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Can Genetically Modified Food Feed the World?

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Hand holding raw rice
Bertrand Demee/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images
Updated May 28, 2014

One of the main benefits that advocates of genetically modified (GM) food have promoted is its ability to help alleviate world hunger. In 2011, 160 million hectares of biotech crops were grown—that's 10% of earth's arable land and it was an 8% increase than the previous year. The growth of biotech crops is the fastest growth segment in agriculture. While much of these crops are used for animal feed and biofuel, much of it also makes its way directly into a majority of processed foods sold in America and Asia. You can find more information about how the GM food market developed in the related, "Genetically Modified Food: How Did We Get Here?" article. However, despite all the commercial success of GM crops, have they made a significant impact on world hunger?

What's driving the GM Food Revolution?

The first GM food, the Flavr-Savr Tomato, reduced the cost to produce canned tomato products about 20% and numerous studies have shown an economic benefit for farmers planting GM crops. Even livestock can be raised less expensively, using feed made from GM crops as evidenced by the recent change in EU policy to help struggling farmers. Also, faster growth rates resulting in cheaper fish production is the main benefit touted for the AquaBounty salmon that may become the first GM animal approved to be sold as food.

It's clear genetically engineered traits that make plants and animals more resistant to disease, stay ripe longer, and grow more robustly in a variety of conditions are effective in reducing costs and providing economic benefits to food producers. Of course, the companies, such as Monsanto, Syngenta, and Aventis, that produce GM crops also rake in profits, and opportunities for smaller start-up biotech companies, such as a AquaBounty and Artic Apples abound. Clearly, there are good economic incentives for GM food development and production that drive development of these genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Are GM Crops Helping to Feed More People?

Since they are cheaper to grow, increase yields, and extend the time food remains edible, it seems reasonable that GM plants should provide more food to a hungry world. However, it is not clear this is panning out as may have been naively anticipated several years ago. The countries that could benefit most from genetic engineering have actually benefited the least. A 2008 Science article, "Agriculture at a Crossroads" noted that, "The potential of GM crops to serve the needs of the subsistence farmer is recognized, but this potential remains unfulfilled. No conclusive evidence was found that GM crops have so far offered solutions to the broader socioeconomic dilemmas faced by developing countries."

Politics v. Research and Distribution

Much of the inability of GM technology to provide relief for the poorest nations seems to have less to do with the technology and more with social and political issues. Many of the poorest countries most strongly affected by famine, such as many Africa nations, have set up onerous regulations that prevent the growth and import of GM food and crops. Much of this resistance seems to be prompted by groups such as the African Center for Biosafety and SAFeAGE, and also from international relationships with Europe which has tight restrictions on GM food. In addition, and partially as a result of the political and social situation, groups, such as HarvestPlus, that focus on research and development crops and farming techniques to address third world hunger specifically avoid genetic engineering as a method to improve plants.

Anti-GM sentiment, though, is not the only reason it has failed to benefit the poorest nations. From the commercial side, major crop development companies use genetic engineering primarily to improve large cash crops with the most potential for profits, such as corn, cotton, soy, and wheat with. Little investment is put into crops, such as cassava, sorghum, millet, etc. which are more relevant for cultivation in poor nations. The economic incentive to develop the sort of GM crops that would help small poor farmers in third world nations is small since the financial returns would be modest. Of course, anti-GM sentiment does nothing to ameliorate this bias.

Can Genetic Engineering Help Solve World Hunger?

OK, so let's just say it, the main driver pushing the development of GM crops is profits. Big agricultural companies, farmers, and food producers all want to make more money. These entities have benefited most from GM crops and this incentive has certainly been helping move forward the development of the technology. Some might even say it is way it is supposed to work—capitalism driving innovation. That's a different debate, though, and profit-driven efforts certainly don't negate the possibility that the technology can also be applied to benefit society at large by reducing world hunger. However, it also doesn't mean it will.

In fact, though, genetic engineering is a powerful tool for improving food production. There is no faster way to produce animals and plants with specific beneficial traits and, as we learn more about the genetics, many more modifications will become possible. While this may scare many, the potential is also enormous and clearly could play a role to improve the situation for the poorest in the world.

Frankly, at this point, there is no question whether to apply genetic engineering toward improving crops for food consumption. Genetic modification is already part of the crop improvement tool box. The real question is if, in addition to helping make many wealthier in the industrialized work, this advanced technology provides part of the solution to help improve the lot of the poorest regions of the world. Applying this technology to safely and effectively solve the problems of third world hunger, though, would require reasonable engagement and coordination from a variety political and social groups, and that, may be too much to hope for.

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