Pestering the third world

European fears over pesticides and GM crops risk condemning third world farmers to a primitive existence.

Jan Bowman

Topics Politics

Many environmental activists and food experts are keen to ban pesticides from British farming and to convert the whole country to organic agriculture.

In spring 2002, members of parliament debated a Private Members’ Bill calling for 30 percent of British farming to be organic by 2010. Campaigners have persuaded Marks and Spencer and the Co-Op to ban a range of pesticides from the food they sell (1) – and the top five supermarkets are under pressure to follow suit.

But pesticides have actually helped to improve Britain’s diet. Until the 1900s, the only weapons against animal and insect pests were the ancient, unreliable techniques of rotating crops, breeding tougher plant varieties and adjusting sowing dates. None of these was very effective, and farmers often faced the risk of severe infestation, or loss, of their entire harvest.

When synthetic pesticides – inexpensive, efficient and easy to use – were introduced in 1947, farmers saw them as a godsend. With millions threatened by starvation and Europe in postwar ruins, that’s exactly what they were.

Yet in 2002, we still can’t stop rats and mice from laying to waste a fifth of the global grain harvest every year. Forty-three percent of the world’s food crops will be wiped out by insects, fungal infections, viruses and animal pests this year. Plant and animal diseases are a permanent, and worsening, threat to world food supply (2).

World pesticide use is up to several million kilograms yearly. In the West, 1500 new pesticide formulas are developed every year. This might seem like a lot, but bacteria and insect pests develop resistance to chemicals at great speed.

If anyone should fear pesticides, it isn’t Western consumers but third-world farmers. In the 1970s the World Health Organisation estimated that 500,000 people were being poisoned by pesticides annually, with 5000 dying each year. Although 80 percent of the world’s pesticides are used to protect crops in the West, 99 percent of pesticide poisoning occurs in the South. The most modern pesticide formulas are safer and more effective than the old ones, but the developing world still has to buy its pesticides as cheaply as possible – and that usually means chemicals banned or severely restricted in the West (3).

Some anti-pesticide campaigners recognise that the main danger of such chemicals is to those in the third world. So they argue that third world farmers would be better off forgetting about hi-tech, manmade solutions and should convert to organic instead. This would help them avoid harmful pesticides, and they would no longer be in thrall to multinationals. But to conclude that the only solution for third world farmers is less technology and a back-to-basics approach to farming seriously underestimates the difficulties facing the third world.

It is true that soybeans, maize and cotton – cash crops grown mainly in the world’s temperate zones – were the first plants to be genetically transformed. Tropical subsistence plants such as cassava or millet have so far been largely ignored by the companies leading GM development, since subsistence farmers have no money. But like the Green Revolution of the 1970s, technology risks being blamed for the failures of policymakers. Despite those failures, Green Revolution crops helped double rice production in Asia between 1967 and 1992, averting famine in many countries (4). Indian rice productivity increased so much that it did away with the country’s dependence on food imports (5).

Anti-GM non-governmental organisations (NGOs) often flag up images of farmers from India to Scotland demonstrating against GM crops. But that is only part of the story. Brazil’s flourishing anti-GM consumer movement demonstrated against Monsanto when it bought up five of the country’s largest seed companies and in one year acquired 82 percent of the domestic hybrid maize industry. But farmers in Brazil’s Rio Grand de Sul have been smuggling in banned GM maize from Argentina for several years, because it is 17 percent cheaper to grow than the conventional sort, and involves less work (6).

It is true that organic techniques eliminate the risk of pesticide poisoning, but they are extremely labour intensive, relying on monotonous, exhausting tasks like hand weeding. Because organic farming substitutes manual toil for manmade chemicals, it condemns poor third world families to back-breaking work all year round. By contrast, since modern agriculture uses far less labour than the traditional kind, only two percent of American citizens today have to work in farming (7).

Unfortunately, many of the Western NGOs who want to ban pesticides also loathe the technology that could do away with the need for such poisons in the first place.

