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.