Anna Lappe’s Letter to Oxfam

posted February 27, 2009

As so often happens, this comes to us via comfood. And is worth re-posting.   janeaynscombebowloffruit

Ray Offenheiser
Oxfam America
sent via e-mail

February 8, 2009

Dear Ray,

I started writing this letter in response to the panel lineup that Oxfam is co-sponsoring this month at the Asia Society, “The Global Food Crisis: Time for Another Green Revolution?” Since I first found out about the panel, I have learned that Oxfam has changed the speakers and created a more diverse representation of voices. I am very pleased to hear that. Still, I thought it important to share with you how stunned I was about the initial proposed panel.

I was surprised to see that Oxfam, which internationally has been outspoken about the limitations of agricultural biotechnology,[i] would co-sponsor the original panel without bringing to the table a diversity of opinions. I understand that different Oxfam affiliates have different stances and strategies, but this is such an important issue that I would expect Oxfam International to have a strong and clear position on the need to provide clear and comprehensive information about agricultural biotechnology.

I have been working for the past year on a book about climate change and the food system-both how our global industrial food system has become such a major contributor to the global warming effect and how the sustainable food movements offer such powerful potential for mitigation of, and adaption to, the worst impacts of climate change. I didn’t think my book was going to include a significant discussion of agricultural biotechnology until I started becoming aware of the multi-million dollar public relations campaigns by industry to position this technology as a key solution to addressing global warming’s effect. From exhibits at the American Natural History Museum to full-page ads in The New Yorker, the latest promise from industry is being broadcast loud-and-clear: agricultural biotechnology is allegedly going to help end hunger and offer drought-resistant crops and flood-resilient rice.

There’s only one problem with this PR spin: There is no reason to believe these companies will deliver on such a promise. Everything we know about what the industry has delivered to date, and what we can predict will come of these promises, raises more questions than answers. I would have thought Oxfam America would be fully aware of the political, social, and ecological complexity of this issue and would have curated an event that conveyed such perspective.

Here are some of the important points I have learned about the biotechnology industry:

· False promises about stress-tolerance: Consider these words from biotech expert, Professor Jack Heinemann at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand: “All stress-tolerant GMOs-like drought-resistant and flood resilient varietals-remain only promises, not products, despite a dozen years of commercial GM agriculture and over twenty-five years of research.” Jack Heinemann is an expert on gene ecology and one of the hundreds of scientists involved with drafting the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD).[ii]

· Agricultural biotech is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of genetics: The “central dogma” of molecular biology on which the biotech industry’s technology rests is based on a flawed and simplistic interpretation of the nature of DNA, RNA, and protein. The technology is highly unpredictable and hard to control, precisely because of the way that RNA and DNA actually work. “Despite a third of a century and more than $350 billion dollars invested in the trinket, a hurricane remains more predictable, and a wildfire remains more controllable than GMO organisms,” says UC Berkeley Professor Ignacio Chapela.[iii]

· Scientific consensus on a biotech critique: In its assessment of agricultural biotechnology, the IAASTD stated that “the technology lags behind its development, information is anecdotal and contradictory, and uncertainty about possible benefits and damage is unavoidable.”[iv] The result of four years of work by hundreds of authors and peer-reviewers, the IAASTD is a powerful call for more sustainable methods.

· Proven yield drag with biotech crops: Despite claims that biotech will help feed the hungry, researchers are finding evidence of “yield drag” in fields planted with biotech crops. Some are now wondering if this yield drag might be due in part to Bt toxins engineered into these crops which can accumulate and remain active in the soil. Researchers are now exploring whether these toxins may be disturbing soil microorganisms, abundant in healthy soil and fundamental for soil fertility.[v],[vi]

· Rise of super pests: Another concern with this technology is that biotech crops have proven to be fostering a rise of “super pests,” causing alarm in agricultural communities that have witnessed them to date. One survey of 481 cotton growers in China found that while pesticide use dropped in the first years of GM production, seven years later farmers were using use just as much pesticide as they had with conventional crops. All the benefits the farmers saw in the first years have been lost, according to the Cornell researchers, largely because of the rise of pests not formerly considered a problem for cotton.[vii]

