2nd Opinion Piece: Genetically modified organisms in agriculture – the arguments AGAINST

28 September 2011
ITC News


Innovative agri-ecological solutions – how organic farming shows the way

The challenge of achieving food security is not so much a matter of producing more food but rather of improving access to what is already being produced and incorporating modern technologies into agri-ecological farming systems to improve livelihoods in rural areas – in a sustainable way. Organic farming, mistakenly believed by some policymakers and scientists as lacking innovativeness, offers many advantages. Progress in biological-molecular, nanotech, information, robot, GPS and sensor sciences must also be taken into account.

In feeding more people it is vital to dramatically reduce the degradation and irretrievable loss of ecosystem services and to respond to the imminent scarcity of energy and non-renewable raw materials like phosphorous. The goal is best pursued through high nature value (HNV) agriculture. HNV recognizes that certain types of farming – typically low-intensity, low-input farming systems, often with high structural diversity – are extremely valuable for biodiversity. Organic farming has been the best example of such a concept and has been proven manageable by 1.8 million farmers on all continents.1  

The 2008 International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) report also advances agri-ecology as a solution for food insecurity and not technologies like genetic engineering.2 Additionally, a multi-disciplinary group of leading scientists warned in 2009 that modern agriculture and the load it places on the environment might threaten the very stability of the planet.3

People should not be going hungry anywhere in the world as sufficient amounts of food are already being produced. There are political, economic and social obstacles in the way of enabling satisfactory access to this food. The solutions lie with political and economic leaders and organizations. There is also a responsibility at the people’s level with farming systems marshalling natural, human and social capital in rural communities that are more powerful than expensive technologies for increasing yields. The 2008 study by the United Nations Environment Programme and United Nations Conference on Trade and Development in Africa gathered data from 1.9 million farmers on 2 million hectares of land documenting how effective organic and near organic farming is for improving livelihoods and access to food.4

Genetic engineering is meant to be a powerful tool for plant breeding. Doubts have been raised about the extent of yield increases achieved by the use of genetically modified plants. Traditional breeding methods have been equally successful in addressing complex goals, such as how to best cope with environmental change and water, phosphorous and nitrogen scarcity. Whether the genetic modification of plants is really a macro-economically efficient solution, and whether or not it creates unintended externalities for the environment, social coherence and human health, are still controversial, even in the scientific community.

At the moment, no-till cropping systems with GMO crops are promoted to be the most advanced solution to reduce soil erosion and mitigate climate change. Crops like canola, soybean, cotton, corn or sugar beet are genetically modified to prevent harm by total herbicides so that no soil tillage is needed. This technique is recommended by many Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), EU and national government policy papers. However, this practice excludes many agri-ecological techniques such as more diverse crop sequences, the integration of nitrogen-fixing legumes, the recycling of organic matter and nutrients from livestock systems, and the use of urban compost. These techniques are recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2007 agricultural report for mitigating climate change.5

Rather than simple technology fixes, innovative agri-ecological solutions focussing on resilient farms are more promising in addressing the future challenges of securing food production. I am convinced that modern and further developed organic farming systems will offer powerful solutions for farmers and will become a high priority on the agenda of national and international agricultural policy.  


Urs Niggli is also Honorary Professor for Research Management in International Agriculture at Kassel University, Germany.

1 Willer, H. and Kilcher, L. (Eds.) (2011), The World of Organic Agriculture - Statistics and Emerging Trends 2011, IFOAM, Bonn, and FiBL, Frick.

2 Reports from the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) (2008), www.agassessment.org 

3 Rockström et al., (2009), ‘A safe operating space for humanity’, Nature 461, 472-475 (24 September 2009) | doi:10.1038/461472a; published online 23 September 2009.

4 UNEP-UNCTAD Capacity-building Task Force on Trade, Environment and Development (2008), Organic Agriculture and Food Security in Africa., www.unctad.org/en/docs/ditcted200715_en.pdf .

5 Smith, P., D. Martino, Z. Cai, D. Gwary, H. Janzen, P. Kumar, B. McCarl, S. Ogle, F. O’Mara, C. Rice, B. Scholes, O. Sirotenko (2007), ‘Agriculture’, in Climate Change (2007): Mitigation. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Metz, B., Davidson, O.R., Bosch, P.R., Dave, R., Meyer, L.A. (eds)], Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA. Available at www.ipcc-wg3.de/publications/assessment-reports/ar4/.files-ar4/Chapter08.pdf/view .