Genetic engineering has already freed farmers from using much more toxic chemicals. Glyphosate, the basis for Monsanto’s Roundup, is a common pesticide, produced by various companies. British gardeners dose their weeds with it every summer. The US Environmental Protection Agency has given glyphosate its lowest toxicity rating, and notes that where GM cotton is grown it has made 16 more harmful pesticides redundant. According to the Dutch Centre for Agriculture and Environment, between 1995 and 1998 the use of glyphosate fell 10 percent in US fields growing Monsanto’s RoundupReady soybeans – equivalent to 2.9million kg (8).

In China, the introduction of cotton with the Bt gene has meant a 70 percent drop in pesticide use in 1999/2000 (9). Only five percent of Chinese farmers growing Bt cotton have reported health problems from it, compared with 22 percent of farmers growing the conventional sort (10).

For these farmers, GM holds out the hope of higher yields, less labour, and nutritionally superior plants – and fewer pesticides. Yet poor countries are being pressured to reject GM technology for fear they won’t be able to sell their crops abroad. Despite the potential benefits of GM to the less developed world, environmental activists have the ear of government and have successfully created a climate of hostility towards GM foods.

‘We don’t get data, we get opinion’, says Margaret Karembu from Kenyatta University’s Department of Environmental Sciences, of the pressure on Africa to convert to organic farming. ‘We find that when we talk to farmers, they’ve already been poisoned [with propaganda] about the dangers of biotechnology. Because there’s so much negative publicity about biotechnology, even tissue culture is confused with genetic engineering.’

Her concerns were borne out in June 2002 when the Zimbabwean government refused to accept emergency US food aid for 10million of its people facing starvation, because the corn couldn’t be guaranteed GM-free (11).

The UN Development Programme (UNDP) has also criticised European environmentalists for scaremongering about GM. ‘The developing world needs these technologies as soon as possible and European countries and campaigners are slowing everything up’, says Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, author of the UNDP’s 2001 Human Development Report. ‘I think that first world environmental groups should put on the hat and shoes of farmers in Mali who are faced with repeated crop failure. Biotech has enormous potential for agriculture, to address the problems of hunger and malnutrition and food and security in Africa and other areas of the world, and its potential should not be underestimated.’

People in the developed world have been living with the benefits of pesticides for two generations. We have never been so fit and healthy. By contrast, GM crops have been planted commercially for less than 10 years. By rejecting both technologies in favour of a romanticised, far more laborious form of farming, environmental campaigners risk condemning many in the third world to a primitive existence.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Food scares

(1) Reuters, 15 March 2002

(2) Public health risks associated with pesticides and natural toxins in foods, David Pimentel et al

(3) Quoted in Environmental Benefits of Genetically Modified Crops: Global and European Perspectives on Their Ability to Reduce Pesticide Use, RH Phipps and JR Park, Journal of Animal and Feed Sciences, 2002 Vol 11, p1-18

(4) Gurdev Singh Khush: masterminding a new rice revolution, interview by Ethirajan Anbarasan, UNESCO Courier

(5) The Politics of Precaution, Robert L Paarlberg, Johns Hopkins Press, 2001. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(6) The Politics of Precaution, Robert L Paarlberg, Johns Hopkins Press,
2001, p 81. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(7) See Trends in US agriculture, US department of agriculture; and Timeline of farming in the US

(8) Environmental Benefits of Genetically Modified Crops: Global and European Perspectives on Their Ability to Reduce Pesticide Use, RH Phipps and JR Park, Journal of Animal and Feed Sciences, 2002 Vol 11, p1-18

(9) Biotechnology as an Alternative to Chemical Pesticide Use: Lessons from
Bt Cotton in China
, Jikun Huang, Fangbin Qiao, Chinese Center for
Agricultural Policy; Impact of Bt Cotton in China (.pdf), forthcoming in World Development May 2001 issue (Vol 29, No 5)

(10) Science, vol 295, p 674

(11) Financial Times, 1 June 2002

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Topics Politics


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