Hunger is one of the greatest global challenges of the 21st century. Despite some improvements within the last two decades, global hunger is again on the rise, with recent data indicating that more than 800 million people around the world suffer from malnutrition.
Children under five years of age represent 150 million of those affected, and for roughly three million of these children every year, the struggle ends in death.
In Kenya, an estimated 4.5 million people in the Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (ASALs) are severely food insecure following three consecutive poor rainy seasons.
When faced with such staggering statistics, it is natural to wish for one simple solution to prevent these deaths and rid the world of hunger. Use of genetically modified (GM) crops is among the proposed solutions—but is it truly a viable solution?
GM crops are plants that have been modified, using genetic engineering, to alter their DNA sequences to provide some beneficial trait. For example, genetic engineering can improve crop yield, resulting in greater production of the target crop. Scientists can also engineer pest-resistant crops, helping local farmers better withstand environmental challenges that might otherwise wipe out a whole season of produce. Crops can even be engineered to be more nutritious, providing critical vitamins to populations that struggle to get specific nutrients needed for healthy living. They can even be altered to eliminate unwanted effects. For instance, there is a type of onion that doesn’t cause people to tear up when chopped.
Feed the world
The Kenya Kwanza government has swallowed hook, line and sinker the arguments of those who take up the cudgels for Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and genetically engineered (GE) crops who claim that biotechnology foods will help “feed the world” by improving yields and being able to flourish in drier, hotter climates.
- Politicians come and go, but not oceans
- People fear what they eat more than injections
- The truth about GMO
- Climate change fuels malaria infection
The problem is that there’s no actual evidence that GE crops can deliver on these promises. In fact, so far, GMOs haven’t improved crop yields in the developed world and are under performing in developing countries as well.
Take maize, also called corn, one of the mostly widely grown GE crops around the world. A major study has found that average yields of GE maize in the United States from 1986 to 2011 were slightly lower than maize yields over the same period in Western Europe, where GE crops aren’t grown.
Overall, studies have shown that there has been no significant difference between the yields of GE maize and soy grown in the United States and the non-GE varieties in Western Europe. Since maize and soybeans account for about 80 per cent of the land area devoted to GE crops around the world, those findings are a pretty big blow to the claims that they are increasing yields.
The findings of the German meta-analysis that is often cited by GMO proponents to make these claims have actually been debunked. Credible criticisms show that the data upon which the claims are made is not even representative of a majority of the GMOs currently being grown. Researchers have noted that more than half of the studies used in the meta-analysis were based on GE cotton grown in India, while data on maize and soybeans, which represent most of the acreage dedicated to GMOs, were largely ignored.
Besides, the German research did not properly control for confounding factors such as changes in farm management practices. The claims of big yield gains for GE crops do not bother to account for other factors that could increase yields, such as increased fertiliser use. Moreover, further research has shown that the true yield increases for GE crops are much smaller than touted by sponsoring seed companies. Increased fertiliser use, improved irrigation and other management improvements turn out to be the primary source of the rising yields.
In Africa, traditional crop breeding has resulted in much higher yields than GMO counterparts. One case study described in Nature News in September highlighted efforts by the Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa Project to improve crop production in dry regions where drought can slash yields by up to 25 per cent. Since 2006, Nature News reported, the project has developed 153 new crop varieties using traditional breeding techniques and found that they had up to 30 per cent better yields than genetically engineered varieties, even in nutrient-poor soils.
Increase crop yield
Hunger is mostly the result of poverty. It’s true that about 70 per cent of the world’s poor are farmers and that increasing their crop yields could help improve their lot, but what truly limits their productivity is the lack of basic resources such as fertiliser, water and the infrastructure to transport crops to the market.
Moreover, uptake of GM foods tends to correlate with education levels and access to information about the technology, there is a concern that sub-Saharan African farmers may be hesitant to adopt GM crops. GMOs are also 100 times more expensive to develop than traditionally bred varieties, swallowing up resources that could be put to better use by helping to solve the real causes of poverty and hunger.
In essence, what GMOs have done is to increase the use of toxic herbicides and led to the appearance of “super weeds” that are immune to them. And that’s why companies are engineering still newer GMOs designed to withstand even more toxic herbicides.
In addition, GM seeds are produced primarily by only a few large companies that own the intellectual property for the genetic variations. From an economic standpoint, that poses a risk to long-term food security by creating the potential for a single-point failure. If that company failed, then the crop it provides would not be available to the people who depend on that crop.
For sure, GM foods are not the cure-all to hunger the world needs. The path to eradicating global hunger is more complex than any one solution and is, in fact, far more complex than only addressing food quantity or quality.
When it comes to meeting the world’s future demands for food, GMOs haven’t been shown to improve food security, and they distract from real solutions that can both lift people out of poverty and minimise the environmental impact of food production.
—Edwin Wanjawa teaches at Pwani University
Email: [email protected]