Biotechnology Myths

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Biotechnology Myths
by Miguel Altieri, PhD
University of California at Berkeley

Myth #1 Biotechnology will benefit US farmers


Biotechnology seeks to "industrialize agriculture" even further, converting agriculture into a branch of industry

Biotechnology is capital intensive and increases concentration of agriculture production in the hands of large - corporate farms

As with other labor saving technology, by increasing productivity biotechnology tends to reduce commodity prices and set in motion a technology treadmill that forces out of business a significant number of farmers, especially small scale.

Given that time and labor saving technology have been substituted for farmers and farm workers for over 200 years, the most probable outcome is that US farmers will be displaced by biotechnology.

Removal of constraints to growing the same crop in the same field every year and eliminating need for mechanical weed control will enable a given number of people to farm more acres and thereby facilitate a system of bigger and fewer farms.

Biotechnology will further concentrate power in the hands of few MNCs, which in turn will enhance farmers dependence and force them to pay inflated prices for seed-chemical packages
Myth #2 Biotechnology will benefit Third World farmers


If green revolution technology bypassed small and resource-poor farmers, biotechnology will exacerbate marginalization even more as such technologies are under corporate control and protected by patents, are expensive and inappropriate to the needs and circumstance of indigenous people.

Biotechnology products will undermine exports from Third World countries especially from small-scale producers.

70,000 farmers in Madagascar growing vanilla were ruined when a Texas farm produced vanilla in biotech labs.

Fructose produced by biotechnology captured over 10% of the world sugar market and caused sugar price to fall, throwing tens of thousands of sugar workers in the Third World out of work

Nearly 10 million sugar farmers in the Third World may face a loss of livelihood as laboratory-produced sweeteners begin invading world markets.

Expansion of Unilever cloned oil palms will substantially increase palm-oil production with dramatic consequences for farmers producing other vegetable oils (groundnut in Senegal and coconut in Philippines)

The Third World should worry that the massive penetration of transgenic crops will not only pose environmental risks and foreclose rural employment opportunities, but will doom traditional agriculture and its native genetic diversity.

Myth #3 Biotechnology production promises will be a blessing for the poor and hungry of the Third World.


Biotechnology is profit driven rather than science and need driven.

Biotechnology research serves the desires of the rich rather than the needs of humanity, especially the poor

Biotechnology is primarily a commercial activity, a reality that determines priorities of what is investigated, how it is applied and who is to benefit. While the world may lack food and suffer pesticide pollution, the focus of MCNs is profit, not philanthropy.

Investors design GMOs for new marketable quality or for import substitution, rather then for greater food production.

Biotechnology companies are emphasizing a limited range of crops for which there are large and secure markets, targeted to relatively capital-intensive production systems. It is difficult to conceive how such technology will be introduced in Third World countries to favor masses of poor farmers

The thrust of the biotech industry is not to solve agricultural problems as much as it to create profitability, Why HRCs are not being develop for parasitic weeds (Striga) in Africa? instead HRC corn and cotton is being produced although there is myriad herbicides available to control weeds in these crops.

Why isn't the scientific genius of biotechnology turned to develop varieties of crops more tolerant to weeds rather than herbicides? or why aren't more promising products of biotechnology, such as N fixing and tolerant plants being developed? Myth #4 Biotechnology will not attempt against the ecological sovereignty of the Third World.


The Third World is now witnessing a "gene rush" as governments and multinational corporation aggressively scour forests, crop fields and coasts in search of the new genetic gold.

Indigenous people and their biodiversity are viewed as raw material for the MCNs.

Corporations have made billions of dollars on seeds developed in US labs from germplasm that farmers in the Third World had carefully bred over generations.

Peasant farmers go unrewarded for their millenary knowledge of what to grow, while MNCs stand to harvest royalties from Third World countries estimated at billions of dollars.

Patenting laws prevent farmers from freely reproducing patented livestock and seeds. Biotech companies offer no concrete provisions to pay Third World farmers for the seeds they take and use.

Patenting of plants and animals means that farmers must pay royalties to the patent holder each time they breed their stock (saving seed is not possible with hybrid crops, farmers must buy fresh patented seed each year).

Indigenous farmers can lose rights to their own original seeds and not be allowed under GATT to market or use them.

As bans and regulations delay tests and marketing in the North, GMOs will increasingly be tested in the South to bypass public control (Vaccine application program in India). The Third World will evolve from chemical and nuclear waste disposal to genetic dump site.

Myth # 5 Biotechnology will lead to Biodiversity Conservation


Although biotechnology has the capacity to create a greater variety of commercial plants and thus contribute to biodiversity, this is unlikely to happen. MNCs strategy is to create broad international markets for a single product. The tendency is towards uniform international seed markets.

The agricultural systems developed with transgenic crops will favor monocultures characterized by dangerously high levels of genetic homogeneity leading to higher vulnerability of agriculture to biotic and abiotic stresses.

