2013-12-09

If Genetically Modified Crops Can Feed The World, We Should Loosen Regulations

If it's between feeding the hungry and never making a GMO plant, which would you pick?

It's a familiar refrain at this point: the planet is heating up, weather is getting weird, and the human population is growing. How can we feed billions of people at a time when food systems are being disrupted by droughts, extreme heat, bitter cold, and other unpredictable weather events?

The London School of Economics argues that genetically modified crops could be the answer. Feeding the Planet in a Warming World, a new report from the school along with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, offers a handful of solutions to bring about agricultural resilience, including more public investment in agricultural innovation. But perhaps the most controversial is a call to make crops themselves more resilient--something that can be achieved most easily with increased genetic modification efforts and loosened regulations.

From the report, a justification for GMOs:

The projected growth in human population means that in order to maintain the status quo, agriculture will have to produce more food over the next 40 years than the combined total of all food produced from the dawn of agriculture to the present day. Adding to this monumental task, climate change is increasing the severity and volatility of weather patterns and environmental constraints around the world. Increasing crop productivity isn’t enough. Building climate resilient agriculture in addition to doubling crop productivity is one of the chief social, economic, and technological challenges of our time.

How can GMOs help? The report references GMO crops currently in development that produce higher yields with less water, like a new Monsanto corn crop that can be produced with 30% less water than traditional crops. Monsanto is also working on a drought-tolerant . Better agronomic practices, like precision irrigation and pest control, are helpful, according to the report, but just to a point: They "cannot deliver enough productivity enhancement to meet the anticipated need."

This is not as cut and dry as it seems. There is, of course, a large anti-GMO lobby that can recite a long list of reasons why GMOs aren't the solution. They often require lots of herbicides (superweeds are popping up as a result of weedkillers used on GMO herbicide-tolerant crops), and just a handful of big companies like Monsanto and Bayer control the whole market. Any potential health risks are still up for debate.

The London School of Economics report brushes these risks aside:

A cautious research, regulatory, and policymaking approach was appropriate during the dawn of modern biotechnology. Since then, researchers, regulators, and policymakers have accrued a vast body of experience in the United States and around the world. Humans and livestock have consumed billions of meals without a single case of harm attributable to the biotechnology-derived nature of the material consumed.

As for those herbicide-resistant crops that are breeding superweeds?

Herbicides--chemicals that kill weeds--have been a huge and widely beneficial advance in agronomic practice. It has largely replaced backbreaking hand-weeding and plowing that is massively disruptive to soil microbial ecosystems. Instead, no-till methods of weed control bring numerous environmental, stewardship, and ergonomic benefits.

The report makes some fair points. In particular, regulatory hurdles are making it difficult for rapid agricultural innovation to flourish and that policymakers need to make a concerted effort to push innovations through. GMOs might just be necessary to ensure a future where everyone (or almost everyone) has enough food to eat. But we need to ensure that in our haste to fix the planet's food problems that we don't inadvertently create new health and environmental problems--and hand over the entire agriculture industry to a select few companies.

[Image via Shutterstock]

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22 Comments

  • Luis Ruiz

    Incredible article! Incredible that FastCompany let this kind of articles! Montsanto is the reencarnation of the devi! GMOs are far enougth to be safe for human consumption mainly because the is no seriusly protocol for testing on humans!

  • susan

    10 REASONS WHY we don’t need GM foods
    1. GM foods won’t solve the food crisis
    2. GM crops do not increase yield potential
    3. GM crops increase pesticide use
    4. There are better ways to feed the world
    5. Other farm technologies are more successful
    6. GM foods have not been shown to be safe to eat
    7. Stealth GMOs are in animal feed — without consumers’ consent
    8. GM crops are a long-term economic disaster for farmers
    9. GM and non-GM cannot co-exist, GM contamination of conventional and organic
    10. We can’t trust GM companies
    http://www.saynotogmos.org/10r...

    This is my biggest fear.. When they finally admit that gmos cause health problems and cause dire environmental damage, it may be too late..
    "David Suzuki is a geneticist. He’s one of the top scientists in Canada, his textbook is one of the most widely-used in the world, he’s published more than 30 books. So when David Suzuki speaks, I listen..
    Putting genes back in bottles.. How do you clean up a potential GMO mess? You don’t. The difference with GM food is that once the genie is out of the bottle, it will be difficult or impossible to stuff it back. If we stop using DDT and CFCs, nature may be able to undo most of the damage – even nuclear waste decays over time. But GM plants are living organisms. Once these new life forms have become established in our surroundings, they can replicate, change, and spread; there may be no turning back. Many ecologists are concerned about what this means to the balance of life on Earth that has evolved over millions of years through the natural reproduction of species."
    http://www.goal-2025.com/the-t...

  • susan

    As far as feeding the world...

