigners are still heavily focused on the impact of corporations in the conversation. According to the Council for Biotechnology Information — whose members include BASF, Bayer, Dow, DuPont Pioneer, Monsanto, and Syngenta — regulatory science requires GMOs to pass more than 75 different safety tests. On average, each GMO takes an average of 13 years at a cost of $130 million in research and development before reaching the market. This rigorous testing and approval process means it is easier for the well-funded corporate sector to dominate the GMO market. 

But as costs involved in the scientific research are now dropping, GMO technology can become more accessible for “public good” projects — where researchers focus on localized production issues such as diseased papaya in Hawaii or bananas in Uganda — and with intellectual property maintained in the public domain, the question is whether this changes the nature of companies’ role in food security.

For organizations such as Greenpeace and Fairtrade, however, such shifts still do little to alleviate their suspicion of corporate involvement and intention.

“The biotech industry claims that farmers will benefit from growing GMO crops through larger harvests and a reduced need for pesticides,” Buitrago said. “We do not think that genetically modified crops can contribute to sustainability in the long run. Instead, they increase dependencies on external inputs, and discourage an integrated approach in the production system, thus inhibiting resiliency.”

“Even if a genetically modified plant has a public intellectual property, the concerns mentioned remain. Dependency on external inputs — such as pesticides — and the long-term effects still prevail,” Buitrago added.

Can the conversation on GMOs change?

There is a strong argument from both anti-GMO and pro-GMO campaigners that solutions to food security need to encompass a range of new options, including improving soil conditions, changing farming practices to reduce waste, and encouraging diversity in crops grown for better nutrition options. But while many scientists in this field believe GMO should be part of the solution, Greenpeace and Fairtrade currently do not.

Greenpeace and Fairtrade both explained that they have found no evidence yet to change their stance on GMOs. But for Fairtrade in particular, their position is influenced by the needs and demands of their stakeholders.

“Fairtrade International is a multistakeholder association,” Buitrago said. “Farmers and workers are half-owners of the Fairtrade system, with 50 percent of the votes in Fairtrade’s General Assembly — the highest decision-making body. This allows us to learn directly from farmers and workers about the challenges they face, including issues related to GMOs. It also gives us the responsibility to tailor standards and additional support programs to their need. So far, the concerns producers have expressed regarding GMOs prevail — regardless whether private- or public-led — and Fairtrade continues to support organic production.

“We’re currently reviewing the Fairtrade Standard for Small Producer Organizations, including environmental aspects. Preliminary results of the first consultation round do not show interest from internal or external parties to allow GMOs in Fairtrade-certified production.”

Greenpeace, Perry explained, is not opposed to biotechnology in confined environments.

“Like for example in medical sector for the development of drugs and pharmaceuticals,” she said. “In fact, Greenpeace supports Marker assisted selection which uses genetic markers to identify existing traits in plants — such as drought tolerance — without artificially transferring genes from one organism to another. Stress traits, such as those needed to resist droughts or floods, are generally regulated by multiple genes, tightly controlled by highly complex interactions.”  

All other options have not been exhausted

Anti-GMO campaigners in the developing world say stronger food security can be achieved through better practices associated with ecological agriculture — including changing farming practices to create sustainable soils and reduce erosion, enhancing soil structure to to help

increase and hold water infiltration, increase agricultural productivity in rain-fed areas, and continued breeding of crop varieties that can withstand drought stresses and still produce a reliable yield. And these options must be exhausted before GMO is put on the table.

“The biggest challenge the world and [that]  many farmers are facing today in relation to climate change is to increase their resiliency to respond to extreme weather events,” Perry said. “What has to be done is to strengthen farming and rural communities to be able to recover quickly after major extreme weather events and to anticipate them and to change the current failing industrial food system.”

“GE crops and industrial agriculture are also more susceptible to climate shocks like floods and drought than ecological farming, which is a model based on biodiversity that can help withstand erratic climate patterns and ensure food security. As our climate changes, ecological farming is the solution to maintain our food security.”

A focus on the development issues

Despite strong opposition to GE crops, there are a number of donors investigating the role GMOs could play in creating a food-secure future, especially in developing countries. 

In part three of our series Devex will look at these donors, including their reasoning, the challenges they face, and what future they see for GMOs in food security.

Read more Devex coverage on food security and agriculture.

About the author

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    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.