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Should We Grow GM Crops?

What if you knew that many feel GM crop technology will hurt small farmers?

Critics of GM agriculture insist that patenting genetically altered crops, as agribusiness is rushing to do, will make small farmers indentured to big firms. Monsanto, one of the biggest players in the field, is currently suing dozens of North American farmers whom it claims have raised its patented GM crops without paying for the privilege. (Farmers have responded that pollen from Monsanto crops blew in from neighboring fields.)

Some fear that GM crops might prove too expensive for poor farmers in developing countries, thus further widening the gap between rich and poor, or that they could repeat an often unspoken side effect of the Green Revolution. In countries like India, higher yields were achieved at such a cost in inputs that smaller farmers were often no better off, and many were forced into debt or off their land.

Even if farmers in developing countries don't grow GM crops, they could still be hurt by them. If GM technology enables the industrial North to raise crops it traditionally imported from the developing South, it could take a heavy toll on Southern farmers. In 1996, the Canada-based non-governmental organization Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) called attention to a newly issued patent for quinoa, a high-protein grain traditionally grown in the Andes. The patent was awarded to researchers at Colorado State University, who were trying to improve yields of the crop. As RAFI pointed out, if U.S. farmers started growing quinoa, Bolivian farmers who supply the quinoa for that country's $1 million export market would take a severe blow. (The patent was later withdrawn after protests.)

GM crops will also further our reliance on vast monocultures, objectors state. (Just 15 food crops today supply 90 percent of the world's food and energy intake.) Many small farmers in the developing world maintain a rich diversity of flora; in India alone, farmers raise some 50,000 plant varieties. These plants thrive under different climatic and environmental conditions, providing insurance against drought or disease or locust swarms.

Lacking such insurance, farmers of monocultures are vulnerable to lethal attacks by disease and pests. In the 1970s, for example, corn blight devastated the U.S. corn crop; in 1975 Indonesian farmers lost half a million acres of rice to the rice hopper insect. GM monocultures will possess similar susceptibilities. If pests evolve tolerance to a crop's built-in insecticide, say, or if weeds develop immunity to weed killers sprayed over fields of herbicide-resistant GM plants, that crop -- and the people who count on it -- could suffer.

"Some researchers have shown that none of the genetically engineered seeds significantly increase the yield of crops. Indeed, in more than 8,200 field trials, the [genetically altered] Roundup seeds produced fewer bushels of soybeans than similar natural varieties, according to a study by Dr. Charles Benbrook, the former director of the Board of Agriculture at the National Academy of Sciences. Far from being a solution to the world's hunger problem, the rapid introduction of genetically engineered crops may actually threaten agriculture and food security."
--Dr. Peter Rosset, director of the Institute for Food and Development Policy and co-author of World Hunger: Twelve Myths (Grove Press, 1998) [7]

"The Green Revolution was immensely successful in increasing crop yields because of the development of high-yielding crop varieties and the use of chemical inputs, but this resulted in the disruption of many sustainable agricultural practices. Farmers using transgenic varieties risk being caught on a similar chemical treadmill, with crops requiring high chemical inputs to achieve their promised yields, particularly high fertilizer applications."
--Dr. Stephen Nottingham, a biologist who specializes in crop protection and author of Eat Your Genes: How Genetically Modified Food is Entering Our Diet [8]

"Centers of [plant] diversity are already eroding under pressure from loss of habitats and the tendency of modern agriculture to rely on a few elite varieties of important crops. Hundreds of thousands of varieties of crop relatives have been lost. The U.S. government, however, shows no inclination to assess risks posed in other parts of the world by crops engineered in the United States."
--Drs. Jane Rissler and Margaret Mellon, scientists at the Union of Concerned Scientists and authors of The Ecological Risks of Engineered Crops [9]
based on what you now know, do you think we should grow gm crops?

7: "Why Genetically Altered Food Won't Conquer Hunger," op-ed piece in The New York Times, 9/1/99.
8: Eat Your Genes (Zed Books, 1998), p. 162.
9: The Ecological Risks of Engineered Crops (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), p. 127.

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