No silver bullet, except GM

December 2011

returning home after a day's work
Rice farmers in Africa. Photo by Martapigs on Flickr
The philanthropic and hugely wealthy Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation acknowledges that its goal of providing solutions to global food problems will not be easy: 
“Having enough nutritious food to feed a growing population is a complex challenge; there's no silver bullet”.
Strange, therefore, that the Foundation puts so much of its attention on quick-fix solutions, and so little attention on the key resources which will generate a lasting food supply.

Top of the Gates' list for promotion is GM: a silver bullet by its very nature.

Alongside biotech industry involvement always looms the spectre of corporate control, patents and profit-before-people. Gates' PR insists that GM for developing countries is OK because:
“These projects will be available royalty-free to farmers, who will not have to pay any additional fees to use them. It also means that farmers can save and re-use seeds and freely share planting material”. 
This may be true for the first generation of Gates' seed, but GM remains a silver bullet with a limited life-span. Once the farmers are on the biotech treadmill, there may be no way back.

One particularly worrying aspect of the Gates' GM plans is the involvement of the UK government.

The UK Department for International Development (DFID) is working in partnership with the Gates Foundation to identify projects to help small farmers. It is providing £20 million to
“support effects that quickly put new technologies into the hands of small farmers ... help small farmers manage crop disease and grow more nutritious crops, and support .. cutting-edge scientific innovations”. 
GM is not mentioned but could play a part in any or all of its projects.

In particular, the DFID is collaborating on one crop breeding project which certainly involves GM. Rice is being redesigned to shift its whole photosynthetic chemistry to a form which doesn't exist in this class of plant at all. The plan is to increase yields by 50% and water use efficiency by 100%. This particular silver bullet has been described by the Royal Society as “high-risk” because the changes involved are so complex. Our experience with single-gene herbicide-tolerance and Bt-insect-resistance transformations do not equip us to alter plants at this level.

What's more to the point is that the DFID/Gates objectives have already been superseded using lateral thinking and traditional breeding.

One Bangladeshi scientist is coming close to perfecting a new, non-hybrid, non-GM rice which produces three crops per year. Early tests have found this technique can quadruple the annual yield with no more than a minimal application of urea fertiliser between harvests. Because the plants are left tall and strong between harvests they can withstand excessive rainfall. Ploughing, with its concomitant greenhouse gas emission from the soil (rice produces substantial amounts of methane due to its semi-aquatic nature) can be avoided.

GM Freeze has raised a major concern that, although many Gates Foundation documents in the public domain place great emphasis on the underlying poverty and infertility of African soils, the reality is different. Only two (rather vague) soil-related projects have been funded since 2005: expenditure on soil research amounts to $20 million, just 4% of the total R&D spend. Contrast this with the $164 million just allocated by Gates to “build the fertilizer supply chain to increase farmers access to fertilizer and other inputs” aimed at delivering 187,000 tons of fertilizer to small farmers by December 2012. The DFID's declared aim for Africa is “sustainable intensification”. This silver fertiliser bullet will certainly promote intensification (and support GM crops) but as certainly cannot be sustainable and will further damage the soil.


It's your taxes which are being diverted into the further destruction of African soil and into expensive GM projects unlikely to succeed.

Perhaps you would like to have a word with your MP about how the Government spends your money. Diverting it into developing agroecology (see below) would certainly be more beneficial for both the present and the future people of Africa.

Agroecology is the use of ecological concepts and principles to study, design, and manage agricultural systems. The five main principles are:
  • recycling of nutrients
  • building of soil organic matter
  • minimising losses from the system
  • maximising biodiversity and genetic diversity
  • enhancing biological systems.
(GM Freeze)

  • The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Biotechnology and Intensive Farming, GM Freeze, October 2011
  • Syful Islam, 'Extended life' rice could quadruple yields, cut costs, AlertNet, 29.09.11

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