Is Genetic Engineering the Answer to Ending Global Hunger?

Introduction

Food is a basic need for all human beings and all governments endeavor to acquire enough food to feed their citizens. As the world population rises, countries have been forced to increase their food production capacities in order to ensure food security. While developed nations have managed to achieve this increase in food production and feed their population, many developing nations have had difficulties doing the same. This failure to produce enough food has been blamed on ineffective farming practices and severe weather conditions. To help solve this problem, technological solutions have been explored. One novel solution is the genetic engineering of food crops and animals to produce genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that help overcome the problems of conventional farming.

Khan et al. (2012) define a GMO as “a living organism (bacteria, plant, and animal) whose genetic composition has been altered by means of gene technology” (p.85). Because of their potential to increase food production, some people have hailed GMOs as the second Green Revolution. However, support for GMOs has not been unanimous and these food crops have been rejected in many nations due to safety concerns and suspicion as to the ability of this technology to aid in food production. This paper will demonstrate that genetic engineering the answer to the global hunger issues that the world faces.

Genetic Engineering as the Answer

Genetic engineering provides the only feasible solution for increasing crop yield within the constraints of limited land resources. The human population explosion has created an increased demand for food while at the same time putting pressure on land resources as human settlements are expanded. The conventional means of food production have already proved to be ineffective in supplying for the food demands especially in developing countries. Mugwagwa (2010) asserts that since the 1990s, a number of African countries have faced food emergencies, which have left millions of people on the verge of starvation. Even at its best, conventional farming is not able to produce the high level of outputs required to feed the world. GM crops on the other hand are specially designed to increase yield per acreage.

In addition to this, some of the GM crops are designed to produce food in relatively shorter periods compared to conventional crops. Scientists contend that the earth contains a finite amount of arable land and that this land is only capable of producing a fixed amount of crop product using conventional agricultural practices (Kaufman, 2011). As such, the only way through which food production can meet the growing demand caused by an exploding population is by making more land available for farming or increasing the productivity of the existing farmland. Therefore, nations have a chance of increasing their food production and satisfying the food demands of their population by exploiting GMOs.

GM crops do not pose any additional healthy and safety concerns to the consumers. The main reason for the lack of worldwide acceptance of GMOs has been safety concerns by many nations. Consumers have expressed their doubts about the suitability of GM foods for human consumption. Lieberman and Gray (2008) observe that there is favorable scientific evidence in support of GM crops. This assertion is corroborated by Nelson (2001) who reveals that genetically engineered foods have undergone years of stringent testing for safety by government and private agencies and no specific risk or harm has been attributed to the genetic modification process. The US, which is the world’s greatest producer and consumer of GM products, serves as a model for the safety of GM foods. Americans have been consuming GM crops for over a decade and no adverse reactions have been reported. This is evidence enough that GM crops can be used to feed the human population without risk of adverse effects.

Genetic engineering makes it possible for food to be produced under unfavorable environmental conditions. Food production has been hampered by climatic changes and the decrease in arable land. Land is a critical resource for food production and as the availability of fertile arable land decreases, so does the food producing capability of a nation (McKinney & Schoch, 2003). Modern day conditions such as global warming and climatic changes have contributed to the loss of previously arable land through drought or flooding. While conventional farming practices were sufficient in such lands in the past, the new conditions make it impossible for farmers to utilize this land for crop production.

GM crops are altered to increase the stress tolerance of the individual crop. Kaufman (2011) reveals that because of genetic engineering, special strains of crops that can survive in conditions that conventional crops could not withstand. GMOs are therefore able to withstand harsh environmental conditions such as catastrophic flooding, drought, cold, heat, and high soil salinity. These genetically engineered crops will be necessary for the food security of the world in a world beset by negative climatic changes and continued degeneration of soil quality.

Genetic engineering gives crops the ability to resist diseases and insects thereby increasing food availability. From historical times, agricultural efforts have been affected by the problem of pests and diseases. In some cases, these problems have led to the loss of entire harvests leading to hunger crisis for many communities. To try overcome the issue of pests and diseases, solutions such as pesticide and herbicide use have been utilized. While these measures have been effective, they have mostly served as short term solutions since over time, pests and diseases develop immunity to the chemicals used against them. Genetic investigations have provided ways for creating crop genes that have immunity to some bacterial diseases and pests (Kaufman, 2011). With these special strains of crops, the need for pesticides and herbicides has been significantly reduced while at the same time ensuring the survival of crops. Food producers are therefore assured of harvests without having to rely on excess use of chemicals because of genetic engineering.

