"GE Technologies will solve world hunger"

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  • by Anup Shah
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World hunger is extensive in spite of sufficient global food resources. Therefore increased food production is no solution. The problem is that many people are too poor to buy readily available food. Therefore measures solving the poverty problem is what is required to solve the world hunger probem

It is a myth that world hunger is due to scarcity of food1, Physicians and Scientists for Responsible Application of Science and Technology, October 1998

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  1. Genetic Engineering Technologies Will Not Solve World Hunger
  2. If biotech industry is serious about solving world hunger, it is poorly attacking symptoms only
  3. More Information

Genetic Engineering Technologies Will Not Solve World Hunger

For the most part, genetic engineering techniques are being applied to crops important to the industrialized world, not crops on which the world's hungry depend.

Biotechnology and the World Food Supply2, Union of Concerned Scientists

A major theme of supporters of biotechnology is that genetic engineering of food is necessary to help solve world hunger.

However, a report from the Panos Institute suggests that in fact, solving world hunger and food shortage is more of a political problem3.

Friends of the Earth point out an important factor that many people in the world are suffering from malnutrition and hunger because they cannot afford to buy food4, not because it is unavailable.

As highlighted in the poverty and hunger5 part of this web site, most of the causes of hunger are found in global politics, rather than issues of agriculture and technology (though of course those causes do exist too). As a result, a variety of groups and people are questioning the motives behind biotechnology as the political causes of hunger appear to be ignored.

An article6 from Food First makes the observation that [m]ost innovations in agricultural biotechnology have been profit-driven rather than need-driven and it questions whether GE technology will really ensure food security, protect the environment and reduce poverty in the developing world. And with GE Food being an expensive technology, that does not help the case, either. Also, in some cases, it has been noted that some GE crop yields are less than conventional crops7.

Companies like Monsanto keep arguing that genetic modification will feed the world, but that is specious, argues Jonathan Kimmelman, a bioethicist at Yale University. The financial benefits from genetic modification will flow mostly to the very largest agricultural producers, putting local agricultural economies at a tremendous disadvantage. That is really the central issue here.

Bruce Shapiro, Stalking the wild Frankensalmon8, Salon.com News, May 5, 2000

As noted by Inter Press Service9 (April 24, 2000), one of today's great injustices ... is the irony that those who feed the world [agricultural workers] are often least able to feed themselves. As also pointed out in the same article, 1.3 billion people work in agriculture.

While many biotech companies claim that genetically engineered foods will help alleviate hunger and increase food security, their acts of patenting the knowledge and food that has been developed over centuries itself may be a threat to food security10.

Amory and Hunter Lovins are quite blunt about this aspect:

Genetically engineered crops were created not because they're productive but because they're patentable. Their economic value is oriented not toward helping subsistence farmers to feed themselves but toward feeding more livestock for the already overfed rich.

Amory and Hunter Lovins, Founders of the Rocky Mountain Institute, quoted by John Robbins, Are Genetically Altered Foods The Answer to World Hunger?11, Earth Island Institute, Winter 2001-2002, Vol. 16, No. 4

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If biotech industry is serious about solving world hunger, it is poorly attacking symptoms only

What is also equally important to bear in mind is that the promise of technologies such as genetically enhanced foods, or any other technologies that could help solve the effects of poverty, such as hunger, cannot be an end in itself. If it is, then the root causes of hunger would continue and the exploitive practices could continue, further increasing disparities between rich and poor. While the rich would be able to provide some rest bite from the hunger through such technologies, they would maintain, even increase, the developing nations' dependencies upon them.

Biotechnology aside, even with increased production in recent years due to the Green Revolution and use of industrial inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides, while more people have been fed, world hunger has still been high, even in wealthy countries. Simply increasing food production is not the only answer, as there are many political, economic and social factors that play a part. Indeed, solutions do not necessarily require additional production, as much as addressing political and economic causes of inequality and hunger, as Peter Rosset explains:

Having seen food production advance while hunger widens, we are now prepared to ask: under what conditions are greater harvests doomed to failure in eliminating hunger?

First, where farmland is bought and sold like any other commodity and society allows the unlimited accumulation of farmland by a few, superfarms replace family farms and all of society suffers.

Second, where the main producers of food - small farmers and farm workers - lack bargaining power relative to suppliers of farm inputs and food marketers, producers get a shrinking share of the rewards from farming.

Third, where dominant technology destroys the very basis for future production, by degrading the soil and generating pest and weed problems, it becomes increasingly difficult and costly to sustain yields.

