Are GMO A Solution To Feeding 9 Billion  Essay

GMO Crops There are many aspects to the GMO food debate, and one of the major ones is the idea that GMO foods are essential to feeding a global population that is expected to top out at 9 billion people. The amount of arable land is not growing, and indeed climate-change induced desertification and declining supplies of fresh water are probably decreasing the amount of arable land worldwide. GMO foods -- which have usually been modified so that they are resistant to pesticides or deliver higher yields -- are often promoted as a solution to the perceived coming global hunger crisis (Charles et al., 2010). In particular, GMO foods are promoted as a means of closing the yield gap -- Western nations utilizing modern agricultural techniques tend to have higher yields that nations with more traditional agricultural systems.

Feeding Nine Billion

If the world's population is expected to plateau around nine billion, that implies a 70-100% increase in food production, given that many of these people will be lifted out of poverty during the next few decades (Charles et al., 2010). One of the problems with this argument is that it is a red herring. Food production is not the issue; food distribution is the issue. Globally, agricultural production is sufficient to feed the world's current population. In both high and low income countries, albeit for different reasons, there is a tremendous amount of food waste, which represents an inefficiency in our food system that could help make better use of existing agricultural capacity (Gustavsson, 2011). The United Nations estimates that around one-third of global food supply is wasted -- enough to take us from 7 billion people to 9 billion comfortably (Marotte, 2013). Between eliminating waste and using conventional cross-breeding methodologies alone, food security can be achieved.

A classic anecdotal argument is that food aid from the West is under scrutiny as a means of helping alleviate famine because of its GMO content, and that this is wrong (Zerbe, 2004). It is all well and good to point to some starving Africans and decry the application of Western views on GMOs to people that are starving; it is also about as cynical as it gets, leveraging somebody's else's suffering to promote an agenda. Our food system should not, if food equity is a genuine concern for GMO proponents, require aid to famine-afflicted regions. Famine aid is a band-aid solution, and if it is the best strategy on offer, that is simply not good enough. GMOs as the solution represent the laziest way of conceptualizing the issue of feeding nine billion. They work in the short run, but they are not at all the smartest way to approach the issue.


One of the reasons why the laziest solution will not work is that it is not sustainable. It is fallacy from the outset to argue about a food system to cover the next 30-50 years, as if humanity is only expected to last that long. Sorry, but we're hoping to be around a little longer than that, and this is why the optimal food system will take the long-run into account. Just in case you want your grandchildren to have something to eat, too. GMO crops are part of a larger food system that engages in a number of unsustainable practices, none of which are likely to feed us in the long run.

The first is that this increased production, GMO or not, remains dependent on the heavy use of phosphorous, nitrogen and potassium in fertilizers. The development of such powerful fertilizer has driven the boom in global food production after World War Two (Huang, Pray & Rozelle, 2002). Phosphorous is a non-renewable resource, derived from phosphorous rock, and the global supply is expected to be diminished in the next 50-100 years. Long-term phosphorous scarcity is a high level priority for long-run global food security (Cordell, Drangert & White, 2008). The use of genetic modification could actually address this issue positively, but not in the manner genetic modification is being used at present. The current idea of using GMO crops around the world is simply doubling down on a strategy that has pretty much zero sustainability. If genetic modification were being used to work towards a post-phosphorous agricultural system, maybe it would have more merit, but a GMO crop regime mostly designed to make crops pesticide-resistant is not the same thing, and simply does not contribute anything to the long-run sustainability of the global food system.

There are other sustainability issues as well. An increasing reliance on...


