The debate on whether genetically modified organisms (GMOs) will be the source of the next healthcare and agricultural revolution or the next great technological threat to the wellbeing of humans and the environment rages on. The purpose of this post is not to attempt to support either side of that argument, but to attack one of the particular talking points of the “pro-GMO” side. Backers of genetically modified organisms, particularly those created for agricultural purposes, claim that this technology is necessary in order to solve the problem of world hunger and that is simply not true.
It is easier for the well-fed powerful populations of the world to see the fact that some people go hungry as a problem that can be fixed with whatever technological innovations can be used to increase food production. Unfortunately, our current technologically advanced food production system favors delivering highly preferred food items to the wealthy rather than making sure there is enough, though possibly less-preferred, food so everybody gets enough to eat. Two obvious examples of this are that 76% of corn produced in the US is used for animal feed or biofuels rather than direct human consumption (Foley 5-Mar-2013) and that the overwhelming majority of Peruvian anchovetas caught are rendered into fish meal and fish oil, which are used to feed farmed salmon and tuna, as well as land-based livestock, rather than sold as healthy, high-protein human food (Briceno and Bajak 4-Feb-2013). Both of these practices result in a smaller food supply, but in greater industrial profits. According to Joshua Muldavin, a geography professor at Sarah Lawrence College, currently roughly three times as much food is produced as is required to feed the Earth’s human population (Koba 22-Jul-2013), suggesting that the solution to world hunger would be to change how food is distributed, rather than trying to produce more food. Food distribution depends on the amounts of money and power held by different populations. (Kent 1997). Accordingly, feeding the hungry depends more upon giving the hungry greater amounts of money and political power, so that they may access available and abundant food and less upon creating more stockpiles of unevenly distributed food.
The relevant question about the effect of GMOs on world hunger is not, “Do GMOs increase food production?” but rather, “Do GMOs increase poor people’s access to food?” While some GMO products, like the widely touted Bt brinjal eggplant may increase access to food in developing countries, at least until the brinjal fruit and shoot borers develop resistance to Bt, other GMO plants may be a threat to the self-sufficiency of poor farmers. While humanitarian efforts like Bt brinjal and golden rice get a great deal of media attention, the bulk of genetic engineering focuses on the for-profit efforts to create corn, soybeans, and cotton that either make their own pesticides or allow farmers to use more herbicides (Klümper and Quaim 2014). Biotech companies hold enforceable patents on the seeds of these plants and use these to prohibit farmers from saving the seeds of this year’s harvest to plant next year’s crop (http://www.monsanto.com/newsviews/pages/why-does-monsanto-sue-farmers-who-save-seeds.aspx accessed 4-May-2015). Control of the seeds, not only deprives farmers of a right they have had since the invention of agriculture, but it also increases the dependence of farmers in developing countries on corporations in developed countries. Denying farmers the ability to use the seeds from plants they have grown makes subsistence farmers into sharecroppers working for the large multinational companies that have produced “better” seeds.
People genuinely committed to feeding the hungry will have to look beyond any form of technology for solutions. Fortunately for all of us, those solutions do exist.
The first world should stop supporting commodity prices. Price supports in the first world depress prices in the third world and prevent poor countries from ‘exporting their way out of debt’. As privileged members of the first world we can work for improved civil rights in developing countries so people do not have to fear that their earnings or their land will be stolen by local thugs, corrupt government officials, or foreign corporations. We can try to encourage investment that builds society’s capacity, and avoid investment that extracts resources at less than competitive rates.
Finally, I would like to ask all of the bright plant biologists and molecular geneticists out there to think about the best way to use your skills. Eradicating hunger and poverty is a laudable goal and I applaud you for your efforts. I would hope, however, that those of you involved in plant science will try to focus your research on paths that will provide more low cost food for the hungry and malnourished rather than focusing on creating expensive protein and animal feed that may only enrich certain corporations rather than solve the problem of hunger.
Briceno F and Bajak F. 4-Feb-2013. “Pervuian Anchovy Overfishing Raises Concerns About Food Security”. Associated Press. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/04/peruvian-anchovy-overfishing_n_2618275.html
Cohen L. 29-Jul-2013. “Mexico’s Poverty Rate: Half Of Country’s Populations Lives in Poverty”. Reuters. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/29/mexico-poverty_n_3673568.html
Foley J. 5-Mar-2013. “It’s Time to Rethink America’s Corn System”. Scientific American. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/time-to-rethink-corn/
Kent G. 1997. Fisheries, food security, and the poor. Food Policy 22(5), 393-404 Kent1997
Klümper W and Qaim M. 2014. A Meta-Analysis of the Impacts of Genetically Modified Crops. PLoS One 9(11) KlumperanQaim
Koba M. 22-Jul-2013. “A hungry world: Lots of food, in too few places”. CNBC. http://www.cnbc.com/id/100893540
Monsanto. “¿Por qué Monsanto demanda a campesinos que guardan las semillas? http://www.monsanto.com.mx/demanda3.htm (accessed 4-May-2015)
Monsanto. “Why does Monsanto sue farmers who save seeds?” http://www.monsanto.com/newsviews/pages/why-does-monsanto-sue-farmers-who-save-seeds.aspx (accessed 4-May-2015)
 Monsanto also appears to be reserving the right to sue farmers in developing countries for seed-saving, at least according to their Mexico website (http://www.monsanto.com.mx/demanda3.htm accessed 4-May-2015). It’s worth noting that 45.5% of Mexicans live below the poverty line (Cohen 29-Jul-2013).
 Somewhat paradoxically there might be fewer hungry people if rich countries produced less of certain types of food.