Can GM Technology Feed the World?

An interesting piece in the New York Times (October 26th) explores whether ‘biotech foods can explore the world’. Six experts, from economics, agriculture and policy, deliver their views on whether GM provides an answer to projected food shortages. The United Nations estimates that the number of people hungry worldwide could surpass 1 billion this year. Can GM help to feed a growing population, in the context of climate change and environmental degradation?

Professor Paul Collier, University of Oxford and author of “The Bottom Billion”, believes that climate change has made the use of GM technology inevitable. Describing GM as akin to ‘nuclear power; nobody loves it’, Prof. Collier states that GM offers both faster crop adaptation and a ‘biological, rather than chemical’ approach to increasing yields. Professor Collier delivered the BES Lecture at this year’s BES Annual Meeting (September, University of Hertfordshire).

Vandana Shiva, founder of Navdanya, an NGO and movement of 500,000 seed keepers and organic farmers in India, argues that climate resilient traits don’t have to come from genetic engineering, citing artificial selection practised by farmers for centuries as a means of creating these attributes. Describing seed banks, such as those maintained by Navdanya, as ‘biological capital for the green revolution’, Vandana Shiva states that society must create an ecological approach to boosting production and conserving resources, working with smallholder farmers.

Per Pinstrup-Anderson, Cornell University, sees science as playing a key role in helping farmers to grow more food, without damaging natural resources: “Science must be put to work to develop drought tolerance and pest resistance in crops, higher nutrient quality of staple foods, reduced animal diseases, mitigation of negative climate change effects and a host of other solutions to the current food losses and risks facing farmers and consumers in developing countries.” He sees GM technology, used appropriately, as part of this science-led solution.

Raj Patel, a fellow of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, believes that GM crops may not necessarily be the answer, citing a report prepared by a task-force led by Professor Robert Watson, Chief Scientific Advisor at Defra and previously Chief Scientist at the World Bank. “Agriculture at a Crossroads”, produced by 400 experts between 2005-2008, expressed concern that GM had failed to show promise and stressed that to feed the world, political and technological change are necessary. ‘Agroecology’ is one of the farming techniques endorsed by the report – building soil, insect and plant ecology. Mr Patel expresses disappointment that agroecology has not been endorsed by Governments, suggesting this may be because it is not lucrative for big business.

Finally, Jonathan Foley, University of Minnesota, expresses his view that the careful use of GM crops may be appropriate. How can civilisation double food production in the next 40 years, given continued population growth, increasing meat consumption and pressure from biofuels? We need to reduce the environmental impact of our farming methods, which have caused widespread damage to soils, ecosystems, watersheds and the atmosphere. Jonathan Foley suggests that society needs to find a ‘third way’, borrowing from ‘organic and local’ and ‘globalised and industrialised’ systems. A new ‘hybrid solution’ which boosts productivity, conserves resources and builds a more scalable and sustainable agriculture is necessary. Incorporating GM crops which use less water and require less fertiliser could be a part of this.

Original article: New York Times, 26 October 2009

Summary from:, 2 November 2009