Will Genetically Engineered Crops Feed the World? Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC

Two weeks ago I wrote about the food crisis which is causing pain, suffering and hunger for many people and also serious political problems for many governments.   The crisis has been seized by many some commentators as an opportunity to, once again, promote GM crops. The most common argument from proponents of GM crops is that genetically engineered food and medicine will be necessary to feed a growing world population. They argue that, if the world population levels reaches 9 billion, it will be necessary either, to increase the land area now under cultivation, or improve crop yield by new technologies such as genetic engineering.

In 1992, the then chief executive of the biotech corporation, Monsanto, Robert Shapiro, used the ‘feed the world’ argument as a justification for developing GM crops in an interview he gave to The Harvard Business Review.[1] The rising cost of food which has sparked violent protests in many countries in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, Central and Latin America has been seized on by the agribusiness corporations and others as a new opportunity to push GM crops. One of the latest voices in this chorus is Robin McKie, the science editor of The Observer. He proclaimed that “As the world begins to starve it’s time to take GM seriously”, The Observer, 27 April 2008.

There is very little evidence to support this argument.  In fact, most of the data points in the opposite direction. In 2003, Aaron deGrassi, a researcher at the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex University published an analysis of the GM crops which biotech companies are developing for Africa.  These included cotton, maize and sweet potato.  He discovered that conventional breeding and good ecological management produced a far higher yield at a fraction of the cost of genetic engineering.  At that time the GM research on sweet potato was approaching its 12th year.  12 scientists were involved and the project had already cost $6 million.  The result indicated that the yield had increased by 18%. On the other hand, conventional sweet potato breeding, working with a much smaller budget, had produced a virus-resistant variety with 100%. More importantly for small, subsistence farmers, the non-transgenic sweet potato had not been patented.[2]

A 2007 study conducted by Kansas State University agronomist, Dr. Barney Gordon, over the past three years suggests that the yield from Roundup Ready soya was 9% less than conventional varieties.[3] This contradicts the claims of advocates of GM technology who claim its boosts yields.  He noticed that the GM crop recovered only when he added manganese. This led him to conclude that the genetic modification hindered the crop’s take-up of the essential element from the soil. Even with the addition of manganese, the GM crop still only researched the yield of the conventional soya.  A similar situation seems to have happened with cotton  in the US, where the total crop declined as GM technology took over.[4]

A report from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) stated in April 2006, stated that, currently available GM crops do not increase the yield potential of a hybrid variety…. In fact, yield may even decrease if the varieties used to carry the herbicide tolerant or insect resistant genes are not the highest yielding cultivars. [5]

On the wider front of sustainable agriculture, researchers, Pretty and Hine, assessed the viability and productivity of 208 sustainable farms from 52 countries in 2001.  They found that farmers had achieved substantial increases in food production per hectare.  The gains ranged from 50% to 100% for rain-fed crops, and 5% to 10% for irrigated. Probably even more important, they found that sustainable agriculture and organic farming provide a stable yield by minimizing long-term yield volatility. This can be due to adverse climatic occurrences such as droughts, floods or windstorms. [6]

In January 2005, the International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD), published a report based on studies in both China and India. These showed that farmers who switched to organic agriculture achieved higher earnings and a better standard of living.[7] In China organic agriculture is growing steadily.  Exports from China jumped from less than $1 million in the mid-1990s to $142 million in 2003.[8]

I will continue discussing the crucially important topic of food and food production in the next few articles.

[1] Robert Shapiro, ‘Growth through Global Sustainability’ Harvard Business Review, 2 March, 1992, pages 79 -88.

[2] George Monbiot, ‘Force-fed a diet of hype’, The Guardian, 7 October, 2004, page 45.

[3] Barney Gordon,  2007, “Manganese nutrition of glyphosate-resistant and conventional soybeans”, Better Crops, Vol. 91, No 4: 12-13.

[4] Geoffrey, Lean, “Exposed: The Great GM Crops Myth”, The Independent, 20th April 2008.

[5] J. Fernandez-Cornejo, and Caswell, April 2006, “Genetically Engineered Crops in the United States”, USDA/ERS, Economic Information Bulletin, No. 11. see also, www.ers.usda.gov/publications/eib11.pdf>

[6] J. Pretty and R, Hine, 2001 “Reducing Food Poverty with Sustainable Agriculture: A Summary of New Evidence” Centre for Environment and Society, Essex University, Britain,

[7] IFAD, 2005, “Organic agriculture and  poverty in Asia: China and India focus”, IFAD, Rome.

[8] Ibid.


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