Echoing GMO-friendly propaganda

November 2014

CC photo Wiki Commons
An interesting revelation on how GM 'solutions' are spun to the public, governments, retailers and industry bodies is worth taking note of.

A spike in commodity food prices in 2007-8 led to a 'food crisis' and hunger-fuelled riots in many areas.

Crises are known to be transformative of perceptions and actions: they can also, it seems, be harnessed to manipulate those perceptions and actions.
The cause of the price spike was an acute shortage of some key commodity crops due to drought. Much media reporting at the time hinged on rhetorical demands that GM was needed to 'solve' the crisis.

However, the narrative below the headlines contained nothing more than a general call for increased productivity without a single example of how any specific GM crop could actually help the immediate situation.

These articles have been described graphically as an 'echo chamber' repeating and amplifying the same insubstantial claims.

In reality, GM played no part in the crisis at any stage: there was no re-deployment of any of the GM harvests abundant elsewhere to areas of need; biotech crops with the required drought-tolerance are decades away.

What we're left with is an acute problem which was reconstructed as a chronic problem and used to create a link to a projected need for increased global food, which was linked to a need for GM-based increases in productivity as the answer. The connections become increasingly tenuous and assumption-based as we work through them.

In fact, there has been a steady expansion of agricultural productivity due to conventional breeding spanning the pre-GM and GM-era, and which is on-going. Also, agricultural growth has consistently been projected to continue to outpace population changes (UN Food and Agriculture Organisation).
While the poor of 2007-8 became hungrier due to the increase in food prices, the unaffected moneyed came, illogically, under pressure to eat GM, but didn't. The only recorded change in GM acceptance was Asian junk-food manufacturers who were forced to start using cheap (GM) maize to make cheap ingredients for customers whom they reckoned wanted cheap junk food more than they didn't want GM.

However, noticing that the underlying cause of the food crisis was drought and so possibly linked to climate change, GM crops immediately became an 'answer' in other ways. Somehow, GM-optimised biofuel crops grown instead of food crops, and GM herbicide-tolerant crops grown without tillage became a solution.

Even at the time, some dissenting voices suggested that the large-scale diversion of US maize into biofuels and away from the food chain might have been a significant contributor to the crisis, which would make adding to the problem an unlikely 'solution'. Also, no-till agriculture has recently been shown not to mitigate carbon-emission (see THE 'GM HELPS CLIMATE CHANGE' MYTH UNRAVELS – September 2014).

More to the point, conventional plant breeding has already produced successful drought-tolerant crops. A maize-breeding programme in Africa has developed 153 new drought-tolerant varieties for use in thirteen countries. These are an existing answer to such crises.


Besides the obvious paramount need to curb our climate-changing activities, the answers to natural food disasters lie in world-wide agricultural flexibility, diversity and self-sufficiency: that way there will always be food surpluses somewhere in the world to channel to areas of shortage. GM crops can't deliver these answers because:

  1. GM crops are too expensive to develop for limited areas or small-scale markets
  2. GM crops are too slow to develop: new GM traits can be expected to take 20 years to develop (Syngenta chairman); by the time they're a reality (if they work at all) the world will have moved on.
  3. GM technology is too limited and inflexible, dependent as it is on humanly-designed DNA with a single, non-biological purpose.
  4. The next food shortage crisis might well be caused by toxic GM food (although that will be a man-made, not a natural, disaster.

 The moral is, treat the media with scepticism and watch out for echoes. Ask yourself does the report back-up what the headlines say? Or is it trying to manipulate your perceptions and actions? Does the second report you read or hear actually say anything, or is it just an echo of the first?

  • Glenn David Stone and Dominic Glover, Genetically modified crops and the 'food crisis': discourse and material impacts, Development in Practice 21:4-5, June 2011
  • Natasha Gilbert, Cross-bred crops get fit faster, Nature 513, 18.09.14
  • Claire Robinson, Michael Antoniou, John Fagan, 10 reasons we don't need GM foods, 2nd Edition 2014#
Photo credit: Algeria slashes food prices amid riots. By {{{1}}} [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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