GMOs Help End World Hunger?
The Huffington Post
Can genetically engineered foods help feed the hungry?
Are anti-GMO activists and over-zealous environmentalists standing in
the way of the hungry being fed?
The hope that GMO foods might bring solutions to malnutrition
and world hunger was never more dramatically illustrated than when
Time magazine ran a cover story titled "Grains of
Hope." The article joyfully announced the development of a
genetically engineered "golden rice." This new strain of GM
rice has genes from viruses and daffodils spliced into its genetic
instructions. The result is a form of rice that is a golden-yellow
color (much like daffodil flowers), and that produces beta-carotene,
which the human body normally converts into Vitamin A.
Nearly a million children die every year because they are
weakened by Vitamin A deficiencies and an additional 350,000 go
blind. Golden rice, said Time, will be a godsend for the
half of humanity that depends on rice for its major staple. Merely
eating this rice could prevent blindness and death.
The development of golden rice was, it seemed, compelling and
inspiring evidence that GM crops are the answer to malnutrition and
hunger. Time quoted former U.S. President Jimmy Carter:
"Responsible biotechnology is not the enemy, starvation
Shortly after the Time cover story, Monsanto and other
biotechnology companies launched a $50 million marketing campaign,
including $32 million in TV and print advertising. The ads,
complete with soft focus fields and smiling children, said that
"biotech foods could help end world hunger."
Other ad campaigns have followed. One Monsanto ad tells the
public: "Biotechnology is one of tomorrow's tools in our hands
today. Slowing its acceptance is a luxury our hungry world cannot
Within a few months, the biotech industry had spent far more
on these ads than it had on developing golden rice. Their
purpose? "Unless I'm missing something," wrote Michael
Pollan in The New York Times Magazine, "the aim of this
audacious new advertising campaign is to impale people like me --
well-off first-worlders dubious about genetically engineered food --
on the horns of a moral dilemma ... If we don't get over our
queasiness about eating genetically modified food, kids in the third
world will go blind."
The implication of the ads is that lifesaving food is being
held hostage by anti-science activists.
the years since Time proclaimed the promises of golden rice,
however, we've learned a few things.
For one thing, we've learned that golden rice will not grow in
the kinds of soil that it must to be of value to the world's hungry.
To grow properly, it requires heavy use of fertilizers and pesticides
-- expensive inputs unaffordable to the very people that the variety
is supposed to help. And we've also learned that golden rice
requires large amounts of water -- water that might not be available
in precisely those areas where Vitamin A deficiency is a problem, and
where farmers cannot afford costly irrigation projects.
And one more thing -- it turns out that golden rice doesn't
work, even in theory. Malnourished people are not able to absorb
Vitamin A in this form. And even if they could, they'd have to
eat an awful lot of the stuff. An 11-year-old boy would have to
eat 27 bowls of golden rice a day in order to satisfy his minimum
requirement for the vitamin.
I'm sure that given enough time and enough money, some viable
genetically modified (GM) crops could be developed that contain more
nutrients or have higher yields. But I'm not sure that even if
that were to happen, it would actually benefit the world's poor.
Monsanto and the other biotech companies aren't developing these seeds
with the intention of giving them away. If people can't afford to buy
GM seeds, or if they can't afford the fertilizers, pesticides and
water the seeds require, they'll be left out.
Poverty is at the root of the problem of hunger. As Peter
Rosset, director of Food First, reminds us, "People do not have
Vitamin A deficiency because rice contains too little Vitamin A, but
because their diet has been reduced to rice and almost nothing
And what, pray tell, has reduced these people to such poverty
and their diets to such meager fare? In the words of the British
writer George Monbiot:
world has a surplus of food, but still people go hungry. They go
hungry because they cannot afford to buy it. They cannot afford to buy
it because the sources of wealth and the means of production have been
captured and in some cases monopolized by landowners and
purpose of the biotech industry is to capture and monopolize the
sources of wealth and the means of production ...
technology permits companies to ensure that everything we eat is owned
by them. They can patent the seeds and the processes which give rise
to them. They can make sure that crops can't be grown without their
patented chemicals. They can prevent seeds from reproducing
themselves. By buying up competing seed companies and closing them
down, they can capture the food market, the biggest and most diverse
market of all.
one in her right mind would welcome this, so the corporations must
persuade us to focus on something else ... We are told that ... by
refusing to eat GM products, we are threatening the developing world
with starvation, an argument that is, shall we say, imaginative
With rare exceptions, genetically engineered crops are being
created not because they're productive or because they address real
human needs, but because they're patentable.
The biotech companies have invested billions of dollars
because they sense in this technology the potential for enormous
profit and the means to gain control over the world's food supply.
Their goal is not to help subsistence farmers feed themselves. Their
goal is maximum profit.
While Monsanto would like us to believe they are seeking to
alleviate world hunger, there is actually a very dark side to the
company's efforts. For countless centuries farmers have fed humanity
by saving the seed from one years crop to plant the following year.
But Monsanto, the company that claims its motives are to help feed the
hungry, has developed what it calls a "Technology Protection
System" that renders seeds sterile. Commonly known as
"terminator technology" and developed with taxpayer funding
by the USDA and Delta & Pine Land Company (an affiliate of
Monsanto), the process genetically alters seeds so that their
offspring will be sterile for all time. If employed, this technology
would ensure that farmers cannot save their own seeds, but would have
to come back to Monsanto year after year to purchase new
Critics refer to these genetically engineered seeds as suicide
seeds. "By peddling suicide seeds, the biotechnology
multinationals will lock the world's poorest farmers into a new form
of genetic serfdom," says Emma Must of the World Development
Movement. "Currently 80 percent of crops in developing countries
are grown using farm-saved seed. Being unable to save seeds from
sterile crops could mean the difference between surviving and going
Monsanto and other GMO companies, the terminator and other seed
sterilizing technologies are simply business ventures that are
designed to enhance profits. In this case, there is not even the
implication of benefit to consumers.
wish I could speak more highly of GM foods and their potential. But
the technology is now held tightly in the hands of corporations whose
motives are, I'm afraid, very different from what they would have us
Despite the PR, Monsanto's goal is not to make hunger history.
It's to control the staple crops that feed the world.
Will GMOs help end world hunger? I don't think