Scared Of Genetically Modified Food? It Might Be The Only Way To Feed The World

There are many potential dangers to GM crops, but in the developing world, many programs are experimenting with adding nutrients to foods to help feed starving populations. What’s the right thing to do?

The math is simple. As land to clear dwindles, and the crop yield growth falls, we will still need to grow 70% more food by 2050. That’s what the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization figures is necessary to feed the 9 billion humans expected by mid-century.

Last century’s technology will not be enough. Remarkable gains from the Green Revolution during the 1960s—petrochemical fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, and improved strains—are now nearly tapped out. One of the next "revolutions" on the horizon, genetically modified (GM) crops whose genes have been altered with DNA from other plants or animals. It is battling controversy even as it slowly spreads around the world.

Since the U.S. biotech company Calgene introduced the first genetically modified tomato in 1992, the use of GM crops has exploded. AGRA reports 29 countries permit commercial production of GM crops, while 10% of cropland around the world is planted with GM crops: three quarters of the world’s soybean crop, half the world’s cotton, and a quarter of the world’s maize, is mostly in the U.S., Brazil, Argentina, and Canada.

But fears of GM crops’ unknown health, environmental and economic risks remain. So far, there is no conclusive evidence, but no major studies have found genetically modified plants pose a great danger, particularly when compared to the toxic chemical and destructive farming practices we employ today (a recently trumpeted French study [PDF] showing tumors in experimental rats fed GM food was shown to be seriously flawed). Yet those risks have kept countries in Europe and Africa (except South Africa) almost completely GM-free for decades.  

Now there is a new push to develop GM crops for the developing world that may recast genetically engineering as the best path out of hunger for billions (not just a cash crop for companies such as Monsanto, which create the pesticide-resistant "Roundup Ready" crop varieties).

At the forefront of this GM effort is the lowly cassava. The starch root, resembling a long thick-skinned potato, is major source of sustenance for more than 250 million people in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Yet it’s also a poor sustenance: Its lack of essential micronutrients as vitamin A, iron, and zinc contribute to the malnutrition among 800 million people worldwide.

BioCassava Plus, a program backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is re-engineering the cassava into a nutritious crop with higher levels of beta carotene, iron, and protein, as well as resistance to pests and pathogens. Progress is slow—field trials and breeding programs take years—but other attempts are being made to apply these same principles to other crops with life-saving potential for millions in the developed world: golden rice, sweet potatoes, and others.

Today, regulations have kept such innovation out of the ground in many developing countries, making progress slow and expensive. "Golden rice," a form of rice high in beta carotene has been on hold for almost 13 years.

Bu the tide may already be turning, argues Calestous Juma, a professor of International Development at Harvard Kennedy School and co-chair of the African Union’s High Level Panel on Science, Technology, and Innovation. In 2012, developing countries will grow more GM crops than developed countries, he told the Council on Foreign Relations. The potential risks of GM crops—possible harm to the environment, human health,and small farmers at the hands of large companies—do not outweigh their benefits, he argues. Today, he says, "the evidence is stacked against those assumptions."

Add New Comment


  • Nar

    I don't think your old enough to realize that chronic disease's are not something that people used to have, until we got to the age of the chemical and chemical companies.  I never knew but two children in my youth in the 60's that had an illness.  One had epilepsy and the other was mentally retarded, but we stopped at his house and walked him to school with us everyday (and wasn't forced to by the gov't).  Every kid has something wrong with them now.  My friend is a school nurse and is always exasperated because she said 2/3 of the elementary kids are on medication.  Ridiculous. 

  • Vaso


    This feeding the world is bs people go to bed hungry because
    they don’t have any money to buy food, This is the problem now and in the past.
    There was always plenty of food. Show me someone who starved to death with 20
    bucks in their pocket?

  • Speedy_greenie

    I have a great example of that.  My wife was born and raided in Russia.  She's 40 years old, so she's old enough to remember what it was like growing up in Soviet Russia.  Everybody had money, but there wasn't enough food to go around.  Her grandmother starved to death.  Now, there's plenty of food to go around, but the population in general has less money.  I suspect, in the first case, that the lack of food was a result of the government and social policies at the time and GMO probably would not have helped.  However, it's a good example of people starving to death with money in their pockets.

