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Modified Food's Moment?

Author: Toni Johnson
February 18, 2009


More than 40 million people joined the ranks of the undernourished in 2008, increasing the number of very hungry to nearly one billion. Feeding them has become harder in the midst of a global financial crisis, with economic bailouts dominating the agenda of the rich donor nations. Easing commodity prices have provided some relief, but the financial slump is making it harder for farmers to get loans. A $30 billion per year investment in agriculture "could eradicate the root causes of global hunger by 2025," suggests a Christian Science Monitor editorial.

Advocates and producers of genetically modified (GM) food contend they have part of the answer to the crisis. They say their products can improve crop yields in adverse conditions such as droughts, reduce the use of fertilizers and pesticides, and offer extra nutrition. British bioethicist Albert Weale argues in Cosmos Magazine that despite potential concerns over modified foods, there is "an ethical obligation to explore whether GM crops could reduce poverty, and improve food security and profitable agriculture in developing countries." But some critics see no place for modified foods at the table. "The food crisis should not be an opportunity to make more money through the sale of fertilizers, agrochemicals and genetically modified seeds," says one sustainable agriculture advocacy group based in Spain.

According to the World Watch Institute, a U.S.-based environmental think-tank, modified agriculture represented about 9 percent of global crop production in 2007 in twenty-three countries, and that number could double in the next decade. To date there is no international consensus on the merits or drawbacks of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The UN Food and Agriculture Organization has acknowledged the potential benefits of genetically modified agriculture for the world's neediest people but has joined the World Health Organization in studying potential safety issues. In many countries, GM foods remain either banned or strictly controlled over safety and biodiversity concerns. Such regulation has in some cases caused trade friction with the largest producer of GM foods--the United States.

Engineered seeds can be two to four times as expensive as normal seeds. GMO makers argue that they price seeds higher because they will provide farmers more profits through bigger yields. But critics say engineered seeds may not offer all the benefits advertised (Grist). An intergovernmental assessment of agriculture knowledge notes in a 2008 report that GMO licensing practices, such as prohibiting seed saving (PDF), could damage "local practices that enhance food security" in developing countries. Some humanitarian groups point to the suicides of thousands of indebted Indian farmers after their modified cotton crops failed (The National) as evidence of the risk of using GM seeds. Yet modified seeds have raised the net income of many Indian farmers, according to an October 2008 study by the International Food Policy Research Institute. Though purchasing modified seeds contributed to Indian farmer indebtedness (PDF), other factors "played an indispensable role," the study asserts.

Advocates of organic farming say their methods offer a better solution for developing-nation farmers because they require less energy and fertilizer use. Meanwhile, many humanitarian activists attribute the food security problem in developing countries to poorly crafted food aid policies that benefit developed-country agriculture. In a recent paper on development aid, CFR Senior Fellow Laurie Garrett says "Buy American" mandates for U.S. food aid undermine "regional markets for agricultural products, driving local farmers into deeper poverty" (PDF). Funding agriculture instead of donating food, however, could expand the markets of GM producers in developing countries. In June 2008, biotech-giant Monsanto offered to provide modified seeds to African nations (BusinessWeek) royalty-free. Monsanto Chief Executive Hugh Grant said rather than it being a feel-good gesture, "[satisfying] the demand curve is a great business opportunity."

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