· Proven genetic contamination: From the birthplace of corn in Mexico to countries around the world, and even our own nation’s supermarket shelves, we have seen the contamination of non-GM crops with genetically modified varieties, causing serious concern about the genetic integrity of our global food system.[viii]

· Impact on biodiversity of flora and fauna: Finally, we know that GM crops reduce flora and fauna biodiversity. In one study in the UK, the spraying of herbicide on these crop fields significantly reduced farmland biodiversity, creating a cascade effect: Fewer pollinators meant less production of insect-pollinated weeds, meant even less biodiversity… and so on.[ix]

These are just a handful of examples of what we already know about this technology, and of the false promises we’ve heard from the industry to date. We also know that sustainable agro-ecological practices can provide enough food to feed the planet.[x] We need not buy the biotech industry’s scarcity scare tactic. Furthermore, we have substantial evidence from some of the most drought-prone regions of the world that ecological practices can outperform industrial agriculture, without the costly inputs.[xi]

We live in an urgent era. Now is not the time for diversions and missteps. Agricultural biotechnology has proven to be a grave diversion of billions in research dollars and countless hours of study focused on a flawed technology, which is leading to a cascade of realized and potential unintended consequences.

The original formulation of this panel would only have further perpetuated the myth that there is no alternative, when that alternative is alive and well and incredibly hopeful. I know that the panel has already been diversified, but I think that it still is important to underscore the role that Oxfam can play in holding up the value of these sustainable practices, particularly in the face of escalating climate change.

You and I have never met, but for years I have been an admirer-from-a-distance of your organization and have had many dear friends who have worked there. All the more reason I was so dismayed that such a biased panel would have originally been organized by Oxfam America. I hope that Oxfam International will soon clarify its stance on agricultural biotechnology, and that Oxfam America can begin actively supporting and promoting agricultural alternatives such as those clearly described and documented in the IAASTD. As I’m sure many others have suggested, I would be happy to provide names of the scientists and agronomists whose opinion I have come to trust in this field who could continue providing your organization a diversity of opinions on this critical issue.


Anna Lappe


[i] Geoffrey Lean, “GM Food Will Not Ease Hunger,” The Independent-UK, November 12 2002.

[ii] See for example, Denise Caruso, Intervention: Confronting the Real Risks of Genetic Engineering and Life on a Biotech Planet (San Francisco, Calif.: Hybrid Vigor Institute, 2006).

[iii] Academic Senate of the University of California, Berkeley Division, Things are Often Not what they Appear, March 8 2007.

[iv] David Adam, “GM Will Not Solve Current Food Crisis, Says Industry Boss,” The Guardian-UK, June 27 2008.

[v] A Turrini, C Sbrana, and M Giovannetti, “Experimental Systems to Monitor the Impact of Transgenic Corn on Keystone Soil Microorganisms” (paper presented at the IFOAM Organic World Congress, Modena, Italy, June 16-20 2008).

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Steve Connor, “Farmers Use As Much Pesticide with GM Crops, US Study Finds,” The Independent-UK, July 27 2006.

[viii] Ignacio Chapela and David Quist, “Transgenic DNA introgressed into traditional maize landraces in Oaxaca, Mexico,” Nature 414 (2001).

[ix] Suzanne J Clark, Peter Rothery, and Joe N Perry, “Farm Scale Evaluations of spring-sown genetically modified herbicide-tolerant crops: a statistical assessment,” Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences 358, no. 1439 (2003).

[x] Catherine Badgley et al., “Organic Agriculture and the Global Food Supply,” Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems 22 (2007).

[xi] Sue Edwards et al., “The Impact of Compost Use on Crop Yields in Tigray, Ethiopia, 2000-2006 inclusive,” (Rome: UNFAO, 2008).