How GMOs Can Feed the World

Genetically modified wheat in tube
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GM crop planting has experienced growth every year since 1996. In 2018, a record of 191.7 million hectares of biotech crops was planted—12% of the planet's arable land.

The growth of biotech crops is the fastest-growing segment in agriculture. While much of these crops are used for animal feed and biofuel, much of it also makes its way directly into the majority of processed foods sold in America and Asia.

One of the main benefits that advocates of genetically modified (GMO) foods have promoted is the ability of the technology to help alleviate world hunger. However, despite the success of GM crops, the technology is failing to deliver on the promise of food security worldwide.

The Drivers of the GM Food Revolution

Cost, profit, and crop yield are the driving factors behind GMOs. The first GMO food, the Flavr-Savr Tomato, reduced the cost to produce canned tomato products by about 20%, while numerous studies demonstrated the economic benefit for farmers who plant GMO crops.

Faster growth rates resulting in cheaper fish production is the main benefit touted for the AquaBounty salmon that became the first genetically modified (GM) animal approved to be sold as food.

It's clear that genetically engineered traits make plants and animals more resistant to disease. They stay ripe longer and grow more robustly in a variety of conditions. GMs are also effective in reducing costs, providing financial benefits for consumers and businesses alike.

Large agriculture companies that produce GM crops such as Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta generate large profits. Opportunities for smaller start-up biotech companies, such as AquaBounty and Arctic Apples abound.

Using GM Crops to Feed More People

Reduced costs, increased crop yield, rising profits, and more business opportunities are driving the growth of GM foods. The next logical step would be to use GM food to solve food insecurities. The advantages of using GM crops to reduce world hunger are plentiful, but anti-GM food sentiments abound as well.

Recent results of studies have demonstrated that the idea of curing hunger through GM plants is not panning out as anticipated. The countries that could benefit the most from genetic engineering have benefited the least.

There are many reasons for this resistance to the adoption of GMOs around the world.

Politics vs. 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 have set up onerous regulations that prevent the growth and import of GM food and crops.

Much of this resistance seems to have been prompted by groups in the past. There is still resistance to the adoption of GMOs, but increased rates of hunger around the world are influencing people to change their minds. European Union member countries are able to decide for themselves whether they want to adopt the technology.

Lack of information about the long-term consequences of GM foods leads many to believe that people should not be eating them. This reason does seem to have the most merit in all of the reasons for resisting food changes.

The resistance caused by social pressures and political positioning causes hunger research groups that focus on the development of crops and farming techniques to avoid GM plants.

The anti-GM sentiment, though, is not the only reason the technology has failed to benefit the poorest nations. Commercially, 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.

Little investment is put into crops, such as cassava, sorghum, or millet 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.

Using Genetic Engineering to Help Solve World Hunger

Big agricultural companies, farmers, and food producers have benefited the most from GM crops. The incentive of profits has certainly been helping move the development of the technology forward.

Some might even say that this the way things are supposed to work, with capitalism driving innovation. However, profit-driven efforts don't negate the possibility that the technology can also be applied to benefit society at large by reducing world hunger.

The fact remains that 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 genetics, many more modifications will become possible.

Financial Motivations Must Be Overcome to Succeed

There is no question of whether to apply genetic engineering toward improving crops for food consumption. Genetic modification is already part of the crop improvement toolbox.

The real question to ask then is if, in addition to helping make many people wealthier in industrialized areas, this advanced technology will provide a solution to alleviate hunger in the poorest regions of the world.

Applying this technology to effectively solve the problems of world hunger would require reasonable engagement and coordination from a variety of corporations, political entities, and social groups. The benefits of GM food adoption will have to outweigh the financial gains or losses incurred.