IEET > Rights > HealthLongevity > GlobalDemocracySecurity > Vision > Bioculture > Fellows > Ramez Naam > Innovation > Biosecurity
What’s Limiting the Impact of GMOs on Global Food Security?
Ramez Naam   Feb 27, 2014   rameznaam.com  

My friend Jon Foley, who I have a great deal of respect for, has a piece up arguing that GMOs have failed to improve global food security because they fall into a trap of reductionist thinking. With due respect to Jon, I see this a different way.

First, GMOs do bring other global benefits.  As Keith Kloor points out at Discover, study after study has shown that GMOs have helped reduce poverty among poor farmers who grow them in the developing world, boosting the food security of those farmers and their families.  Those GMOs are primarily cotton, which is, to date, the only GMO that’s allowed to be grown in most of the developing world.

Second, global bans & politicking have stopped promising GMOs from being planted. As I pointed out in my piece on Why GMOs Matter, Especially In the Developing World, over at Grist, there are genetically modified food crops that have shown huge yield gains in parts of the world, and that have been banned from cultivation for no good scientific reason.  As I wrote at Grist, Bt Cotton boosted cotton yields by a staggering 60% or so in India, as the figure below shows:

GMO cotton gave yields a huge boost in India. Too bad similarly engineered food crops aren’t allowed.

But we don’t eat cotton. And GM crops we can eat are banned from cultivation:

But the world’s poorest countries, and in particular India and the bulk of sub-Saharan Africa, don’t allow any GM food crops to be grown. India came close to approval for a Bt eggplant (or Bt brinjal). Studies showed that it was safe, that it could cut pesticide use by half, and that it could nearly double yields by reducing losses to insects. But, while India’s regulators approved the planting and sale, activists cried out, prompting the government to place an indefinite moratorium on it. Similar things have happened elsewhere. The same Bt eggplant was supported by regulators in the Philippines who looked at the data, but then blocked by the court on grounds that reflected not specific concerns, but general, metaphorical, and emotional arguments that Nathanael Johnson describes as dominating the debate.

From this, I conclude that one of the reasons that GM crops haven’t done more to boost food security around the world is that non-scientific bans have blocked them from doing so.

Third, we need more public-sector investment in GMO research focused on food security. The fact that Bt crops produce such huge yield gains in the developing world is largely a happy accident. Yield was never the primary goal. GM crops are designed primarily for the customers that have the most to pay (western farmers), and they’ve been designed primarily to save western farmers money rather than to boost yields. It turns out that saving western farmers money by reducing the need to spray insecticide also has an even greater win for countries where insecticide is sprayed by hand (rather than by machine).  It, as a practical matter, dramatically reduces losses. That’s an effectively huge yield gain. But again, it’s a bit of a lucky accident of a product targeted at relatively well-to-do western farmers.

I’m a huge advocate of the potential for GM crops to boost yield. (Again, just look at what’s already happened with Bt cotton in India or what early trials showed with Bt brinjal as an example of what the technology can do, without even focusing on yield as the primary goal.) But if we want to see more of this as the outcome, we ought to specifically invest in R&D with that goal.

That R&D might come from the private sector. But it might better come from the public sector. Today the Gates Foundation funds R&D into GMOs that could dramatically boost yieldimprove nutrition, and reduce the need for synthetic fertilizer. That’s wonderful. What would be even more wonderful is to see large governments, many of whom worry about the climate-food-water nexus as a future source of instability, investing in R&D in this area as well. Raising food security in the developing world has a triple win of raising food output, lowering poverty, and lowering instability. That’s something we’d all benefit from.

That’s what I’d call holistic thinking.

Ramez Naam, a Fellow of the IEET, is a computer scientist and the author of four books, including the sci-fi thriller Nexus and the nonfiction More than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement and The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet.  He writes at rameznaam.com.




COMMENTS

Just another example of a long line of human intervention against improving the lot of everyone.  The human mind is designed to live in the wild, with civilization and technology only recently having an impact upon natural selection and the homo sapient genome.  Predictably, the mind will try to fashion and rationalize an environment that mirrors itself.

In other words, as our economy makes the predictable paradigm shift from scarcity (Malthusian) to abundance, there will be strong resistance to the breath and depth of those additional resources being applied to satisfy everyone’s needs.  Resistance to the gifts of the genomic revolution being disseminated is just one example.