Arguments against the Genetic Engineering Solution

GMOs will create additional financial constrains for farmers therefore threatening their ability to increase production. Unlike conventional crops, which can be reproduced naturally, GMOs have to be purchased from corporations that deal in these products. Farmers who shift to GM crops will be forced to keep buying new seeds leading to additional costs of production. McDonagh (2005) observes that unlike in conventional farming where the farmer could use the same seeds for a new crop, GM crops will place farmers at the mercy of the large biotechnology companies that produce and distribute these crops.

This concern is not baseless since corporations have already engaged in the patenting of certain crop genes hence assuring themselves of a monopoly in the market for that crop. Khan et al. (2012) reveal that GM seeds are sold at a premium creating a financial burden for small farmers. At the same time, the high yield that GM crops achieve results in a lowering of prices, putting the smaller farmer at risk of being driven out of business. Considering the fact that world hunger is confined to the poor countries of the world, GMOs will not provide a solution since the poor farmers in these countries will incur huge costs obtaining the GM seeds.

The support of genetic engineering as the solution to world hunger problems is based on the premise that there is not enough food to feed the entire world population. Proponents of GM foods therefore argue that the increase yield made possible by the technology will result in the availability of food for all. This argument is flawed since the current food production under conventional means is able to meet the demands of the world. McDonagh (2005) states that in spite of the growing hunger problems in the world, farmers at the present produce enough products to feed the world’s 7billion people.

The reason for hunger is therefore not a lack of food but rather issues such as poverty and poor distribution of available food. As such, Social inequalities and the lack of land reforms have made the greatest contribution to the hunger and famine problems in the world. This claim is supported by the fact that countries such as Brazil, which export large quantities of food products, have millions of hungry people within their borders (McDonagh, 2005). It is possible that even with the introduction of GM seeds there will still be widespread hunger since the poor will not afford to buy the food.

There are concerns that GM crops will lead to the further degradation of the environment. To produce GM crops, countries will have to utilize energy making agriculture a petro-dependent industry. In addition to this, farmers will require more fertilizers and pesticides to achieve the same results that non-GM crops once achieved. McDonagh (2005) reveals that most genetically engineered crops require more fertilizers and pesticides in the long run due to the inbuilt resistance of the crops. As such, while GM crops offer the benefit of reduced chemical use in the initial years, this benefit is eclipsed by the intense reliance on fertilizers and pesticides as the years pass by.

Genetic engineering will lead to the loss of biodiversity since introducing GMO crops may have the potential of disrupting local species and sometimes causing their extinction. The emphasis on certain major food crops such as maize and soya has led to a loss of crop biodiversity. Khan et al. (2012) note that GM technology encourages reduced diversity by promoting the cultivation of single crops. In addition to this, large corporations promote certain seed varieties leading to the loss of diversity. This has impacts on agricultural production and potential devastating implications for food security.

Environmental Issues

In spite of the promise that GM technology holds for food production, health and environmental safety issues continue to prevent the widespread support of GM crops and foods. Because of this, very few countries have adopted the technology. Lieberman and Gray (2008) note that the US is the only country that has fully embraced GM crops and views products of agricultural biotechnology as equivalent to the products of conventional farming. The EU is especially staunch in its unwillingness to promote GM crops. This strong precautionary position adopted by the EU has impeded the adoption of GM products especially in developing countries. While GMOs have real and potential hazards, governments have undertaken stringent regulatory measures to minimize or eliminate these threats to human health and the environment. If countries employ sound science principles of risk assessment in GMO regulation, the safety of GM products can be guaranteed.

GM crop cultivation is not the only form of agriculture that has a negative effect on biodiversity. Kaufman (2011) states that even conventional agriculture is devastating to the environment since whenever crops are cultivated, the wildlife or native ecosystem is annihilated to make room for the food crops. GMOs may actually contribute to the protection of biodiversity by saving on the space required for cultivation. The ability of GMOs to increase output per acreage is beneficial to environmental sustainability. Conventional agricultural practices have led to the use of more land to increase food production. To obtain this land, nations have engaged in clearing of forests to grow food crops and this has major negative effects on biodiversity. Using GMOs will reduce deforestation and contribute to the protection of biodiversity.

