The eradication of global hunger is a noble goal, and implies a human society that has progressed to a point where all humans are engaged in some form of implicit social contract with each other. We care about global hunger because we do not want to see other humans starve, regardless of the circumstances that brought about their hunger. Before tackling the issue of global hunger, however, we must admit that people in many parts of the world are born into Hobbes' state of nature, with no inherent rights to even the basic necessities of life, including food. Eradicating global hunger means that somebody, somewhere must fill that in providing the necessities. This paper will explore the role that genetic engineering can play in ending world hunger.
Assumptions and underpinnings
If genetic engineering is to eradicate world hunger, we must understand how it can do this. We know that trade is a means by which nations without adequate food supplies can gain food -- city-states like Hong Kong, Macau and Singapore have long relied on trade to feed their people. We can also assume that nations are going to produce commodities in which they have a comparative advantage, and through this process resource allocation will be generally efficient. If genetic engineering is to eliminate world hunger, we have to assume that those areas that have a comparative advantage in food production will do so, and that through international trade those goods will arrive in the hands of those in need. These are pretty big assumptions, and there is no shortage of anecdotal evidence of systemic inefficiency in food production and distribution. But for the sake of argument, we will begin with the mindset that in theory we will adequately distribute food from nations with a surplus to nations that have insufficient food supplies.
The Population Problem
The biggest reason that we still have world hunger, all other factors being equal, is that the human population is rapidly increasing. The population of the Earth was 2 billion in 1927 and 3 billion in 1960, and just fifty-two years later sits at over 7 billion (Rosenburg, 2012). This rapid increase in population has resulted in a situation where technological advances in agricultural, an increase in agricultural land under development and improvements in world trade have not yet come close to eradicating global hunger. Compounding the problem is that when people are lifted out of poverty, they eat more, and thus recent economic improvements, particularly in Asia, have put additional pressure on food production to meet this new demand, even without feeding a single additional hungry person. Clearly, major increases in crop yields are going to be needed to meet future demand for food, given these trends (Lobell & Asner, 2003).
The Lobell and Asner study was primarily focused on how climate change would affect the production of certain crops in the United States. Studies like this are critical to understanding the role that genetic engineering could have in the future on food supplies. Not only will planting decisions and output forecasting be affected, but genetic engineering can help to create plants that are better able to adapt to a changing climate. Wang, Vinocur and Altman (2003) note that agricultural engineers are focusing some of their genetic engineering efforts on developing crops that are better resistant to anticipated threats from drought, salinity, extreme temperatures, chemical toxicity and oxidative stress. Such adaptations are one way to counter the effects of a changing climate on crop yields, which otherwise would be expected to be reduced in the short run. To this point, genetic engineering of crops has been utilized to increase yields and resistance to chemicals, insects and other threats.
Effectiveness of Genetic Engineering
There is no consensus, however, as to how effective genetic engineering is with respect to managing new threats. While there has clearly been an increase in world food supply since 1960 despite no meaningful growth in arable land (Evans, 1997), this is attributed more to the use of fertilizer than genetic engineering. There are two problems with fertilizer going forward, however. The first is that fertilizer use has long been subject to diminishing returns (Ibid) and the second is that petroleum is required to produce this fertilizer. A century from now, with billions more people in the world, there will be significantly less oil and therefore less fertilizer. Genetic engineering may ultimately be required to close this gap.
Lobell and Asner (2003) imply, however, that genetic engineering to increase crop yields will also be subject to the law of diminishing returns. With crop yields in major agricultural regions at roughly 80% of capacity (Lobell, Cassman & Field, 2009), the objective of genetic engineering is fill in that gap so that yields are near 100% of their potential every year, something that would dramatically improve world food supply. When the number of crops affected by genetic engineering and the number of total variables is taken into consideration, it is completely reasonable that evidence be found that both supports and refutes the effectiveness of genetic engineering with respect to yield improvement. Gurian-Sherman (2009) argues that over the course of 13 years, genetic engineering has failed to increase crop yields in the U.S.
If genetic engineering has demonstrated to be ineffective, then part of the problem must lie with the types of genetically engineered foods that have been brought to market. Far from the drought- and salinity-resistant crops that Wang et al. (2003) wrote about, most genetic engineering of crops is to create crops resistant to herbicides or pesticides manufactured by the company producing the genetic modification. Such modifications can only be expected to have increase yields in a roundabout way, by reducing the amount of crop lost to such herbs and pests. Given that there is substantial evidence that herbs and pests are developing resistance to the herbicides and pesticides used in conjunction with the genetically modified crops (Owen & Zelaya, 2005), even this roundabout improvement seems temporary in nature.
World hunger is a problem that can be addressed by a number of different means. Even if fertilizer becomes increasingly costly, scarce and incrementally ineffective, it is still going to be the primary driver of improved yields in the coming decades. There is also the possibility that hunger will be addressed by converting much of the world's remaining natural landscapes into agricultural land, a strategy that will surely result in long-term loss to humanity but that would address short-term hunger issues. Genetic engineering still holds significant promise for addressing issues with respect to climate change, and ensuring that yields remain high even as the conditions in which our crops grow change.
The big question is whether or not genetic engineering will be able to live up to this challenge. There is no particular evidence at present that indicates it will. If yields have not been improved by the types of genetic engineering that we have seen in the past couple of decades, then clearly genetic engineering is poorly positioned to contribute to a significant increase in global food supply. Indeed, even if yields were improved a little bit, if those yield improvements were insufficient to match the increase in population and the decreases associated with declining fertilizer effectiveness and climate change, then genetic engineering would again fall sort of meeting our needs. Genetic engineering could make a contribution to ending world hunger, but there is no evidence yet that suggests it will be able to solve the problem entirely.
The other issue that needs to be addressed is that much of the genetic engineering we have seen to this point has not only been relatively ineffective, but its benefits have only been temporary. If pests adapt to pesticides covered by genetically modified crops, then any returns on genetic engineering are short-term in nature. This implies that a constant cycle of engineering will be required, whereby new pesticides are developed along with new GM crops, and this becomes a cycle of development and obsolescence. The problem with such a cycle is that invariably it will be subject to the law of diminishing returns, and as a result of this, genetic engineering will again fall short of meeting humanity's long run needs.
Solving global hunger is of course not something that is done with one factor in isolation. A myriad of factors contribute to the current global hunger problems and each one of those factors needs to be addressed in turn to eliminate global hunger. At the most fundamental level, we as a species need to actively make a decision to eradicate world hunger, something that really has not been done yet. If the preconditions of hunger eradication are met -- for example free trade in food products, and ideally the elimination of out-of-control population growth in the developing world -- there is still no evidence that world hunger can be addressed with genetic engineering.
However, the relative failures experienced thus far do not imply that the entire…