    Let's get honest about GMOs: They are not an improvement
    Ramon J. Seidler, Ph.D., is a professor of microbiology and a retired senior scientist and team leader for the Environmental Protection Agency's biosafety program. Ramon just wrote this opinion piece in the Ashland Mail Tribune refuting the biotech claims about GMO crops. "Thus "GMO technology promises" have become less effective every crop season. Since there are no yield advantages, there is no rationale for using GMO crops in U.S. agriculture, a decision already reached by farmers in at least 60 other nations (entirely or in part) including those in Europe, Japan, Peru and Mexico."
    http://www.mailtribune.com/app...

    Failure to Yield - Evaluating the Performance of Genetically Engineered Crops - Union of Concerned Scientists:
    http://www.ucsusa.org/food_and...

    GM crops yield less and use more pesticides. Pack it in, Monsanto. GM FAIL!"
    http://www.gmwatch.org/index.p...

    All Wet on Drought Tolerance..
    http://www.ucsusa.org/food_and...

  • susan

    Your quote: "Humans and livestock have consumed billions of meals without a single case of harm attributable to the biotechnology-derived nature of the material consumed."

    Without labeling, there is no traceability, no accountability and no liability...

    There are many studies that do show harm but Monsanto et al do everything in their power to discredit and squelch them.

    Concerning health risks, editors for the Lancet, one of the most respected international medical journals, wrote that "the motive of these promoters is profit, not altruism." The editors added that "Governments should never have allowed these products into the food chain without insisting on rigorous testing for effects on health." Health risks cited in a follow-up Lancet commentary included "allergenicity; gene transfer, especially of antibiotic-resistant genes from GM foods to cells or bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract; and "outcrossing", or the movement of genes from GM plants into conventional crops, posing indirect threats to food safety and security."
    http://www.thelancet.com/journ...
    http://www.thelancet.com/journ...

  • Joseph Bates

    But the thing is: they can't feed the world! The FAO and different other global organizations have repeatedly reached that same conclusion, that to feed the world, we need to boost familiar, small scale, multi-diverse and agro-ecological farming, because that's really what will enhance several times the yields where they are needed, without depleting the soils, water and energy resources. Industrial, agro-chemical, gmo-based agriculture is the exact opposite and cannot possibly have a future in the world where resources will be scarce. And the fairy tales that gmos are the solution for drought, climate change, etc, are really just fairy tales, because gmos are high input demanding and do not thrive on harsh conditions.

  • Scott3Bryan

    "Humans and livestock have consumed billions of meals without a single
    case of harm attributable to the biotechnology-derived nature of the
    material consumed."
    Is that statement getting a little more exclusive as evidence of harm to humans and livestock mounts? Just what does "attributable to the biotechnology-derived nature of the material consumed" mean?

  • patzagame

    Regulatory hurdles are not the reason for lack of GE agriculture innovation.All those wonder claims made for the last 20 or so years have proven a lot more difficult to achieve.Its the lack of mastering the knowledge of genetic engineering,that has resulted in giving us two traits that only benefit the bottom line of the bio tech companies and their shareholders.

  • kim hunter

    Over
    a year ago, I stumbled on the word "GMO" when researching my own
    failing health. Switched our staples to organic and almost 2 decades of
    progressive suffering ended in less than a week. Turns out I have not
    one "food" allergy and can eat any and all clean food. Now 43, I've never been healthier in my adult life.
    My
    suffering was progressive over the last decade. I had removed so many
    offending foods, I was afraid to eat. When the bleeding started is when I
    thought I might be on the way out. Researching my most horrifying and specific
    "food" related symptoms netted GMO rat studies.
    With the study results so similar to my own failing health, we tried
    switching our staples to organic. In less than a week I was better.
    Turns
    out, foods I have been "intolerant" to cause no reaction if it's
    organic.
    Since, every person I have spoke with has reported the same
    results. At least we know now. Our gov. is releasing Novel Foods based on 19 year old guidelines. Can. Digestive Health cites an increase of up to 300% in intestinal disease since the introduction of GMO yet makes no mention of GMO but points to gluten. "Gluten" is now a billion dollar industry. I think it may just be a side-effect.
    Economically, the $billion subsidies bio-tech receives gives GMO a large corp. welfare advantage. With GMO seed prices skyrocketing, the cost is much too high. The "higher yield" argument has now been debunked. "Drought resistance" has been found more effective with conventional seeds. Farmers are now switching to non-gmo seeds for higher yields and less expenses. Same results are being found with pig farmers switching to non-GMO feed.
    This article looks to be pulled straight out the bio-tech's playbook. :o

  • No Gmo

    There is no evidence that we need GMO's to feed the world, that is just biotech propaganda. We currently produce enough food to easily feed double the current population.
    For example, “A UN investigator into food policy, Jean Ziegler, told the London-based Independent newspaper that he was "against the theory of the multinational corporations who say if you are against hunger you must be for genetically modified organisms".
    "There is plenty of natural, normal, good food in the world to nourish the double of humanity," he says.” http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/afr...