It should not need explaining why that is a bad idea, but consider that climate change is going to affect the ways that many crops grow and behave. The more diverse our agricultural system, the better equipped we will be as a species to continue to feed ourselves even should the climate change dramatically. At present, we are in a cycle of trying to innovate our way out of problems, and while it is perfectly reasonable that one might have faith in our collective ability to do this, caution against hubris is urged: we have experienced population crashes before both locally and globally, and are not immune in the future just because we have better science.
An argument often bandied about is the luxury argument, implying that GMO foods are inherently cheaper, always, and that one must pay a premium to each non-GMO foods.. This argument preys on the uncritical thinker, who simply thinks about how organic crops at the grocery store cost more -- as if organic and non-GMO are the same thing. The reality is that genetically modified foods are not necessarily any cheaper at the store (Kimenju & de Groote, 2005) and certainly they are challenged to remain cheaper as phosphorous becomes scarcer, and the true cost of genetically modified foods, including intellectual property rights profits -- monopoly rents -- are built into the price of genetically modified foods. You pay more for goods in a monopoly than where there is perfect competition, an Econ 101 lesson completely lost on GM proponents who make baseless assumptions that genetically modified foods are inherently cheaper.


Of course, one of the biggest concerns that people have with genetic modification is the safety aspect. GMO proponents cannot stop talking about how safe they are, but the reality is a little bit different. GMO foods were first commercialized in 1994, so twenty-one years ago (Hino, 2002). Rightfully, people are concerned about the health aspect of foods that have never been subject to long-run longitudinal safety studies. Proponents argue that foods are safe, conveniently ignoring the utter lack of long-run data that demonstrates this -- cancers take years to develop, so why shouldn't people be worried about them? Mass consumption of GMO foods is simply a long run experiment in the effects of these foods on health, and most countries have quite reasonably required the labeling of GMO products as a form of informed consent to participate in this experiment.


For the sake of argument, let us assume that GMOs are safe. We don't know that, because they have not been around long enough for proper longitudinal studies to have been conducted. But say that they are safe. They still do not, in their present constitution, address the issue of hunger. Hunger in the world today is not caused by a lack of agricultural output; it is caused by food waste and lack of equitable distribution of food. The evidence appears to show that GMO foods are but one of many different alternatives available to feed nine billion people. And in 30 years, maybe they can do that. But beyond 30 years, they cannot, at least not right now. Right now, GMOs are part of an agricultural system that is dependent on non-renewable resources, and overconsumption of renewal resources like fresh water and fish. Unless genetic modification addresses these issues, it is not solving the real food supply problems that were are facing -- that problem is not "too many mouths" it is that the entire system is unsustainable. So maybe there is a role for genetic modification to actually address the challenges -- finding plants that grow abundantly on little water, or with minimal fertilizer would be a good use of genetic modification -- but that simply is not the direction in which it is going right now. It is going in the direction of creating monopolies on food -- patent protections that threaten both the affordability of food and the biodiversity that we will need to be able to feed ourselves in the 22nd century's dramatically different climate. Right now, on balance, GMOs do more harm than good, and until they are applied to the actual challenges we face, that will continue to be the case.


Charles, H., Godfray, J., Beddington, J., Crute, I., Haddad, L., Lawrence, D., Muir, J., Pretty, J., Robinson, S., Thomas, S. & Toulmin, C. (2010). Food security: The challenge of feeding 9 billion people. Science. Vol. 327 (2010) 812-818.


Sources Used in Documents:


Charles, H., Godfray, J., Beddington, J., Crute, I., Haddad, L., Lawrence, D., Muir, J., Pretty, J., Robinson, S., Thomas, S. & Toulmin, C. (2010). Food security: The challenge of feeding 9 billion people. Science. Vol. 327 (2010) 812-818.

Cordell, D., Drangert, J. & White, S. (2009). The story of phosphorous: Global food security and food for thought. Global Environmental Change. Retrieved June 3, 2015 from

Gustavsson, J., Cederberg, C. & Sonesson, U. (2011). Global food losses and food waste. Save Food Congress. Retrieved June 3, 2015 from

Hino, A. (2002). Safety assessment and public concerns for genetically modified food products: The Japanese experience. Toxicologic Pathology. Vol. 30 (1) 126-128.
Kimenji, S. & de Groote, H. (2005). Consumers' willingness to pay for genetically modified foods in Kenya. 11th International Congress of the EAAE Retrieved June 3, 2015 from
Marotte, B. (2013). One-third of global food supply wasted: UN. Globe & Mail. Retrieved June 3, 2015 from

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