Environment: Interview

Genetically modified food and biodiversity

Genetically modified crops could help feed the hungry, says Krystyna Swiderska of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), but their ...
Quechua Indian farmers display native potatoes at the International Potato Center (CIP) .../ Credits: Reuters

Allianz Knowledge: You study the genetic diversity of food. Why are genes so important to food production?
Krystyna Swiderska: Genes encode proteins, minerals, and vitamins in food, all of which are needed for nutrition and health. The information is critical for producing the food we need and for feeding livestock.

Historically, genetic diversity has been increased by settled farming. Traditional farmers have for centuries domesticated wild plants, improved them, and adapted them to local conditions and changes in environment. This is done through breeding. You select particular traits and cross breed them: For example, potatoes in the Peruvian Andes have been bred for frost resistance.

How genetically diverse is our food now?
There has been a dramatic decline in genetic diversity—first with the introduction of industrial agriculture in western countries, and since the 1960s through the introduction of intensive agriculture and monocultures in developing countries via the Green Revolution

Our research on rice in India’s eastern Himalayas, on potatoes in the Peruvian Andes, and on maize in southwest China, found significant reductions of traditional varieties in the last 10 to 20 years. There used to be 30 to 40 varieties of a crop being planted but now there are maybe 5 to 10 varieties.

Why is this a problem? Does this make crops more vulnerable?
Absolutely: As you decrease the gene pool through monoculture and replacing traditional varieties you reduce the properties plants have—whether resistance to pests, or to drought, or to floods. We are narrowing our ability to adapt.

It is exactly the same for animals. Livestock breeders selected only a handful of varieties that do well commercially but they don’t necessarily keep genetic diversity alive. Inbred populations become more susceptible to disease.

Minerals or vitamins in traditional crops, Vitamin A for example, are being lost, adversely affecting the health of poor farmers. A loss of genetic diversity could lead to a rise in malnutrition.

The Green Revolution was built on monoculture. Was it a mistake?
I would not say it was a mistake but I would say it is not always the right solution in the long term.

The Green Revolution did increase yields and in India the population was growing fast so they needed more food. The problem is productivity is decreasing now. Modern seed varieties require levels of pesticides and fertilizers which degrade the soil and the water supply over time.

Now governments and agribusiness are talking about the need for a second Green Revolution. Where commercial returns are at stake people don’t learn from history.

Could genetically modified foods provide that second green revolution?
I’m against these claims that GM crops are going to solve the world’s hunger problems because the people developing them have generally never spoken to a poor and hungry farmer. Seed companies’ priority is making money.

If GM crops were produced with the people who need them and who will plant them, and they are specifically addressing their needs, then maybe they can be helpful.

But some GM crops need very specific, uniform conditions. The point about traditional crops is that these varieties are locally adapted and in tune with their local environment. So they don’t need so many external inputs like fertilizers or very fertile land, or lots of water.

Are GMOs now replacing traditional seed varieties?
GMOs are only a small part of it. The seed industry is generally developing hybrids, not GMOs.

The amount of land for traditional farming is reducing. It does not make a big tax return for governments, so they don’t support it. Small-scale farming is being taken over by industrial farming, by biofuels production, by mining.

Our concern is expanding plant breeders’ intellectual property rights which undermine the rights of farmers to maintain genetic diversity. Plant breeders often use farmers’ traditional varieties to develop their commercial seeds, yet the farmers get no benefits. There is very little legal recognition of the rights of farmers over their seeds. Manufacturers of modern seeds, by contrast, have exclusive rights for 15 to 18 years.

That is a big problem for traditional farmers because it is almost impossible for them to reuse protected seeds. They must buy new seeds every season, which is expensive. Also, modern seeds are subsidized by governments so that is undermining traditional varieties.

We need to recognize farmers’ rights to maintain genetic diversity. We also need to protect land rights, cultural and spiritual values, and customary laws. Traditional knowledge is dependent on genetic diversity and vice versa and those two are dependent on farmers having rights to land and plant varieties.

Could traditional farmers really feed rising populations in a warming world?
Yes we can feed a rising population and there are technologies based on traditional seed varieties that can increase yields.

Perhaps we need more partnerships between farmers and plant breeders. In southwest China, maize farmers affected by climate change want to improve crop varieties more quickly than they can traditionally. They are partnering with plant breeders who need traditional seed varieties.

Rather than the usual process whereby plant breeders obtain traditional varieties and the farmers get nothing, here breeders are giving farmers a share of the benefits. This “participatory plant breeding” combines traditional varieties and knowledge with modern expertise.

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