It might be good to define `improving the lot of everyone’. We don’t need more food we need fewer people. Monsanto and Dow do not have humanity’s best interests at heart when they knowingly plant gmo crops that will infect non GMO corps so they can sue them out of existence.

The is an obvious potential in g m o’s but just like communism and capitalism it get horribly perverted by special interests. Until that it deal with GMO have No Place in the food chain.

Monsanto has been buying up seed companies for decades and shutting them down. One doesn’t need nootropics to see where that is going. They want to be the source of all seed. Think of mandatory insurance and mandatory healthcare. If you want to doom something put a single entity in charge of it. Human nature’s darkest qualities will prevail.

Ron

I would add: I think that what is being sold as global food security is really global corporate security. GMOs are the key to the death of widely available seed for real, actual, farmers to plant with.

We are simply ignoring the problem and putting all the attention on solutions marketed AT us. The Agent in the first Matrix movie nailed us to the wall with the virus analogy.

It’s is our viral reproduction and the stain it leaves, world wide, that is the problem. No one with a clue questions the exponential math based mechanisms that lay our our doom.  The doubling time tells the story.

There are too many people; people. And in 70 years or less there will be horribly too many people. Biddniss cares nothing for your quality of life… till your consumption slows down.

Who is it that benefits [in the short term; does american biddniss know any other model?] Biddnisses benefits; yes I know how that word is spelled, I always think of the recent arrogant dork president from texas when I type that word.

Short sited governments love it, Organized religion loves it. It fits in so well with our national and self-destructive ethos of more and more and more.

A very evolved person said “we are born out of this world, not into it, like buds from a branch or butterfly’s from a cacoon’. We are willfully sucking the mother dry. And looking for better ways to do it all the time. Been near any frucking sites lately. I know how to spell that word too. But think about that spelling for a second and you will see it’s more descriptive.

Please permit me to digress a moment, how does it serve humanity if we have billions of cubic miles of natural gas if there is no clean water left to drink. I doubt you could even put frucking waste water in your car’s radiator. No one talks about the amount of water. It’s astronomical. Much of the frucking happens in the south west. WE are in our seventh year of drought here. No one at haliburton cares.

If they try to substitute it for gas it’s also going to need a ton of processing to get the octane up to something useful in todays cars. That is just an untabulated expense. When you look and the damage to the earth it will not be worth a few more years if that, of fossil fuel guzzling.

I took the liberty because these two things are the product of the same mentality and are the wrong solution for the wrong reasons.

tush and cheney had these Fruckers poised and hyperventilating at the line with a starting gun in 2005. It was a perfect storm of haliburton equipment so that in a very short amount of time there were thousands of producing wells everywhere before the people knew what was happening.

Gmo’s don’t have a puppet dork president to sleaze the skids with copious quantities. But the result would be similar in the hands of the profit motive as we practice it.

The problem is population not food or petroleum production. Expose the people who benefit from much too much all the time.

The World Bank and WTO and others have systematically destroyed the native agriculture of many small or just underdeveloped large countries and substituted kraft macaroni and cheese style food production as conditions for receiving our “help” Their health is destroyed and people, poised and waiting, got rich. GMOs are poised and waiting to do the same.

GMO’s and communism or capitalism aren’t inherently bad… it’s the nature of our perverted biddniss model to take something seemingly good and create `the horror’ morenowdamnit.

The wrongness began at the patent office and before that in ALEC meetings and elsewhere where the raptors conspire to legalize unspeakable horror.  The wrongness, is science as biddniss, medicine as biddniss, legislature as BIDDNISS.

Strike down the patents on living entities… `it’s all alive, it all sentient, it’s all connected’ Ask a mycologist, ask a micro biologist ask the plaque on your teeth. That plaque is co-op apartment buildings.

Kill the patents and label all gmo foods as such and let the people decide. The raptors love to say let the market decide. Because they control the market. G m o research holds great potential to help people. But not in the hands of a biddniss. Look around. This version of progress is not sustainable.

The individual rights of people have evolved at a much faster rate then the evolution of their consciousness. We have laws for activities in outer space but many of us act from the level of the reptilian brain.

Ron

YOUR COMMENT Login or Register to post a comment.

Next entry: Today’s Apps Are Turning Us Into Sociopaths

Previous entry: Fixing Missouri: A Lesson from Madagascar