Food security specialist Nick Rose says the world already has enough food. The problem is distributing it, and GM crops don’t help with that – they make it worse.
In January 2009, in the face of rapid global population growth, the then head of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, Jacques Diouf, claimed that it was necessary to ‘double food production by 2050 to head off mass hunger'. The productivity improvements in staple grains, it is claimed, are not rising fast enough to meet the demands of a growing Asian middle class for meat and dairy: products that will be raised using those grains.
The claim that we need to ‘double food production to feed the world’ needs to be challenged when the globalised food system is so inefficient that as much as a third of all food produced is wasted. According to author Tristram Stuart, "if we planted trees on land currently used to grow unnecessary surplus and wasted food, this would offset a theoretical maximum of 100% of greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel combustion."
In fact, the world currently produces enough food to feed more than 10 billion people, which, by most estimations, is where global population growth will taper off. Only, the bulk of the grains are diverted to biofuels and factory farmed animals.
In a century of increasing uncertainty, we must, so the argument runs, use whatever technology we have at our disposal to guarantee a secure and increasing global food supply. GMOs, it is claimed, are needed to ‘feed the world’; and it would be unethical, if not immoral.
We need to empower the world’s 500 million small farmers who already feed the majority of the world’s population.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs), are laboratory techniques to alter the DNA of plants (and, in experiments, animals and fish). The process works by inserting new genes and genetic information via bacterial infection or particle bombardment to introduce a desired new trait. To date, five principal commodity crops have been genetically modified and grown in substantial commercial quantities: corn, soy, canola, cotton and sugar beet.
The two main traits of GMOs are: herbicide resistance and insect resistance; and bigger yields. The environment stands to benefit because less fossil-fuel based pesticide needs to be used on GM crops. New traits being tested include drought-resistant corn and wheat, and ‘golden rice’ to reduce Vitamin A deficiency as a food security strategy to combat malnutrition in developing countries like the Philippines.
Hunger and malnutrition result from inequalities in resources and distribution. Food insecurity has increased during the past two decades of globalisation, commodity speculation and free trade. Small farmers already feed the majority of the world’s population, and research suggests that labour and knowledge-intensive agroecology, rather than input- and capital-intensive biotechnology, can feed the world sustainably and fairly.
If we seek to pursue this, rather than simply feed the profits of a few corporations, then we need to empower the world’s 500 million small farmers. The real progress towards reducing hunger has not been through the mass commercialisation of genetic-engineering technologies. It has come through coordinated policy initiatives across health, education, gender, and housing, in a broad and inclusive process of reform driven forward by an engaged and mobilised civil society.
Ultimately the question of ‘feeding the world’ is political. The biotech industry, which owns the patents on GM crops and the associated herbicides, has profited enormously from the exponential planting of these crops in the past 20 years. It’s hardly surprising that it should want to see their further expansion.
Dr Nick Rose is a specialist in the sustainable food systems and Executive Director of Sustain: The Australian Food Network.