Under these three conditions, mountains of additional food could not eliminate hunger, as hunger in America should never let us forget. The alternative is to create a viable and productive small farm agriculture using the principles of agroecology. That is the only model with the potential to end rural poverty, feed everyone, and protect the environment and the productivity of the land for future generations.

Peter Rosset, Joseph Collins, and Frances Moore Lappe, Lessons from the Green Revolution; Do We Need New Technology to End Hunger?12, Tikkun Magazine, March/April 2000

If biotech corporations are really addressing world hunger through genetically engineered food, then they are only attacking symptoms and not causes of world hunger. And it is a poor offensive too, because it doesn't recognize the root causes, which includes poverty and the inability to afford food or distribute it because of things like certain international politics and economic policies.

Furthermore, as John Robbins points out, biotechnology companies do not appear to be actually investing in technology and crops that would really address food shortages. Instead, they are concentrating on livestock feed:

Monsanto and other proponents of biotechnology continually tell the public that genetic engineering is necessary if the world's food supply is to keep up with population growth. But even with nearly 100 million acres planted, their products have yet to do a thing to reverse the spread of hunger. There is no more food available for the world's less fortunate. In fact, most of the fields were growing transgenic soybeans and corn that are destined for livestock feed.

John Robbins, Are Genetically Altered Foods The Answer to World Hunger?13, Earth Island Institute, Winter 2001-2002, Vol. 16, No. 4

Richard Robbins, Professor of Anthropology at State University of New York is also worth quoting, summarizing why food is produced in the first place (bulleting and spacing formatting is mine, text is original):

To understand why people go hungry you must stop thinking about food as something farmers grow for others to eat, and begin thinking about it as something companies produce for other people to buy.

  • Food is a commodity. ...
  • Much of the best agricultural land in the world is used to grow commodities such as cotton, sisal, tea, tobacco, sugar cane, and cocoa, items which are non-food products or are marginally nutritious, but for which there is a large market.
  • Millions of acres of potentially productive farmland is used to pasture cattle, an extremely inefficient use of land, water and energy, but one for which there is a market in wealthy countries.
  • More than half the grain grown in the United States (requiring half the water used in the U.S.) is fed to livestock, grain that would feed far more people than would the livestock to which it is fed. ...

The problem, of course, is that people who don't have enough money to buy food (and more than one billion people earn less than $1.00 a day), simply don't count in the food equation.

  • In other words, if you don't have the money to buy food, no one is going to grow it for you.
  • Put yet another way, you would not expect The Gap to manufacture clothes, Adidas to manufacture sneakers, or IBM to provide computers for those people earning $1.00 a day or less; likewise, you would not expect ADM (Supermarket to the World) to produce food for them.

What this means is that ending hunger requires doing away with poverty, or, at the very least, ensuring that people have enough money or the means to acquire it, to buy, and hence create a market demand for food.

Richard H. Robbins, Readings on Poverty, Hunger, and Economic Development14

Therefore, even with genetically engineered food, people would still not be able to afford it or have it distributed appropriately. Hence, while even an altruistic or valiant effort, it would be a large waste of capital, resources, manpower and the industry. Instead, outcomes would include more profits for the biotech and chemical companies involved in this. Dependency upon these companies would increase too for the use of their patented technologies. Unfortunately though, these outcomes are also enough for such corporations and the biotech industry to expend vast amounts of capital, resources, and manpower that is suggested here as being wasteful, while appealing to our concerns about world hunger.

For sure, there is potential in biotechnology. However, as we see above, this potential, as well as for feeding the world, can also be used to increase profits. Sometimes these two things overlap, but often not. Hence, while perhaps biotechnology should not necessarily be shunned, and more research and testing is needed, the political and economic emphasis and direction of biotechnology research also needs to be seriously addressed so that it is actually productive for society, not wasteful.

As the highly regarded scholar, Frances Lappe Moore suggests, the debate itself, on safety issues of biotechnology, is a distraction15 from the real causes of hunger which include the lack of democratic accountability, and the urgent need to address them.

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More Information

For more information, as well as the links above, visit the following, where you will find an additional set of links to other web sites and reports on these issues:

  • For some of the root causes of hunger (i.e. root causes of poverty), visit this web site's section on Causes of Poverty
    • In particular the Poverty and Hunger16 part.
  • This web site's look at Human Population
    • In particular the Population and Feeding the World17 part.
  • What ITDG describes as risking a major threat to future food security18 is a series of articles looking at the impact of patenting plant genetic resources used in food production.
  • Genetic Engineering of Food Crops for the Third World: An Appropriate Response to Poverty, Hunger and Lagging Productivity?19 by Peter Rosset provides a good look at the various issues.

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