Can we feed the world without GMOs?

Christophe Noisette

GMO and food security: a dangerous illusion

Hunger is wreaking havoc both in the North and in the South, in the USA and in India, which both devote significant areas to the cultivation of genetically modified plants (GMO). In 2012 a quarter of India’s population (217 million people) were suffering from malnutrition, nevertheless the country has a surplus agri-food trade balance. Guaranteeing a balanced diet is therefore first and foremost a political issue of access to the market. What does it matter if the food stalls are full when the coffers are empty? Other political factors need to be taken into consideration: waste, which represents almost 50% of the food produced on the planet,[1] armed conflicts and other population displacements.[2]

In terms of agriculture, in the strictest sense of the word, political decisions also influence food production. More and more land is confiscated to satisfy galloping urbanisation, creating vast infrastructures such as airports and commercial complexes, or to produce meat and agro-fuels. Forty-four percent of cereal crops are currently used in animal fodder, and the main GMOs – soya and maize – are specifically intended for the feeding troughs of enclosed livestock. One animal calorie requires three plant calories to be produced. When GMOs are not eaten by pigs or chickens, they supply fuel for cars or are used in the preparation of pre-cooked meals (soy lecithin can be found in almost 60% of processed products). Such uses are no help to starving populations. On the contrary, they increase the price of cereals intended for human consumption on the world market.

The amount of land available for farming is therefore reduced, and uncultivated land has important roles to play in ecosystems. So much-hyped plants – that would grow in deserts – remain promises whose fulfilment could be disastrous, and some uncultivated environments are rich in biodiversity. Then there is land that has been damaged by the intensive use of irrigation, artificial fertilisers and pesticides, which is worthy of the special care that only agro-ecological and small-scale farming can provide. The agronomic model underlying GMOs is based on chemistry. Three-quarters of transgenic varieties have been genetically modified to tolerate herbicides. GMOs currently on the market were developed to facilitate the work of monocultures produced by machines. This minority approach to farming produces fewer calories per hectare than small-scale family farming, according to recent FAO figures.

Let us further emphasise that GMOs do not presently produce better yields than conventional plants. This has been officially recognised in Spain, with Mon810 maize[3], and in the US with the Roundup Ready soybeans.[4],[5] Also, GMOs are protected by patents. They constitute a legal limit on trade in seeds between small-scale farmers and on-farm selection, requiring farmers to buy seeds annually, thus increasing the price of seeds. The patent is in itself a brake on food security. And finally, let us emphasise that their development is extremely expensive and uses infrastructures that, de facto, exclude small-scale farmers. The money needed to produce a transgenic plant could help to improve sustainable food systems and reduce waste, by supporting better storage infrastructure and transport.

We should leave the conclusion to the European Parliament's "Development" Committee: it recently pointed out that development aid (the NASAN programme, which received more than €1 billion from the European Union (EU) in 2014) benefitted multinational corporations, not small-scale farmers. The Development Committee therefore strongly recommends the EU "not to support the cultivation of GMOs in Africa", which it considers to be a brake on food security, and stresses the importance of the accessibility of seeds for small-scale farmers (in terms of price and ownership rights) in the fight against poverty and malnutrition.


[1]The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), for example, cites Niger, where almost 60% of the onions harvested (nearly 3,000 t) are lost each year.

[2] In Kenya, violence after the elections in 2007 and 2008 "caused the displacement of over 100,000 peasants from the Rift Valley, the bread basket of the country". This region alone accounts for more than 75% of national food production, and less than half of the land in the main production regions was able to be worked in those years.


[4]https://www.infogm.org/5625-Etats-Unis-les-OGM-restent-majoritaires-malgre-des-resultats-mitiges et https://www.infogm.org/5331-Etats-unis-ogm-pas-augmentation-moyennes-rendements

[5]In the USA, the leading producer of transgenic plants, since 1999 the yield of soybeans has not changed, varying between 2.42 (in 2003) and 3.17 tonnes / hectare in 2009 depending on weather conditions. And yet, between 2000 and 2011 (the last year covered by our analysis), the share of GM in soybean crops has risen from 54% to 94%. Let us add that since 1999, the price of soya seeds has regularly increased, rising from 47.57 dollars / hectare in 1999 to 146.66 dollars / hectare in 2011.

The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.