The Upside of Frankenfood: Can GM Crops Reduce Global Food Insecurity?

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There are valid concerns about genetically modified agriculture, but it's worth balancing those against the needs of a hungry world.

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A Zimbabwean subsistence farmer, stacks her crop of maize in Chivi. / Reuters

Last month, when I summarized the views of Calestous Juma, professor of the practice of international development at Harvard, on the potential of genetically modified crops to improve Africa's agricultural productivity, many reader comments complained that the post was one-sided -- a valid criticism -- so today I thought I would look at this topic again.

My own thoughts on GM crops are influenced by the reality that by 2050, the world will likely have another two billion mouths to feed and face an estimated 70 percent increase in global food demand. We need another Green Revolution to increase agricultural productivity, especially in Africa, and we should pursue a variety of approaches to meet that challenge. Undoubtedly, these approaches should include better farmer training and improved fertilization and irrigation, especially given that less than 4 percent of sub-Saharan African farmland is currently irrigated, versus 40 percent in Asia. A recent report from the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change proposes a thoughtful multi-pronged strategy to increase food production, including enhancing populations' resilience to climate change and raising investment in sustainable farming. Solutions should also include waste reduction: Western consumers throw away roughly a third of the food that is produced, and in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia, around a third of food produced ends up rotting due to inadequate transportation and storage. However, we would be remiss if we do not include GM crops in the toolkit.

Fearing adverse health consequences, critics refer to GM crops as "Frankenfood," but years of studies have not demonstrated any harmful effects. A 2010 report from the European Commission--a body not known to be friendly to GM agriculture--summarizes a decade of large-scale government-funded studies, concluding that "biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies." Of course, no studies have proven that GM agriculture is NOT harmful, which is the measure of proof that some opponents of GM require. But with hundreds of millions of people experiencing food insecurity in the world today, and famine lingering in East Africa and brewing in the western Sahel, it's not my bar. Quoting my colleague Jagdish Bhagwati, I would take the unproven "fears of Frankenstein" over "the inevitability of the Grim Reaper that promises the near certainty of continuing poverty and food crises in poor countries." Emerging research also casts doubt on organic farming to meet the world's food needs in a sustainable way: a recent Nature article suggests that organic farming, under certain conditions (when conventional and organic systems are most comparable), currently produces yields up to a third lower than conventional farming.

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Of course, like most emerging technologies, GM agriculture does have risks, and below I attempt to summarize some of the more pertinent ones:

  •  GM technology is expensive, and farmers can face significant financial hardship in implementing it, particularly in developing countries. As GM agriculture becomes more widespread in the developing world, it is imperative to figure out how to sell and distribute farming technology in ways that are conducive to poverty alleviation. This problem is not dissimilar from the challenge of extending lifesaving pharmaceuticals in a cost-effective way to the developing world.
  •  Linked to the first issue, GM seed companies aggressively protect their intellectual property, a factor that increases costs for poor farmers and could hinder the kind of research and collaboration that would benefit the developing world and the environment.
  • Some studies and experts question how effective GM agriculture really is at increasing crop yields. We need more data and research on this issue.
  • GM agriculture systems like Monsanto's Roundup Ready crops are designed to resist pesticides (e.g. the Roundup pesticide) so that farmers can easily spray to kill weeds without harming their crops. However, in some places, weeds have evolved to resist pesticides, creating costly and difficult problems. If farmers are to prevent pesticide resistance, they need to diversify the kinds of pesticides they use-yet some GM methods actually encourage pesticide dependency. This needs to be avoided.

At the center of criticisms of GM crops are concerns about the role it could play in expanding industrialized farming. After all, the original Green Revolution was not especially "green"-it resulted in deforestation, inefficient water use, and reduced genetic diversity, often at the expense of small farmers, but it also resulted in remarkable productivity increases. As we confront issues of food security in coming decades, GM crops will not be a silver bullet, but in some places it could be an important part of the solution, a solution that must, of course, include other farming systems. While the risks of GM agriculture are not small-and while we must anticipate, mitigate, and continually review these risks-refusing to pursue GM crops at this point would be irresponsible.

In a December Science editorial, Calestous Juma called for African countries to form an "International Institute for Biotechnology" that would bring together entities like government agencies, farmer groups, research institutions, and private sector companies to make biotechnology a positive force for African agriculture. Protecting the interests of and giving voice to the world's poor is essential to implementing GM crops successfully. Organizations like Professor Juma's proposed collaboration could help lead the way forward.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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Isobel Coleman is the Senior Fellow and Director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative and Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at Council on Foreign Relations. She writes at "Democracy in Development."

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