Feeding the planet: is genetic modification part of the solution?

SSCP-DTP student Rogier Hintzen considers the role of genetically modified crops in eradicating hunger.

Global food production seems to be doing rather well on the surface. With the world’s population breaching the 7 billion mark, undernourishment rates have fallen in line with the Millennium Development Goals (soon to be replaced by the Sustainable Development Goals, to be finalised later this week in New York).

However, 1 in every 9 people are described as ‘hungry’, a number which masks striking regional variation. The associated mortality incurred by undernourishment is more pronounced than HIV, tuberculosis and malaria combined. Clearly there is further headway to be made. With FAO reports showing that on the one hand we produce enough food globally to lift everyone out of hunger and on the other that there are large yield shortfalls (e.g. 76% in Sub-Saharan Africa, where 1 in 4 people are classified as hungry), it seems there must be a solution within reach.

Agriculture under pressure

Unfortunately, the costs of increased food production have had pronounced effects on the health of the biotic world and the spectre of a Malthusian overshoot looms large again. There is evidence that the scale of disturbance caused by the expansion and intensification of agricultural practices have caused us to breach important thresholds in the Planetary Boundaries Framework.

This brings many troubling questions to the fore: can ecosystems continue to function in an increasingly degraded and fragmented world? Can soils maintain their biotic and structural integrity under harsh industrial-scale farming and unsustainable levels of fertiliser input? Are currently productive agricultural lands likely to remain so under projected climate change scenarios?

We have a whole suite of tools at our disposal for improving agricultural technologies to mitigate the problems mentioned above and adapt to inevitable changes when they do occur. Advanced breeding programmes have allowed the transfer of whole regions of DNA that confer innovative flood tolerance characters from wild races of rice to high-yielding agricultural varieties, however these same techniques find it difficult to increase rice’s nutritional value. Techniques that discourage monocultures (e.g. multiple cropping or agroecology) can result in sustainable nutrient cycling and a nutritionally diverse food supply but regional idiosyncrasies make techniques difficult to generalise and the practice is difficult to scale industrially.

GM: friend or foe?

Genetically Modified (GM) organisms have the potential to contribute to the solution but face fierce criticism from both the public and the NGO community. Stemming from an ‘appeal to nature’, fears over potentially negative health impacts are embodied in recent poll results that show a greater discrepancy between scientific and public opinion over this issue than any other without much evidence to back the cynicism.

NGOs such as Greenpeace oppose it on the grounds that GM organisms could have unpredictable effects on biodiversity and ecosystem function outside the area they are planted. This situation has not been helped by the monopoly of multinationals, such as Monsanto, on the very few GM crops on the market. In the pursuit of exclusivity, customer fidelity and return-on-investment, they have engaged in morally dubious business tactics that invite criticism and cast an unfavourable light on genetic modification as a tool to alleviate human suffering.

The Green Revolution in the mid 20th century was the last time we radically innovated our agricultural techniques as an international community. GM crops have the potential to help do so again. Previous attempts, such as Golden Rice, which could save hundreds of thousands of children from blindness in South-East Asia each year, have been unfairly hamstrung. Complex but innovative solutions, such as the incorporation of nitrogen fixing biology into contemporary crops that could drastically reduce our fertiliser requirements, need international scientific collusion but struggle to get out of the starting blocks.

With the European Union now open to the idea of GM crops, the tide may changing. Genetically modifying organisms is by no means a silver bullet for managing global food and biodiversity crises, but if we properly assess the problems and opportunities associated with their global uptake they can be part of a sustainable solution.

Read about Rogier’s research

3 thoughts on “Feeding the planet: is genetic modification part of the solution?

  1. Can you comment on whether GM crops are able to attain any higher yields (per unit of land, or per unit of energy input) than small scale organic farming?

    I remember reading that the small scale farms of Japan, where each farmer knows his land and how to cycle crops optionally are vastly more productive than the monolithic energy-to-food conversion farming in the USA.

    Do we need GM, or just to relearn the art of farming?

    1. Indeed, we need to re-learn the art of farming, not to mention better NGOs (international) able to transfer knowledge to peasant farmers, gratis, around the world.

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