Yes, we can feed the world without GMOs

A new analysis challenges the absurd myth that genetically engineered crops are crucial to “feeding the world” – now or in the future

April 5, 2015 by Pat Thomas

Photo: Bigstock

A new analysis by the Environmental Working Group in the US debunks the myth that genetically engineered crops will be crucial to “feeding the world” as the population soars.

The report summarises recent research and concludes that so far, GE crops have done nothing to improve global food security – and there’s little reason to think that they will any time soon.

The world already produces enough food to feed 14 billion people. But still people go hungry, According to Beyond GM’s Lawrence Woodward for, among other reasons, “food waste, disparity in wealth, a dysfunctional farming and food system, the malign power of corporations and speculation in food that borders on the corrupt and the immoral

The EWG report, written by analyst Emily Cassidy, agrees noting that the chief causes of global hunger today are poverty and small farmers’ lack of access to basic resources such as fertilisers and roads to market.

Given that creating just one genetically engineered crop variety can cost upwards of £87 million ($130 million), you’d think Big Ag companies (and indeed governments) would prioritise investments in strategies that have been proven to work and less on GMOs that may not even increase crop yields. But what corporations really care about is increasing their profits, not feeding a hungry world.

The challenges

Growing food takes a major toll on the environment, one that will grow worse in the coming decades as humanity faces the challenge of feeding a burgeoning population.

Biotech companies and proponents of industrial agriculture tout genetically engineered crops (often called GE or GMOs) as the key to “feeding the world,” but recent evidence shows that this promise has fallen flat. Here are some key facts from the EWG report:

  • GM crops – primarily corn and soybeans – have not substantially contributed to global food security and are primarily used to feed animals and cars, not people.
  • Studies show that GM crops in the US are not more productive than non-GE crops in Western Europe.
  • A recent case study in Africa found that crops that were crossbred for drought tolerance using traditional techniques improved yields 30% more than GM varieties (see also our story Naturally Ingenious Crops).

The solutions

Instead of counting on the still unfilled hopes for GM crops, it makes sense to implement common-sense strategies that could increase food supplies with minimal environmental impact. Among them are:

Eliminating food waste Most food waste in the United States and Europe occurs at home or in restaurants and supermarkets. Tossing food is not only a waste of money, it also takes a significant environmental toll: 31% of U.S. cropland and 25% of US fresh water consumption goes to grow that uneaten food

A shift in our diets Today meat production occupies about three-quarters of all agricultural land, and on average it takes about 10 calories of animal feed to produce just one calorie of meat. Shifting from grain-fed beef to a diet emphasising chicken or grass-fed beef could reduce the amount of land devoted to growing animal feed such as corn and soya.

Eliminating food-based biofuels Shifting crops used for biofuels back into food production could increase the global calorie supply by 8%, but in many countries the trend is in the opposite direction. They are increasing biofuels mandates, using food crops as feedstock and potentially exacerbating food security concerns.

Smarter use of resources such as fertilisers Smarter use of fertilisers would have the dual benefits of increasing the food supply in places that need it most while reducing the damage done to water and air quality from over-fertilising. If the fertiliser were used in places with nutrient-poor soils where it would have the greatest impact, instead of over-fertilising industrial-scale farms in rich countries, global production of major cereals could be increased by 30%.

Taken together, smarter resource use, improving the livelihoods and resources available to small farmers, changing biofuels policies, reducing food waste and changing diets could double calorie availability and reduce the environmental burden of food production.


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