GMO Inside Blog

Debunking GMO Myths: Feeding the World

When sorting out the myths and truths surrounding genetically modified foods, one of the most common arguments you’ll hear is that GMOs are the key to “feeding the world”.

Undoubtedly, the world we are trying to feed is under a lot of stress. The climate is changing. Intensifying weather events, record-breaking temperatures, devastating periods of drought – these issues do not bode so well, especially when talking about food production. To add to the laundry list of problems already plaguing our warming planet, the global population is projected to reach 9.6 billion by the year 2050. Considering these extreme pressures on Planet Earth’s capacity to sustain us, it is clear that avoiding a global food shortage will require creativity and innovation.

Biotechnology companies like Monsanto rely heavily on the claim that genetically modified crops will solve world hunger. Monsanto’s marketing strategy says it all: “Produce more. Conserve more. Improve lives.”

Is genetic engineering really the best solution to feeding the world? Here are a few important factors to consider before putting all of our eggs in biotech’s basket.

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-Tyler Lorenzen, Vice President of Business Development, World Food Processing

1) Genetically modified crops have not shown to dramatically increase yield.

In February, the US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (USDA-ERS) released a report on GMOs, which found no increase in yield potentials for genetically modified crops in the past fifteen years. The report also stated that “yields of herbicide-tolerant or insect-resistant seeds may be occasionally lower than the yields of conventional varieties.”

In 2009, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) published a report titled Failure to Yield, which evaluated the benefits of genetically engineered crops and their supposed ability to feed the world. The report compared the intrinsic and operational yields for insecticide-resistant (Bt) corn and herbicide-tolerant corn and soy to those of conventional crops – “intrinsic” meaning production under best possible conditions and “operational” referring to production under typical environmental stressors like pests and drought. In their study, the Union of Concerned Scientists found that none of the genetically engineered crops increased intrinsic yields, and that both the herbicide-tolerant corn and soy failed to increase operational yields. UCS does not deny the potential role of biotechnology in boosting crop yields down the road, but the report recommends against supporting genetic engineering at the expense of other technologies, some of which have already shown to improve yields at little to no cost to farmers. The report advises a greater dedication of research and development to such technologies, including modern plant breeding and organic and sustainable farming.

2) The majority of GMO crops are not feeding hungry people.

The US is the largest GMO producer in the world, with 70.2 million hectares dedicated to growing soy, corn, cotton, canola, sugar beets, alfalfa, papayas, and squash. Despite the astounding land area used to grow these crops, 40% of US corn goes to fuel, and a majority of US soy is purchased by the animal feed industry. On a global scale, soy, corn, cotton, and canola make up 99% of all GMO crops – with a similarly unbalanced distribution between people, livestock, and non-food industries.

The high volume of GMO crops diverted to animal feed is not necessarily all bad. Christopher Barnett, an economist at Cornell University studying international agriculture and poverty, explained in an interview with NPR that cheap feed crops help drive down the cost of meat in industrializing countries like China and Brazil, providing greater access to high calorie proteins. On the other hand, Barnett also explains that the cheap commodity crops–like corn and soy–are not providing the nutrients that hungry people need. If more corn in the food supply drives down the price of cornmeal, lower income populations will end up purchasing more cornmeal and less of nutrient-rich foods, like produce and dairy. One could also argue that increased meat consumption is not part of a sound solution to food security. Shenggen Fan, director of the International Food Policy Research Institute, describes the need for meat consumption to decrease in order to reduce the impact of high energy and natural resource inputs necessary for meat production.

3) GMO-fueled agriculture is diminishing diversity and sovereignty in our global seed supply. 

Seed diversity plays a pivotal role in securing a stable food system. Greater genetic diversity allows for greater variety in plants’ response to unfavorable conditions, leading to increased stability in crop production. In a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the diversity of crops and seed varieties were identified as “as a key element  in people’s livelihood strategies…crucial to their ability to adapt and survive in unfavourable environmental conditions.”  Seed diversity is intertwined with the importance of seed sovereignty, which harnesses the ability of communities to maintain crop diversity through the saving and exchanging of seeds. By providing a means for preserving cultural heritage and identity, seed sovereignty is especially meaningful in third world farming communities.

With biotechnology companies peddling their patented GMO varieties to the global market, and increasingly in the global south, crop diversity and seed sovereignty are both put at risk

In 1995, the UN estimated that 75% of all agricultural diversity had been eradicated and replaced with “modern”, monocropped varieties. Much of the loss in diversity is attributed to the Green Revolution, when farmers began to plant a smaller selection of high-yielding crops in monocultures – which unfortunately, rules growing practices today. With genetically engineered corn, soy, cotton, and canola taking up the lion’s share of biotechnology’s attention, there is reason for concern that GMO monocultures will continue to expand at the expense of more diverse and better-adapted crop varieties.

In developing countries, seed diversity and seed sovereignty are particularly important, as climate change hits the poorest the hardest. The biotech industry takes special care to market its work with farmers in developing countries – take Monsanto’s Water Efficient Maize in Africa (WEMA), for example. Initially borne out of conventional breeding methods, WEMA has been re-created as a genetically engineered variety, field tests for which are already underway in Mozambique, Tanzania, and Uganda.

But Patricia Muir, a professor in the Botany and Plant Pathology department at Oregon State University, wrote:

Few plant breeding or biotechnology efforts are aimed at helping to enhance properties (agricultural and nutritional) of crops that can be grown in much of Africa, as most such efforts are devoted to private sector, economically lucrative enterprises. Yet the native biodiversity in African crops is a valuable resource that could be utilized to enhance food production there, along with providing access to sustainable agricultural practices, including water harvesting, zero tillagelegume rotations, crop-livestock systems, and so forth.

Overall, genetically engineered seeds have continued to narrow the scope of seed diversity already diminished by the Green Revolution. With increased dependence on a smaller variety of crops, more and more of them genetically engineered and grown in monocultures, other practices like the ones Muir mentions–zero tillage, legume rotations–lose their due value. It doesn’t help that genetically engineered crops are strictly patented and prohibit farmers from saving seed, effectively cutting farmers’ ties with community-powered, regional, sovereign food systems.

Keep in mind: This is just a snapshot of the issues contained within the larger problem of food security. But even with this partial analysis, it is clear that the global puzzle of seed supply, crop production, and food distribution has been a particular challenge, not even taking into account the advent of genetic engineering. How will we feed over 9 billion people? With our finite natural resources, how will we be able to meet these ever-increasing demands on land, water, and energy? The answers aren’t easy, but perhaps we should look to a number of diverse solutions – rather than the singular deliverance promised by biotechnology.

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