As the new bioengineered seeds replace the old traditional varieties and their wild relatives, genetic erosion will accelerate in the Third World.

The push for uniformity will not only destroy the diversity of genetic resources, but will also disrupt the biological complexity that underlies the sustainability of traditional farming systems.

Myth # 6 Biotechnology is ecologically safe, offering softer technologies and will launch a period of chemical-free agriculture.


We can be sure of the economic outcomes of biotechnology (especially for MNCs) than we can about its health or environmental comes.

There are many unanswered ecological questions regarding the impact of the release of transgenic plants and microbes into the environment. Approaches must be developed and employed for assessing and monitoring future predictable risks.

Biotechnology will exacerbate the problems of conventional agriculture and will also undermine ecological methods of farming such as rotation and polycultures.

Transgenic crops are likely to increase the use of pesticides and to accelerate the evolution of "superweeds" and resistant insect pest strains.

Major environmental risks associated with genetically engineered plants are the unintended transfer to plant relatives of the "trangenes" and the unpredictable ecological effects.

Myth #7 Biotechnology will enhance the use of molecular biology for the benefit of all society.


The demand for the new biotechnology has emerged out of the change in plant laws and the profit interests of chemical companies of linking seeds and pesticides. The supply emerged out of breakthroughs in molecular biology and the availability of venture capital as a result of favorable tax laws.

Plant breeding research is shifting form the public to the private sector. As more universities enter into partnerships with corporations, serious ethical questions emerge about who owns the results of research and which research gets done.

A great deal of the basic knowledge underlying biotechnology was developed using public funding.

The trend to secrecy by public funded scientists in government and universities is not in the public interest.
A professor ability to attract private investments is often more important than academic qualifications. Applied and alternative agricultural sciences such as biological pest control which do not attract corporate sponsorship are being phased out.

The economic and political domination of the agricultural development agenda has thrived at the expense of interest of consumers, farm workers, small family farms, wildlife and the environment.

Citizens should have earlier entry points and broader participation in technological decisions.

The domination of scientific research by corporate interest must be dealt with more stringent public control.

It is not biotechnological science that needs scrutiny, it is its exploitation by narrow business interests.

CGIAR will have to carefully monitor and control the provision of applied non proprietary knowledge to the private sector so as to protect that such knowledge will continue in the public domain for the benefit of the rural poor.

Mechanisms should be in place to reverse the privatization of biotechnology and challenge the direction of current privately led research. The CGIAR could assume the historic and ethical responsibility in the development and deployment of socioeconomically and environmentally desirable biotechnologies.

Myth #8 Biotechnology is a more environmentally sound approach to pest management and sustainable agriculture.


Biotechnology emerges in an area when there is widespread concern about the long-term sustainability of our food production systems. Many scientists raise questions about the growing dependence of farming on non -renewable resources, the depletion of soils through erosion and the heavy reliance on chemicals which are costly but also raise questions about food and environmental quality.

Agroindustrial's model reliance on monoculture and inputs such as pesticides and fertilizers impacts the environment and society: topsoil has been lost, biodiversity has eroded, and toxics have damaged wildlife, soil and water. As biotechnology requires reliance on monocultures these negative trends will become exacerbated.

Worldwide, 2.5 million tons of pesticides are applied each year with a purchase price of $20 billion.

In the US, 500,000 tons of 600 different types of pesticides are used annually at a cost of $4.1 billion.

The cost to Latin America of chemical pest control is expected to reach US $ 3.97 billion by the year 2000.

An investment of $4 billion dollars in pesticide control saves approximately $16 billions in US crops. But indirect environmental and public health costs of pesticide use (reaching $8 billion each year) need to be balanced against these benefits.

By weight of active ingredients, herbicides now constitute 85% of all pesticides applied to field crops. Monsanto alone sold $1 billion worth in 1982.

Biotechnology treats agricultural problems as genetic deficiencies of organisms, and treats nature as a commodity.

Biotechnology is being used to pursue to patch up problems that have been caused by previous technologies (pest resistance, cost of pesticides, pollution, etc.) which were promoted by the same companies now leading the bio-revolution.

Transgenic crops for pest control follow closely the pesticide paradigm of using a single control mechanism which has proven to fail with insects, pathogens and weeds. As such, they do not fit into the broad ideals of sustainable agriculture.

The "one gene - one pest" resistance approach is rather easy to be overcome by pests which are continuously adapting to new situations and evolving detoxification mechanisms.

As with pesticides, biotechnology companies will feel the impact of environmental, farm labor, animal rights and consumers lobbies.

Miguel A. Altieri, Ph.D. University of California, Berkeley
ESPM-Division of Insect Biology
201 Wellman-3112 Berkeley, CA 94720-3112
Phone: 510-642-9802 FAX: 510-642-7428
Location: 129 Giannini, Berkeley campus