Are GM crops necessary? Are they even practical?
A common argument used in support of genetically modified crops is the possibly unfounded assumption that GM crops are needed to mitigate global hunger. In some of the literature that supports this supposition, no effort is made to evaluate whether or not farmers can continue to produce enough food to feed the world without this new technology. For example, one research review (Azadi and Ho, 2009) expresses concern about low productivity in developing nations. In another example, biotechnology giant Monsanto states on its website that “Food production will need to increase exponentially in order to meet population growth” (Monsanto, 2010). They assert that biotechnology is a fundamental facet of increasing yield. The first fundamental question to ask, then, is: Are genetically modified crops necessary in the fight against global hunger?
It is important to differentiate between famine and starvation. Famine is an actual scarcity of food (Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 2011). Starvation, on the other hand, is simply a lack of food intake (Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 2011 [II]). This can be because of famine, or for other reasons. So what are hungry people in the world experiencing now: famine, or another form of starvation? And will this be the same in 50 years?
If global hunger is not caused by scarcity, and is instead a question of unequal food distribution or other avoidable factors, then using genetically modified crop technology for its main purpose—to increase food production—is unnecessary. However, if global hunger is caused simply by famine, then genetically modified crops may be necessary, depending on whether or not there are other ways to increase food production and promote food security in famine conditions. In the latter case, the safety concerns associated with genetically modified crops (which will be mentioned later) would need to be weighed against the technology’s possible benefits.
The amount of food produced globally right now is enough to feed every human being on the planet between 2,640 and 4,380 Calories per day (McIntyre et al., 2009). In India, despite the fact that 21% of the country’s population is undernourished (FAO, 2010), they are the number one producer worldwide in 25 different food commodities, and one of the top three producers of at least another 25 commodities (FAOSTAT, 2011). In addition, the developing world alone produces considerable amounts of food in the form of animal products: For example, 50% of the world’s beef and 59% of the world’s pork are produced by the Third World (Swanepoel et al., 2010). If developing countries produce enough food to feed a large percentage of the world, then clearly they are not suffering from low production, and therefore their hunger is nor caused by famine. Somehow, food is just not being distributed to the hungry.
We are clearly not facing a famine today, but what about the next 50 years? Studies have shown that sustainable agriculture produces sufficient yield to sustain the world’s population at least into the next 50 years (Chaumet et al., 2009). It can produce higher yields than the currently widespread agricultural method known as industrialised agriculture (De Schutter, 2010; Pretty et al., 2006). Sustainable agriculture is generally defined as agriculture that uses methods such as intercropping, integrated pest management, cover-cropping, compost, and other inputs that are less likely to harm the soil and the ecosystems in the area. This as opposed to synthetic pesticides and fertilisers (especially petrochemical-based), monoculture, and other things that depend on petroleum or have been shown to degrade the soil, cause erosion, and destroy ecosystems (McIntyre, 2009).
Transgenic crops are clearly not necessary, but are they a practical way to alleviate global hunger? If GM crops decreased productivity and yield in any way, they would not be practical tools to help increase global food production. In addition, if GM crops created problems for the environment or public health, and other ways of providing food for the entire world didn’t involve the safety and environmental concerns associated with GM crops, then they would not be a practical tool for fighting global hunger.
Genetically modified crops have been shown to have adverse health effects in animal studies. For example, one study (Ewen and Pusztai, 1999) showed that GM potatoes caused precancerous growth in the small intestines of rats. Another study concluded that bedding made from GM corncob created endocrine disruption problems in female rats, and even stimulated breast cancer cell growth (Markaverich et al., 2005). In their review, Pryme and Lembcke (2003, p. 6) found it extraordinary that in several studies, “the experimental conditions were varied and several ways were found by which to demonstrate possible health effects of GM-foods.”
Another problem with GM crops is that they can have harmful effects on ecosystems. For example, transgenes from a virus (used to modify plants) can cause the modified plant to become susceptible to insect viruses that were never found in plants before, like in the study done by Dasgupta, Garcia, and Goodman (2001). GM crops can contaminate and hybridise with wild plants, effecting biodiversity (Warwick et al., 2003). In addition, Crops modified with toxic insecticides can contaminate the soil with the toxins (Accinelli, Screpanti, Vicari, and Catizone, 2003). GM crops also do not necessarily increase production, and can even decrease yield. In several different regions, GM crops were shown to have no yield increase, and in a very large study involving 8000 field trials, GM soybeans had a lower yield (Altiere and Rosset, 2002).
The global population’s food needs today and in the future can be fulfilled by sustainable agricultural practices that increase yield. Therefore, genetically modified crops are not necessary. They can also decrease yield in some circumstances, they pose real health risks for humans, and they have the capacity to be destructive to the environment. Sustainable agriculture does not have the risks associated with genetically modified crops. Hence, genetically modified crops are not the most practical option for alleviating global hunger now or in the next 50 years.
Accinelli, C., Screpanti, C., Vicari, A., & Pietro Catizone. (2003). Influence of insecticidal toxins from Bacillus thuringiensis subsp. kurstaki on the degradation of glyphosate and glufosinate-ammonium in soil samples. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, 103(3), 497-507.
Altiere, M. A., & Rosset, P. (2002). Ten reasons why biotechnology will not ensure food security, protect the environment, or reduce poverty in the developing world. In Sherlock, R., & Morrey, J. D., Ethical issues in biotechnology (pp. 175-182). Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Dasgupta, R., Garcia, B. H. 2nd, & Goodman, R. M. (2001). Systemic spread of an RNA insect virus in plants expressing plant viral movement protein genes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 98(9), 4910-4915.
Ewen, S. W. B., & Pusztai, A. (1999). Effect of diets containing genetically modified potatoes expressing Galanthus nivalis lectin on rat small intestine. The Lancet, 354(9187), 1353-1354
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (2010). Global hunger declining, but still unacceptably high. Retrieved from http://www.fao.org/hunger/en/
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (2011). Food and Agricultural commodities production. Retrieved from http://faostat.fao.org/site/339/default.aspx
Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary. (2011). Famine. Retrieved from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/famine
Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary. (2011 [II]). Starvation. Retrieved from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/starvation
Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique & Agricultural Research for Development. (2009). Agrimonde®: Scenarios and Challenges for Feeding the World in 2050. Paris: Chaumet, J. M., Delpeuch, F., Dorin, B. Ghersi, G., Hubert, B., Le Cotty, T., … Treyer, S.
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Pryme, I. F., & Lembcke, R. (2003). In vivo studies on possible health consequences of genetically modified food and feed – with particular regard to ingredients consisting of genetically modified plant materials. Nutrition and Health, 17, 1-8.
The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA). (2010). The role of livestock in developing communities: Enhancing multifunctionality. Bloemfontein, South Africa: Swanepoel, F., Stroebel, A. and Moyo, S.
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Warwick, S. I., Simard, M. J., Légère, A., Beckie, H. J., Braun, L., Zhu, B., … Stewart, C. N. (2003). Hybridization between transgenic Brassica napus L. and its wild relatives: Brassica rapa L., Raphanus raphanistrum L., Sinapis arvensis L., and Erucastrum gallicum (Willd.) O.E. Schulz. Theoretical Applied Genetics, 107(3), 528-539.
~ by owlcat on 5 November, 2011.