What are the chances that you'll save anyone from starvation by eating GM food?

July 2012
IN137S07 World Bank
Harvesting in India. Photo by World Bank Photo Collection on Flickr
Next time you hear the claim that we need GM food to save the people of developing countries from starvation, ignore any pangs of guilt. Just look at India.

As estimated 250 million Indians don't have enough to eat. One-fifth of its people are malnourished: this is double the rate of other developing countries like Vietnam and China.

Yet, the Indian government has had a scheme in place to deal with this problem since the 1960s. It buys up all the wheat and rice its farmers produce, giving them a higher and more consistent price than they would get on the open market.

The grain thus acquired is delivered to subsidised state shops. Needy families are given ration cards by the state with which they can buy cheap rice and grain from these shops. The poor in India have, therefore, had a cushion against the recent rising food prices blamed on increases in the cost of oil and fertilisers, land degradation, climate change, competition from biofuel crops, and an on-going dietary switch to animal products.

Over the last two decades, there has been an almost 50% increase in food production in India. In May this year, the government had amassed a stockpile of 71 million tons of grain, up 20% from 2011. The storage facilities, or 'godowns', are so vast they are “really hard to photograph. The buildings go on as far as the eye can see” (Stone). India grows so much food that the godowns can't take it all: stacks of rotting rice and wheat can be seen sitting beside the highway in some rural areas.

Growing the crops in the first place uses huge up huge volumes of precious water. What can't be stored is exported at a loss, while some ends up in distilleries being turned into liquor.

In other words, India's paradox of plenty is nothing to do with its population outpacing its agriculture, any more than is the case in wealthy, obese America where 14% of the people suffers from food insecurity.

Glen Davis Stone, US Professor of Anthropology and Environmental Studies, asked: “Just exactly how are their (GM) technologies going to feed hungry Indians when over 30 million tons of excess grain can't?”.

So what has gone wrong in India? Put simply:
  1. Pervasive corruption
  2. Mismanagement
Just 41.4% of the grain collected by states from the godowns reaches the needy. Officials at every stage of the process, from warehouse managers to shop-keepers syphon off the food to sell to traders.

The poor face stiff bureaucratic hurdles to qualify for ration cards. Those on low income (more than 2,000 rupees, about $36, a month) don't qualify regardless of how many mouths they have to feed and what rent they have to pay to keep a roof over the family's head.

And, bribes may even be needed to 'purchase' a ration card.

Even when the subsidised food has been accessed, the diet of those dependent on it is far from healthy. The quality and quantity of grain on offer is often substandard. Nothing except rice and wheat can be bought amid fears that, if fresh produce were available under the scheme, men would trade them for liquor and tobacco and their families would still be deprived.

And, while India struggles and pro-biotech industries and governments try to 'solve' the problem with GM food (see WHAT YOU CAN DO below), what do the people of other developing countries think about the GM issue? As far back as 1998 a delegation from 18 African countries to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization had this to say:
We strongly object that the image of the poor and hungry from our countries is being used by giant multinational corporations to push a technology that is neither safe, environmentally friendly nor economically beneficial to us ... it will destroy the diversity, the local knowledge and the sustainable agricultural systems that our farmers have developed for millennia, and that it will thus undermine our capacity to feed ourselves.”

No matter how much GM food you eat, you won't save anyone in developing or developed countries from hunger or malnutrition. You might even help to cause it: see THE DARK SIDE OF GOLDEN RICE - July 2012.


Some positive action on your part to help the poor in developing countries, would be to persuade the UK government to come to its senses. Our Minister for Universities and Science has just announced new funding of £250 million to launch a new Green Revolution to feed the world in which GM crop science will be fundamental. Perhaps you could pose Prof. Stone's question above to our, no doubt well-meaning, Minister?

  • George Freeman MP, Government announces GBP250m new funding for UK Bio-economy,, 24.05.12
  • Michael Antoniou, Claire Robinson, John Fagan, GMO Myths and Truths, Section 7, Feeding the World, June 2012
  • Vikas Bajaj, As Grain Piles U, India's Poor Still Go Hungry, New York Times, 7.06.12
  • Glenn Davis Stone, Feeding Hungry Indians, Field Questions, 16.06.11
  • Feeding the World with GM Crops: Myth or Reality?, GM Freeze, June 2008

1 comment:

  1. Good article. Very clear, although it might be thought to imply that GM crops can increase agricultural productivity - a claim for for which there is precious little evidence.


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