Biofortification will never end global hunger – not now, not ever

Proponents of biofortification are taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to promote the development, production, and sale of genetically-engineered food crops as a silver bullet to the imminent hunger crisis.  

If we are going to refer to the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) 2020, the world’s hunger and malnutrition figures are not getting any better – even without COVID-19 in the picture. The number of hungry people in the world increased by 10 million last year, to 690 million. About 2 billion people did not have regular access to safe, nutritious, and sufficient food in 2019, while approximately 750 million experienced severe food insecurity. 

Factoring in the pandemic, the report estimated an additional 83 to 132 million people in hunger by the end of 2020.  

With these numbers in sight, neoliberal actors led by agribusiness corporations are painting biofortification as a relevant and urgent response to the global hunger situation, magnifying the “humanitarian” claim of GM crops and derived products amid pandemic. This blatant opportunism has resulted in some governments easing their restrictions on GMOs, which has recently unfolded in Europe and the US.  

Africa – home to almost half the world’s hungry – has been the hotbed of such reforms in recent years, however, through the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). Established in 2006 by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation, AGRA has influenced poverty-stricken countries particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa to adopt policy frameworks that support biotechnology to boost the agriculture sector. This has allowed field trials, commercial production of various GM crops, and “flexible and innovative” biosafety regulations. 

Yet what was supposed to guarantee domestic food security turned out to be a failure. According to a study, AGRA’s programs in the past 14 years only resulted in limited productivity improvements of commodity GM crops – far from the target double-crop productivity. The added productivity was also largely because of extensification onto new lands.  

For instance, maize production in the past 12 years saw an 87% increase in 13 countries but was due more to the 45% increase in area harvested. Yield only rose by 29%. On the other hand, staple food crops such as millet, sorghum, cassava, sweet potatoes, and groundnuts declined in yields. 

As expected, AGRA also failed to double the incomes for 30 million small-scale farmers.  Because its programs promote input-intensive agricultural systems, smallholder farmers find the Green Revolution package too expensive.  

Moreover, the hunger in the continent continues to rise – despite governments and institutions channeling multibillion funds to AGRA’s programs. Hunger prevalence in Africa is more than twice the world average, with more than 250 million hungry people as of 2019. The SOFI 2020 even stated, “Africa is significantly off track to achieve the Zero Hunger target, even without considering the impact of COVID-19.” 

Another study pointed out that GM crops in Africa promote the dependency on global markets given the role of multinational corporations that own, patent, and fund the GM technology. “[W]e are apprehensive about multi-million dollar collaborations that seemingly favor the concerns of donors and industry over those of African scientists and farmers,” it said. 
  

In other regions, the policy changes in favor of biofortification were widely opposed. Agricultural organizations in Bolivia rejected the passage of Supreme Decree 4232, which authorized the use of GM corn, soy, wheat, sugar cane, and cotton seeds. The de-facto government cited the “coronavirus emergency” as reason behind the measure’s approval, but the groups assert that the measure is unconstitutional and will only benefit big businesses. 

Meanwhile, the call to stop Golden Rice continues with the yearly international day of protest spearheaded by the Stop Golden Rice Network (SGRN). This year, the campaign focused on the corporatization of food and agriculture systems amid the COVID-19 pandemic, specifically the agenda of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the promotion of Golden Rice. 

The biofortified rice, which does not contain enough beta-carotene to battle Vitamin A deficiency as claimed, has been approved for human consumption in the Philippines. Bangladesh and Indonesia are expected to follow suit. 

Defenders of the Golden Rice project are always quick to retort that it “has nothing to do with agribusiness companies” and that the opposition is but an “antediluvian hostility to science and technology.” These allegations are plain disinformation and deliberately miss the point of contention: biofortification is a bane to small farmers. Africa’s experience with AGRA is proof of how agrochemical corporations have only profiteered from small farmers, sinking them further into poverty and hunger.  

Like other GM seeds and crops, Golden Rice will significantly alter the lives and livelihood of rural peoples especially in Asia where rice is a staple food. On top of its impacts on public health and the environment, the cultivation of Golden Rice will endanger traditional rice farming and breeding practices as well as traditional varieties that rice farmers find to be more efficient and sustainable. Also, whether the seeds are free or not, rice farmers will still have to spend for inputs and implements sold by the very same corporations behind Golden Rice for its production. 

To put an end to hunger and malnutrition, what we need are comprehensive policy changes that put people’s right to food and the rural food producers’ welfare at the forefront. The People’s Coalition on Food Sovereignty (PCFS) has outlined nine demands that propose radical reforms toward just, sustainable, and equitable food systems.  

At the national level, members of the coalition are also actively resisting the use and production of biofortified crops. In Bolivia, Instituto Politécnico Tomás Katari has opposed GM corn. Meanwhile, many farmers groups in Asia have consistently mounted protests against various GM crops including Golden Rice. These include the Labour Resource Center and Bangladesh Agricultural Farm Labour Federation in Bangladesh, Aliansi Gerakan Reforma Agraria in Indonesia, and the Peasant Movement of the Philippines and Amihan National Federation of Peasant Women in the Philippines.   

Neoliberal reforms in food and agriculture promoted amid pandemic are primarily designed to save agribusiness corporations from the ongoing global crisis. Biofortification is not and will never be the answer to worldwide hunger. ###

This feature is released in commemoration of the August 8 International Day of Protest to Stop Golden Rice. The People’s Coalition on Food Sovereignty is a member of the Stop Golden Rice Network.

Written by Gail Orduña, PCFS Global Secretariat staff. 

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