Why GM Crops will not feed the world

Posted on October 26, 2009 at 8:06 pm,

GM Crop cartoon
There’s been a couple of news stories recently concerning genetically modified crops. It seems that there are those advocating that GM crops could be an important element in feeding the world’s population. Of particular note is a report by the Royal Society saying that we should research GM technology and the Government’s chief scientist arguing that GM crops should be grown in Britain.

My response is that GM crops are highly unlikely to be a useful tool in fighting hunger, even in a world with a growing population and a changing climate. Here are a few reasons why.

The first reason is that hunger today is caused primarily by economic factors. There is more than enough food to feed the world’s population. However, the world’s poor do not have access to their fair share of it. Furthermore, in many poor countries the best agricultural land is dedicated to cash crops such as opium, tobacco, or coffee rather than to actual edible foods. Therefore, the most effective way to ensure that everybody gets enough food is to deal with economic inequality and use the prime agricultural land to grow food, and this factor will not change with a growing world population and changes in climate.

A variation on this theme is the issue of meat. It takes several times more land to produce meat and dairy products than it does to produce the equivalent amount of nutrition in other foods. Now, obviously not all the land used for animal grazing is suitable for growing crops but we could feed considerably more people if we reduced the amount of meat in our diet.

The second reason is that there are many effective ways of increasing food yields by simply changing agricultural methods. Programmes such as Foundations for Farming (previously known as “Farming God’s Way”) have massively increased both crop yields and sustainability in the areas where they have been tried (in this case, Southern Africa), and haven’t needed any new crop varieties. By using better crop management techniques such as this one, you can feed far more people without the need for expensive research.

The third reason is that GM crops are heavily tied into conventional Western agricultural methods. The model of having massive fields filled with a single variety of a single crop (the technical term is a monoculture) is very efficient in terms of manpower (as you can mechanise more of the process). However, it is not a very efficient use of land. Multicropping and approaches have been shown to produce greater yields than monocultures. They also have the advantages of needing less fertiliser, and being more resistant to diseases, requiring fewer pesticides. And small farms tend to produce greater yields per acre than large ones.

GM technology also runs the risk of reducing our ability to keep up with a changing climate. By replacing local seed varieties with seeds from a single source, we reduce biodiversity and lose varieties of crops which might actually be better suited to changed conditions without the need for expensive bioengineering techniques.

In addition to this, there is still no actual evidence that GM crops offer increased yields, despite claims by GM companies and advocates that it can “feed the world”. Now, I’m open to the possibility that this is because of the way the technology has been used by biotech companies, rather than being something inherent to the technology. But until evidence for increased yields emerges, claims that GM crops can play any role in feeding an increasing population, or in adapting to a changed climate remains speculative at best.

Finally, if it turns out that I’m wrong and that GM crops can be used as part of the solution, some things need to change. In particular, the technology needs to be in the hands of governments or charities who are intent on creating varieties that meet the needs of poor farmers, rather than in the hands of big businesses, for whom meeting those needs is simply not profitable. Current uses of GM crops require farmers to buy a new set of seeds every year, whilst poor farmers – who are an essential part of feeding the hungry – need to be able to keep back some of their harvest and sow it in the following year. Producing crop varieties like this would be suicidal for a business.

Of course, even if the technology does end up in the right hands, it is at best an expensive and uncertain way to help farmers, and should be a far lower priority than proven methods of better agricultural techniques and attempts to ensure that the best agricultural land is used for food rather than cash crops.


  1. George Samuels
    Posted January 22, 2014 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

    If you didn’t know, much of Africa is infertile and cant have normal plants grown on the land due a lack of water and nutrients. These GM crops will allow poor African families to grow their own food and possibly sell it. This will make Africa more independent and not so reliant on MEDCs (UK, USA). Surely this is a good thing… there is no affect on humans. 20 years of research has shown that there is no affect on the body in any way. There is no difference in taste, if there is then they would taste better. They are just genetically superior, combining all the slightly different natural characteristics of the same species into one.
    natural pesticides are added resulting in less harmful chemicals used on most natural plants. Less fertilisers are needed that could pollute the ground and damage any natural wildlife.
    So before you say that we can just try and spread the food more evenly it would require us having to ship thousands of tonnes worth of food each day which would last a week, tops. meaning that most of it would be mouldy and inedible by the time it reaches some areas. Also it would cost the government billions to transport this food.
    with the whole bio-diversity thing, plants will still be able to adapt. We cant change that. WE cant stop ourselves changing!
    So yes you are wrong. But the problem is in Africa. Not here that is why we should give them all the beneficial things we can: GM crops. Not money to corrupt governments who hold it for themselves as others starve. But by letting them grow their own food. Dependant on themselves only.

  2. Stephen Gray
    Posted January 23, 2014 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

    Hi George

    Whilst there are significant parts of Africa that are infertile (e.g. the Sahara and Sahel), these areas are relatively sparsely inhabited, and there are many areas that are very fertile. The fact that one of Africa’s major industries is cash crops proves that hunger in Africa cannot be blamed solely (and probably not even mostly) on poor quality agricultural land. Furthermore, the only poor African families who do not grow their own food are those living in urban areas, where there is nowhere to grow them. GM crops could only help to solve these problems if they were made cheaply and easily available to poor farmers, which is not going to happen when the technology is developed only by big agribusinesses like Monsanto (as is the case at the moment).

    Your description of what GM crops are is somewhat odd. GM technology basically allows you to insert genes that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. If you wanted to produce the strongest characteristics of an existing species, then it would be more effective to use more traditional methods.

    As for the problems of transporting food, have a look around your local supermarket to see where the food comes from, and you’ll find that a massive proportion of it has been transported here from all over the world (including from many countries with high levels of absolute poverty). We already have a system that’s set up to transport millions of tonnes of food all over the world so that, for example, people in Britain can eat apples grown in New Zealand. Making the economic changes so that that food goes to countries where people are starving, rather than countries where most people are rich, would be perfectly possible if the political will was there.

    So, in short, GM crops are not the magic bullet your comment implies they are, and the causes of famine and malnutrition are predominantly socio-economic ones, as anybody who has studied the issue academically will be able to tell you.

    Finally, if you think that the solution is simply for people in poor countries to grow their own food, then I hope you’re encouraging everybody you know to give up consuming chocolate, tea, coffee, bananas, tobacco, and other cash crops that are being grown in the best agricultural land in many of these countries.

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