Back to GE Foods Dangers Page.
Back to Health Page.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Corporations have made billions of dollars on seeds developed in US labs
from germplasm that farmers in the Third World had carefully bred over
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
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
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
As the new bioengineered seeds replace the old traditional varieties and
their wild relatives, genetic erosion will accelerate in the Third
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
Biotechnology will exacerbate the problems of conventional agriculture and
will also undermine ecological methods of farming such as rotation and
Transgenic crops are likely to increase the use of pesticides and to
accelerate the evolution of "superweeds" and resistant insect pest
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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