In Context #15 (Spring, 2006, p. 7); copyright 2006 by The Nature Institute
Will Biotech Feed the Hungry?
On our planet with nearly six billion people, 840 million are undernourished. Proponents of modern industrial agriculture believe genetically engineered crops hold the promise of a new green revolution, a revolution that will bring higher yields and nutritionally enhanced crops to developing (third-world) countries.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) issued a report in 2004 describing how biotechnology can "help significantly in meeting the food and livelihood needs of a growing population." Since the FAO is known for its multifaceted efforts to empower small poor farmers in the third world, this endorsement of agricultural biotechnology, which is currently driven by a few giant multinational companies, came as a surprise to many.
It also generated a wave of opposition. An open letter to the FAO's director, Jacques Diouf, signed by many third world farmers and civil society organizations, derides the report as highly biased and as fodder for the biotech industry's PR machine.
The main question is: how closely coupled are hunger and agricultural production? Let's not speculate. Let's look at some facts here in the United States, which grows more genetically engineered crops (mainly soybeans, corn, and cotton) than any other country - 120 million acres in 2005.
According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture study, in 2004 13.5 million American households (home to 35 million people) did not always have an adequate supply of food. In 4.4 million of these households, the situation was bad enough for the study to speak of "food insecurity with hunger."
These are astoundingly high numbers for the largest food-producing country on the planet. In 2003, the U.S. exported 93 million metric tons of wheat, corn, and soybeans. Evidently, the copious amount of food produced had very little effect on whether people went hungry. Seventy percent of the grain harvested in the U.S. is fed to cattle, pigs, and poultry.
In the U.S. - as elsewhere - hunger and food insecurity are related to a lack of money to buy food. Over half of the food-insecure American households receive some form of assistance through food stamps, free school lunches, and food pantries. Without this - albeit inadequate - safety net, which is funded largely by the federal government, the extent of hunger in the United States would be much greater.
As one might expect, the most needy people are those with incomes below the poverty line (in 2005 set at $19,350 per year for a family of four), as well as households with children (especially single-parent households), and minorities (African-Americans and Hispanics). The problem of hunger in the United States is an extremely complex issue of poverty, discrimination, and social and economic policies and practices.
The boom in biotech crops since the late 1990s has done absolutely nothing to address these issues. Since 1999 there has been a yearly rise in the number of food-insecure households, and in 2004 2.5 million more families than in 1999 did not have enough food.
The situation is considerably worse in developing countries. Although both China and India have become essentially self-sufficient in food production over the past decades, have grain reserves and even export food, 140 million people in China and 250 million people in India are malnourished. Even if biotechnology could contribute to a sustainable increase of food production in developing countries - which is questionable - that would by no means guarantee that the people who need food most would actually receive it. Poverty, inequality, and inadequate food distribution present the greatest great hurdles to feeding the hungry.
Isn't it irresponsible hype to claim that biotech crops will address the issue of hunger in poorer countries when widespread application of GM-crops in a rich country like the U.S., with its well-honed economic and transport infrastructures, has not provided food to millions of its inadequately fed citizens? One thing is clear: increasing food production alone does not mean fewer people will go hungry.
This commentary is taken in part from an in-depth article on the issue of biotech agriculture, world hunger, and sustainability by Craig Holdrege, which is posted on our website: http:// natureinstitute.org/txt/ch/feed_the_world.htm.
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