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Can genetically engineered food save the world?

The program's producers tried to give the appearance of being fair and balanced in their approach. In reality, the program was far from it and took a stance extremely pro genetic engineering. It argued that a food crisis is looming and that we will need to double food production over the next 50 years – using the same amount of land and dwindling supplies of water. Enter the supposed 'superhero' in this narrative – genetically engineered (GE) crops. It's in this context that Jimmy Doherty set out to investigate whether GE crops have a role to play in 'feeding the world'.

You'd think that an obvious and logical starting point for such an investigation would be the United Nations. After all, last year it completed its International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). This five-year-long project, involving over 400 of the world's leading scientists, concluded that genetically engineered (GE) crops were not the solution to providing plentiful cheap food.

When the issue was broached, the project's director, Professor Robert Watson, said: 'Are transgenics [GE crops] the simple answer to hunger and poverty? I would argue, no.'

The doco's makers also could've consulted the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). A study it released this year concluded that organic farming offers Africa the best chance of breaking the long, inherent cycle of poverty and malnutrition. An analysis of 114 projects in 24 African countries found that organic practices outperformed traditional methods and chemical-intensive conventional farming. The study found that yields more than doubled where organic, or near-organic, practices had been used. That yield increase jumped to 128 per cent in east Africa.

The UNEP study also found strong environmental benefits associated with organic agriculture, such as improved soil fertility, better retention of water and resistance to drought.

Unfortunately, it seems that the makers of the doco in question didn't bother to talk to the UN. So, who did they speak to? A range of industry scientists. These included scientists from the John Innes Centre in the UK – an institute described by Jimmy as 'independent', even though it’s received tens of millions of dollars in funding from the GE giants it’s jumped into bed with.

These biotechnology industry scientists claim that there are absolutely no health or ecological problems associated with GE crops, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Jimmy ended his 'fact' finding mission at a research station in Uganda, where he claimed that the genetic engineering of Ugandan bananas would prevent serious crop losses for poor farmers. However, Ugandan researchers last year admitted to the press that these GE bananas are failing. That's no great surprise. Such GE field trails often end in failure.

Again, it's a shame that the program's makers didn't talk to the UN because the IAASTD offers genuine solutions to help achieve global food security. The core message of the final IAASTD report is that we urgently need to move away from destructive and chemical-dependent industrial agriculture. It argues that echniques such as genetic engineering are no solution for soaring food prices, hunger and poverty.

Instead we need to adopt modern farming methods that champion biodiversity and benefit local communities. More and better food can be produced without destroying rural livelihoods or our natural resources.


Poulter, S. (2008) GM foods 'not the answer' to world's food shortage crisis, report says, Daily Mail.

Howden, D. (2008) Organic farming 'could feed Africa', The Independent.

Matthews, J. (2008) Jimmy’s GM Food Fix.

UNEP (2009) Organic Agriculture and Food Security in Africa (PDF)

NGIN report on the science communication activities of the John Innes Centre.

ASNS (2008) Uganda GM banana fails to defeat diseases.

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