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Beyond Food Philosophy: A Response to The Washington Post

The following post, written by Peter Gubbels, is a response to the recent Washington Post article: “Why everyone who is sure about a food philosophy is wrong”. Peter is Groundswell International’s Director of Action Learning and Advocacy in West Africa. 

I would agree there are blatantly polemical, entrenched positions being taken on both sides of the GMO debate. In my perspective, the evidence on the effects of GMOs on health depends on the type of GMO. The so-called “Golden rice” and GM papaya, or GM bio-fortified crops are not as likely to have health risks compared to Bt corn or BT soy. Personally, however, if there is enough Bt toxin in corn to kill insects that eat it, I would prefer to avoid eating that corn, which is why I support labeling products that contain GMOs. While there is (for now) no long-term compelling evidence that GMOs directly cause certain types of disease, I fear the possibility of long term accumulated effects. Most of all, given the huge financial interests of the agribusinesses that produce GMO seeds, I do not trust their pronouncements. When billions of profits are involved, these corporations are likely to act in the same way as the tobacco companies did, and exert as much political influence as they can to promote their products.

But that is my own personal perspective on the health risks. When I talk about GMOs, I do not use this as an argument. Instead, my deep concerns about GMOs is on their impact on small-scale family farmers, corporate control over food, seeds and farming systems. GMOs are designed primarily to foster large scale, industrial approaches to agriculture, including dependence on external agrochemicals, including fertilizers. This approach clearly undermines the livelihoods of small scale farmers across the globe, who currently produce an estimated 70% of all human food consumption. Industrial agriculture undermines seed diversity, creates pollution, harms the environment. It detracts from efforts by farmers to adapt to climate change. These, in my estimation, are the far more immediate drawbacks of GMOs.

There may be some types of GMOs that may be beneficial. But given the enormous political influence and interests of biotech companies, compared to the voices of those of us arguing for the alternative approach of diversified, climate resilience, eco-friendly sustainable agriculture, (i.e. agroecology), I do not agree with the argument that the two can easily co-exist, and “can’t we just learn how to get along.” It is not an equal playing field….or farm field. Let’s be clear. Global Biotech companies want to expand their sales, profits and control. At the risk of sound “dogmatic” there is compelling evidence that this is not in the best interests of small scale family farmers, or food security, or reducing hunger. Increased profits for Monsanto does not mean global hunger or malnutrition is going to be reduced.

For these reasons, I don’t agree with some of the arguments being made in this article. The author juxtaposes “organic” with GMO, which is very misleading, because “agro-ecological farming” is ignored. I also disagree with the statement that “whatever the type of agriculture, there is going to be some (negative) environmental impact”. Agroecology can regenerate biodiversity and natural resource base, especially soil, while producing increased food.


Peter Gubbels, Groundswell’s Director of Action Learning and Advocacy, has spent the last 34 years working to strengthen the leadership and organization of rural communities to address the issues affecting their lives. For the last 23 years, Peter has lived in northern Ghana. 

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One comment

  • Steve August 6, 2015   Reply →

    Peter, thank you for writing this! I largely agree with everything your arguments. Nevertheless, I would like to further emphasize your point about the social effects of GMOs — a concern that is often overlooked or downplayed. If biotechnology companies and universities were genuinely interested in “feeding the world”, then they would not seek to patent GMOs seeds, but rather they would make them a free, open-sourced technology — not unlike the original crop germplasm with which they work (and claim legal ownership after a relatively minor genetic contribution). Taking seeds, and thus food, out of the public domain and placing it into private hands sets a very dangerous precedent!

    Beyond all of this lays a simple fact: the limitations to production in most smallholder areas is not due to a lack of GMO seed. As per Groundswell’s work across the planet, good agronomy (i.e., soil, seed, and water management) is far more proven and cost effective and far less risky than GMOs, so why are we even having this discussion!

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