Conservation Group Calls for GMO Moratorium

Genetically modified crops may exacerbate environmental and social problems.

The director general of the World Conservation Union (IUCN), a leading global conservation organization, issued a notice to the group’s members in December reaffirming a call for a moratorium on genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The message from IUCN head Ibrahim Thiaw urges governments and businesses to take a precautionary approach to GMOs until the safety of the organisms can be assured “beyond reasonable doubt.” The group, of which the Worldwatch Institute is a member, is concerned about the potential negative consequences of GMO use, including biodiversity loss and the emergence of pests and weeds that are resistant to controls.

Proponents of GMOs argue that the altered organisms have the potential to solve a wide range of medical, energy, and food security challenges. But according to Worldwatch researcher Brian Halweil, their use can also exacerbate already serious agricultural concerns. In 1997, testing in Canada confirmed that an herbicide-tolerant GMO crop “escaped” from its plot and cross-pollinated with a related weed species. Other similar examples have emerged since then. The uncontrolled spread of GMOs could create problems for farmers and also lead to biodiversity loss if wild plants become poisonous to predators that depend on them. The dominance of a single GMO hybrid in a once diverse array of vegetation could affect the food chain and eventually the entire ecosystem, Halweil notes.

Besides potential biological problems, genetically modified crops can increase farmers’ debt and dependency. Because agricultural biotechnology companies place strict patents on their GMOs, farmers are prohibited from breeding the altered seeds, trading them, and even from saving them from one year to the next. As such, growers are forced to buy new seed from manufacturers every year. This is particularly detrimental to farmers in the developing world, who have traditionally depended on seed saving to sustain their livelihoods.

According to Halweil, sustainable alternatives to GMOs do exist and can be used to tackle common problems at considerably lower cost. In Africa, for example, farmers have long struggled with the rampant striga weed, whose roots attack those of nearby crops and steal their water and nutrients. GMO proponents argue the solution to this problem is to engineer staple crops that are resistant to herbicides, and then to apply strong doses of herbicides to the fields, killing the weed and preserving the crops. Local farmers, however, know that striga is a problem only in fields where the soil is depleted of nutrients. When farmers have the freedom to let their fields lie fallow or to grow nitrogen-fixing plants, the weed is effectively fought off in a natural manner that requires little-to-no capital, Halweil says.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.