  • JayC

    I don't think you have looked into GMO's much, if you had, you would not eat them and you certainly wouldn't be peddaling them .  I guess people being sicker and having more chronic disease, and the millions of sick and allergic children this country has mean nothing to you. Maybe your not old enough to know that children haven't "chronic" health conditions like they do today was unheard of in the 1970's even.  The animals are faring just as badly.  Ditto the soil.

  • shanob

    Another friend of Bill (Gates).  but yea, what Really? said, are you high?  Or just misinformed?

  • Cold Winter

    You ended with a quote that "the evidence is stacked against those assumptions". 

    What evidence? GM foods are lucky to have seen one generation of consumption so far. How many generations of consumption before we can see the effects? 

    Nice way to plug Monsanto. I see you missed noting the way they have shut down other farms where their crops have infested other fields. Hardly balanced reporting here. 

    But finally, when will people stop trying to "save" other countries. Keep your untested frankyfoods to yourself and suffer your own doom before pillaging your experiments on the rest of the earth.

  • Trey Shelton

    Various reports indicate that anywhere from 30-50% of all food produced is thrown away. Shouldn't we be looking at better methods of harvesting and distribution? MIght this running out of food scare tactic be a bit overblown?

    BBC article: Half of all Food 'thrown away'

    I understand the desire of modifying crops to increase yield and guard against pests, but so far it's questionable whether they have done either. Also, it would be one thing if this process was being conducted by a not for profit, but can you really trust a company like Monsanto with the well being of the world's food supply? I certainly don't.

  • Really?

    Are you people fcking high?  You have no idea where your meat and vegetables come from already, but you're willing to let millions starve to death while we perform ridiculous studies because you're worried about what you might eat?

    Let me break it to you gently, you're already eating it.  If you don't like it, grow your own food.  You all have the means to make it happen.

  • jayc

     People are not starving because of No Food, they are starving because of greed.  You can't even give starving people food in most countries, because some greedy warlord will steal it, and in the U.S. government subsidies keep food prices high.  It has never been a lack of food, that is all BS.

  • shanob

    We simply want all GMOs in food labeled as they do in the EU.  We have a right to know what is in our food so we can make the right choices.

    btw, I have not eaten one GMO, not one, in over 7 years.  Never been healthier.

  • WilliamL

    I have been eating organic produce since before organic was cool, almost 30 years now, and I am also a molecular biologist.  My science background makes it difficult for me to understand why anyone would be "scared" of GM crops.  In fact, GM is our best hope of getting away from petrochemicals in agriculture (the thing people should be scared of), whether we are talking about a world with 9 billion people or with 2 billion.  

    This morning the NY Times ran an article about one of the original opponents to GM crops (and no, not me although I was once ignorant on this matter too), who learned the science behind GM and changed his mind.  Below is a link to that article.  I encourage those opposed to GM to open their minds and to spend some time learning about GM crops.


    Note: I have no financial interest in any company developing GM crops or anything GM for that matter. 

  • J anettx

    Something is seriously wrong with this person...first they state I've been eating Organic foods for 30 years...then they say...GMO is good for you...what a retarded hypocrite 

  • Jodi

      I am curious why you have been eating Organic foods for thirty years and back GMO at the same time? I find that confusing. It is a contradiction? No. It also amases me that being from your backgroug in micro biology you would back a science that is unconclusive. Science that is incomplete should not be implimented into our world without knowing the full conclusive results of the experiment. Especially when that science is playing with genetics?? Science is not god nor are humans...they both seem to have a rather large complex of concern?
      i am to assume you have dropped the organic and have gone to a 100% GMO diet. Good luck with that....


  • shanob

    GMOs are the CAUSE of increased petrochemical use on farms.  

    Take it from an old farmer who saw Roundup Ready crops appear in the 1980's.  We were told at that time that Roundup was 'biodegradable'  That was a blatant lie.I expect nothing but lies from Monsanto, Cargil, et al.  Check out Dr. Hubers studies at Purdue that show an abortion rate of over 50% in cattle fed GMOs.  And his discovery of a new pathogen associated with Roundup and GMOs.He is a real scientist.You are simply another liar.  Or an industry shill.  Or both.

  • shanob

    Oh, sure you are both a fan of organic and pushing GMOs.  hahahahah.  If they used GMO tech to improve yields instead of increasing patented chemical use you may have a point.  

  • Bertus

    Why do we need 9 billion humans in 2050? let's go back down to 3 or 4 billion and all be happy and properly fed.

  • Maggat

     Please feel free to lead the way. I would bet that you will not get many following you.