    "The first obstacle is the claim that genetically modified crops are necessary if we are to secure food production within the next decades. This claim has no scientific support, but is rather a reflection of corporate interests.""An objective review of current knowledge places GM crops far down the list of potential solutions in the coming decades." http://link.springer.com/artic...

    "there is no evidence that GM biotechnology is superior to other biotechnologies(all ‘technological applications that use biological systems, living organisms, or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for a specific use’, IAASTD 2009) in its potential to supply calories (Heinemann 2009, IAASTD 2009, Jacobsen et al. 2013). http://www.tandfonline.com/doi...

  • Sheryl McCumsey

    So many things wrong with this article it's hard to know where to begin. First of all: Who has monitored those 3 trillion meals? Someone done some kind of study on that? What a ridiculous argument. Can we call that, "science"? How many got sick? I know of quite a few....and for the rest? Sounds exactly like what the tobacco industry would say. No one failing over dead. No harm. Second: I have seen many many reports that show yields are not higher and with the genome of the plant affected in unknown ways we only see later on how it "doesn't" have better performance than it's conventional counterpart. Third: Are you really going to say that pesticides do not harm the soil? Are you going to say it is a great addition to our diets? WHAT next! Fourth: If Monsanto's studies came under the same scrutiny as those who oppose their technology we would be starting all over. I keep hearing the same thing that comes directly from the mouths of those who have financial gain. Dive a little deeper and get to the truth. The best argument I hear most of the time is ridicule and statements like Mr. Wager which are very outdated.

  • RobertWager

    "

    There is abundant and accumulating evidence from extensive worldwide experience for benefit, and lack of evidence for environmental or human health risk associated
    with GM crop technology.
    Thus, there is a compelling case for the EU to re-examine its current policy governing the broad area of agricultural biotechnology.

    There is now a sufficiently large body of evidence on herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant GM crops to substantiate their use in contributing to sustainable development goals

    European Academies Science Advisory Council 2013

  • patzagame

    Look at the authors in this report. Reidunn Aalen - has a patent on plant gene for use in genetic engineering. http://www.freshpatents.com/Re...
    Ervin Balazs - "former founding general director of the Agricultural
    Biotechnology Center Gödöll,, lead a unit on molecular virology and
    genetic engineering of crops" Ralph Bock - "Director of the Institute
    of Biochemistry and Biotechnology of Plants", etc. So you referenced a
    biased report written by people who have a conflict of interest since
    they are involved in genetic engineering of plants.

  • No Gmo

    Look at the authors in this report. Reidunn Aalen - has a patent on plant gene for use in genetic engineering. http://www.freshpatents.com/Re... Ervin Balazs - "former founding general director of the Agricultural Biotechnology Center Gödöll,, lead a unit on molecular virology and genetic engineering of crops" Ralph Bock - "Director of the Institute of Biochemistry and Biotechnology of Plants", etc. So you referenced a biased report written by people who have a conflict of interest since they are involved in genetic engineering of plants.

  • Manos

    what a load of bs in this article. Sorry but food attributable deaths cannot be measured as if you are eating a poison that has a direct impact straight away. It's the long term that we don't know and obviously there are more than one factors, often synergeticaly creating anomalies to both our bodies and the ecosystem.

    Food is scarce in places because of bad managing our current food resources, not because of bad weather. If you really care about the hungry, then really do something about food waste instead of trying 'antibiotics to kill the bug'.

  • Diana_Reeves

    If you had been fed GMOs without your knowledge or consent and had a family with 4 members with autoimmune disease, all developed around the same time, I can assure you, you would not be anxious to loosen regulations. In the US, there are no regulations. Hold onto the precautionary principle - require long term independent safety testing. Europe had it right. Don't believe the lies coming out of the agrichemical industry in the US. America is NOT FINE. Our national health has deteriorated significantly since the introduction of GMOs. Don't cave in to pressure from the US government as they put corporate wealth before human health. And GMOs are not going to feed the world any time soon. Quite the contrary. Monocropping puts our food supply at risk. Insects are rapidly becoming resistant to the technology. Over half of the acreage being farmed in the US has Roundup resistant weeds. The GM answer is the use of more toxic chemicals. The generational impact of Agent Orange speaks for itself. Yet as Roundup becomes ineffective, the agrichemical industry engineers crops to tolerate Agent Orange 2,4-D. More and more US farmers are turning away from GMOs as they find that conventional crops have higher yields and are more profitable. Giving control of our food supply to chemical companies is a grave mistake.