Lieberman and Gray (2008) suggest that negative perceptions about GMOs by consumers are to blame for precautionary attitude towards GMOs witnessed in some countries. Consumers have strict values about what is “natural food” and they show great fear of the unknown. The fear of GMOs is inspired by a lack of understanding and the perception that this practice is “unnatural”. However, scientists reveal that crops and animals have been exchanging genetic information through cross-pollination for millenniums leading to the emergence of new species or hybrid species. The process through which GM crops are produced has been taking place for millenniums albeit without the direct intervention of man. Genetic engineering undertaken by humans should therefore not be written off as unnatural.

Discussion

For genetic engineering to serve as the answer to ending global hunger, more countries will have to accept this technology and promote it among their farmers. Many countries continue to refuse GM crops out of policy considerations. For examples, most of the moratoriums on the import of GMO crops into African countries have been based on economic rather than safety concerns. Countries such as Zambia and Malawi refused to have GM food imported into their country since they felt that this could have long-term negative economic consequences for the country. Specifically, countries fear that they will have problems with their food exports to the EU if they allow GM crops to contaminate the non-GM crops that serve as major foreign exchange earners (Lieberman & Gray, 2008). The major concern is therefore not food safety but the protection of export markets. This trend is detrimental to the food security of developing nations that could benefit from GMOs.

While there are some risks associated with genetically engineered foods, the benefits far outweigh these possible risks. In addition to this, this risks will be mitigated if GMOs are accepted and more research undertaken. Genetic Engineering of crops is not yet a perfected art and new developments are constantly being made (Nelson, 2001). The current hazards associated with GMOs are being worked on and scientists believe that with more research and trials, the threats will be eliminated. The positive impact of extensive research can be seen from the US agricultural industry, which has established itself as the leader in GM technology with commercially successful herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant maize and soya being grown for over a decade.

The availability of food does not automatically mean that it will be accessible to all. As such, genetic engineering will not make food available for all since people will still need to purchase their food. However, it will prevent the escalation of prices due to food prices. The hunger issue will be addressed since food will be affordable due to the surplus supply guaranteed by GM crops.

Conclusion

The earth will not be able to produce enough food to sustain the rapidly expanding population if conventional food production methods continue to be the primary means of food production. This paper set out to argue that genetic engineering offers the best means for nations to stop global hunger. A detailed discussion of the ways in which genetic engineering of food precuts can help solve the world hunger issue has been provided. The paper has demonstrated that genetic engineering provides a way for farmers to deliver more output from less input. It has highlighted that yields are critical for food security especially in the face of expanding population and decreasing land resources. The paper has also highlighted some of the arguments made against genetic engineering as the solution to global hunger. These arguments are valid since GMOs do have some inherent risks and even the surplus production of food does not guarantee that all members of the society will benefit. However, GMOs will promote food security and ensure that countries do not face escalating food prices. More nations therefore need to accept this technology and promote it among their local farmers in order to solve the global hunger problem.

References

Kaufman, F. (2011). The Second Green Revolution. Popular Science, 278 (2), 62-88.

Khan, S.J., Muafia, S., Nasreen, Z., & Salariya, A.M. (2012). Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs): Food Security or Threat to Food Safety. Pakistan Journal of Science, 64(2), 6-12.

Lieberman, S., & Gray, T. (2008). GMOs and the Developing World: A Precautionary Interpretation of Biotechnology. British Journal of Politics & International Relations, 10 (1), 395–411.

McDonagh, S. (2005). Genetic Engineering is not the Answer. Retrieved from: http://americamagazine.org/node/147271.

McKinney, M. L. & Schoch, R. M. (2003). Environmental Science: Systems and Solutions. NY: Jones & Bartlett Learning.

Mugwagwa, J.T. (2010). Alone or Together? Can Cross-national Convergence of Biosafety Systems Contribute to Food Security In SSA? Journal of International Development, 22(2), 352–366.

Nelson, G. C. (2001). Genetically Modified Organisms in Agriculture: Economics and Politics. NY: Academic Press.