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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."