A Professor of Geography at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, Dr. William G. Moseley, has written a short, compelling essay in Geographical Review that explains clearly why genetically engineered crop technology, and particularly today’s GE crops, are not now and never will contribute in a meaningful way to global food security.
First, Moseley explains that GE crop technology is expensive and not accessible to the vast majority of the world’s poor farmers. Current technologies have, for the most part, been developed to support pest management within North American high-input, high-production farming systems, and were not designed to address the major constraints on production in Africa and Asia, where most of the world’s food insecure struggle to eek a living out on farms with worn out soil that are too small to support a family.
Poor farmers need ways to cope with a much different set of risks and yield constraints than farmers in developed nations, and the notion that technology developed to serve the needs of the latter will help the former is naïve. Instead, Moseley suggests that agroecology offers a much more reliable, safer path along which to help poor farmers and food-insecure regions produce their way along the food security continuum.
“The basic problem with a supply-side [production based] solution to global hunger, involving the use of GM crops, is that it does not address the issue of food access for the poorest of the poor,” according to Moseley.
There are other, even more daunting supply-side challenges Mosely does not address, and which those promoting GE technology as the answer to global food security simply ignore.
How many times have we read both in science journals and the media that GE breakthrough X or Y can increase production of Z crop by so much, or overcome some well-known problem limiting crop yields (e.g. drought, saline soils, Black Sigatoka, wheat viral disease, lack of N, etc etc). All of these widely-exaggerated claims are based on a huge assumption – that all other constraints to yield will be simultaneously overcome to support the promised, much higher crop yields after adoption of some GE-based genetic or production-input technology.
So, a farmer in Mali buys the new GE corn seed capable of tripling her corn yield, based on careful and rigorous field trails touted by the seed company (and all too often, Gates Foundation funded agronomists). But no one told her she would have to find a way to add 80 units of nitrogen per acre, or that to produce 3-X higher yields, the crop will need three-times the water, with no significant periods of drought, especially during key steps in pollination and ear formation.
No one told her that the new seeds will be super-charged for production under ideal conditions and when ample soil nutrients and water are available, but vulnerable and weak in responding to drought and a host of pest and disease problems that live in the neighborhood and must be dealt with, year in and year out.
And last and most important – no one told her that if she bypassed spending the extra money for the potentially higher-yielding, GE seeds, and instead spent it on proven agroecological methods to overcome her most important yield constraints, whether they be worn out soils, nasty weeds, or drought, that she would likely end the season with a bigger crop than possible in most years out of 10, had she planted the GE seeds, as well as more profit left to support her family.
The myth that GMOs are the answer to feeding the world is both silly and juvenile, but also pernicious and dangerous. Hopefully more scholars like Professor Moseley will address these critical issues, and challenge the mountains of slick PR from the biotech industry, because with sufficient repetition, feed the world PR will begin to settle in as accepted truth.
Only by focusing on the most important constraints to higher yields in food insecure regions will the U.S. avoid investing in research, technology, and foreign assistance programs that nudge poor farmers into a damaging two-step dance, one step forward at the expense of two steps back.
William G. Moseley, A RISKY SOLUTION FOR THE WRONG PROBLEM: GMOS WON’T FEED THE HUNGRY OF THE WORLD, Geographic Review 1-6, 2017.