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Do We Really Need GMOs to Feed the World?

By Maxx Chatsko - May 23, 2015 at 12:09PM

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Some corporations say "no," some corporations say "yes." What do the data say?

That's a lot of corn. Image Source: USDA/Flickr

You've probably heard some form of the following statement several times before:

"It will be awfully difficult, if not impossible, to feed the world's growing population without genetically modified crops."

The line is central to arguing in favor of leveraging biotechnologies and used by writers (including myself), biotech seed manufacturers such as Monsanto (MON), and philanthropists such as Bill and Melinda Gates. It appears to have its roots in a report issued by the United Nations, which estimated that food production will need to nearly double from 2008 levels by the year 2050 to accommodate at least a couple billion more humans, and singled out genetic modification as one important tool to improve agricultural yields in the coming decades.

At the same time consumers are witnessing national food chains such as Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG -0.04%) and Panera Bread and grocery chains such as Whole Foods Market (WFM) and Trader Joe's commit to restricting or outlawing the use of ingredients derived from biotech crops in products they sell. If these chains can commit to not using food cultivated with the tools of biotech, then why can't everyone? Do we really need GMOs to feed the world?

The latter is a question I've asked myself recently. Here's what I discovered.

By the numbers: Biotech crops
Perhaps the only line spread more widely than "we need biotech to feed the world" is the following statistic: In 2014 nearly 94% of corn and 93% of soybean grown in the United States were cultivated from genetically modified varieties, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But this is a pretty empty statistic, because it assumes that the only use for corn and soybean harvests is human food. That simply isn't the case.

Consider that 44% of last year's corn harvest went to animal feed, another 44% became ethanol fuel, and the remaining 12% went to "other" uses that included food and sweeteners, according to data compiled by the USDA. The same data from the USDA show that in 1980, well before the ethanol boom of the mid-2000s and commercialization of biotech crops in 1996, the percentage of the nation's annual corn crop that went to "other" uses, such as human foods and sweeteners, was 12% -- exactly the same proportion as in 2014.

However, the amount of corn grown overall swelled 142% in the same time period, which amounts to a CAGR of 2.63%. That's no small feat. Some of the increase is from increased acreage, while some is from the application of more advanced technology, ranging from plant-breeding to genetically modified crops to better weed and pest control systems.

Can we really say that improving corn yields are from biotech tools alone? Perhaps not, although we also cannot be certain that the trend would have continued without them. Consider that from 1956 to 1995 corn yields improved, on average, by 1.86 bushels per acre every year. From the time biotech varieties were adopted in 1996 through 2011, corn yields improved by an average of 2.03 bushels per acre every year. The difference may not seem like much, but over an equivalent time period of 39 years it equates to an additional 535 million bushels per year, a 4.5% increase over today's production from the average increase in beneficial yield alone. Not bad.

Image Source: R.L. Nielsen, Purdue University

But, for argument's sake, let's assume that the continuing increase in yield has nothing to do with Monsanto (and peers) seeds and, since the majority of America's combined corn and soybean harvests don't go to food, biotech tools aren't helping to more adequately feed the world. In other words, assuming no positive benefit to yield from biotech tools in corn and soy, do we really need GMOs to feed the world?

Gut check on food tech
Sometimes, the safest, fastest, and most precise way to protect an agricultural crop against environmental factors such as disease, flooding, and drought is to use biotech tools. For instance, Hawaii's papaya crop was saved from a devastating ring-spot virus by using precise genetic modification tools that coded resistance into the fruit. After harvesting 80.5 million pounds in 1984 the state's papaya haul fell to just half that in 1998 -- the same year genetically modified varieties were commercialized. Today, over 77% of Hawaii's crop is transgenic, although many farmers have moved on. While papaya is delicious, it helps to keep things in perspective.

The world produced over 1 billion metric tons of corn and 745 million metric tons of rice in 2013, according to the United Nations. Substantially more rice ends up as human food than animal feed compared to corn -- an estimated 3 billion people in Asia and Africa rely on it for at least 40% of their calories -- but it's disproportionately grown in less developed nations than the United States. Unfortunately, every year in less developed nations over 500,000 children go blind from a lack of vitamin A and nearly half die.

There's a rather simple solution to vitamin A deficiency called Golden Rice, which is a rice variety that has been genetically engineered to produce high amounts of beta-carotene, the source of vitamin A. A single bowl of Golden Rice could provide up to 60% of a child's daily requirement of the nutrient. The variety was developed with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation; has been made available free of charge to resource-poor farmers; and can be grown, saved, consumed, replanted, and sold an infinite number of times without legal prosecution. It's essentially an open-source GMO.

Yet anti-GMO activists have erected some serious roadblocks to its adoption throughout the developing world, including the intentional physical destruction of demonstration plots. Golden Rice, a biotech crop, certainly has the potential to more fully provide adequate nutrients -- the definition of "feeding" -- to billions of people throughout the world. If only we would allow technology to do its part.

Do we really need GMOs to feed the world?
On a global scale, the answer appears to be "yes," although I would argue that we need to embrace all food technologies that can reduce inputs and human suffering, whether that means organic farming, precision breeding, genome-edited crops, or combinations of the three.

It can be difficult for most individuals living in industrialized nations that devote the vast majority of their agricultural land to feeding machines and livestock to see the need for biotech tools in agriculture. Most of us have probably never skipped a meal or faced the risk of malnutrition due to a lack of available resources. But if the point of technology is to improve human progress, then we should consider all of the evidence for the risks and benefits of biotech crops -- even if we ourselves don't need them.


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